Editor’s note: Excerpted with permission from: The Tour Is Won on the Alpe by Jean-Paul Vespini, translated by David V. Herlihy. The book is available from VeloPress. The 2011 Tour de France will climb Alpe d’Huez on Friday’s stage 19.
1986: The Alpe’s Greatest Duel
The 1985 Tour featured a memorable milestone: Greg LeMond took his first Tour stage win at Lac de Vassivière, beating his teammate and race leader Bernard Hinault in the 45-kilometer time trial the day before the race finish on the Champs-Élysées. Hinault claimed his fifth Tour, of course, but that same day he announced to Jean-Paul Brouchon of Miroir du Cyclisme that the following year he would serve strictly as LeMond’s lieutenant. “I’ll stir things up to help Greg win, and I’ll have fun doing it,” Hinault declared. “That’s a promise!”
LeMond’s position as future team leader was consecrated in the contract he signed with La Vie Claire team owner Bernard Tapie in 1985, a magnificent $1 million over three years. The deal symbolized not only the hoped-for future of Tapie’s team but also the future of professional cycling. LeMond was the first cyclist ever to earn such a sum, and his astonishing salary reset expectations within the peloton. For the first time, cyclists could look forward to parity with the stars of other vaunted pro team sports such as soccer, baseball, and American football. LeMond, the American, brought a new sensibility to the quintessentially European sport of cycling, and his contract announcement would agitate the peloton for many years to come. Moreover, LeMond was, without a doubt, the anointed winner for 1986. Hinault had repeated the announcement several times since the finale of the ’85 Tour: “LeMond will be my successor.”
Hinault’s intentions seemed sincere. At the conclusion of the ’85 Tour, in a post-race meeting with the press moderated by the French author and journalist Jacques Chancel, the Badger was asked, “Next year will be your sixth victory?”
“No, no, that’s it,” he replied.
The Tour is won on L’Alpe
“What do you mean?” asked a surprised Chancel. “As six-time winner, you’d better Anquetil and Merckx.”
Hinault smiled, amused by Chancel’s insistence. In a voice tight with emotion, he murmured, “You need to share the experience you’ve gained. Greg will need me next year.”
“That’s too easy,” retorted Chancel, turning to his numerous guests, happy to put the Badger on the spot. “That way, if he loses, he will have called it ahead of time.”
Team boss Tapie, who had been chuckling up to that point, interrupted the flow of the interview and said, tapping his finger, “That’s not Hinault’s style. If he says at the start that it’s Greg who will win, then that means Greg will be leader next year.”
Curiously, a year later, Hinault’s declarations had been forgotten. LeMond, though soundly beaten at the Giro d’Italia in May by Roberto Visentini, showed up at the start of the Tour with one thing on his mind. But for the cycling press, interest lay elsewhere.
A legendary rivalry was on everyone’s minds at the start of the 1986 Tour in the western Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, but it was not a competition between Hinault and LeMond. Observers were looking forward to the epic duel that had divided France into two camps, one for Hinault and the other for Le Professeur, Laurent Fignon.
“On my left, Bernard Hinault, wearing the jersey of La Vie Claire, the team he had chosen after his divorce from Cyrille Guimard and team Renault. On my right, Laurent Fignon, wearing the jersey of Système U, the team he had chosen after his departure from Renault, along with . . . Cyrille Guimard.” That was how the battle of the titans was announced on the front page of the special issue Tour de Vélo in July 1986. There was not a word about LeMond. Miroir du Cyclisme ran a similar commentary under the headline “Hinault-Fignon: Legend and Glory.” The American was once again forgotten. Miroir focused its attention on the French duel, in conjunction with a series of photos titled “Hand-to-Hand,” featuring historic sepia photos evoking the battles between Anquetil and Poulidor, Merckx and Thévenet.
Hinault and Fignon? Until then it had been a duel interrupted, suspended—nothing but a dream. Fignon had won the 1984 Tour, handily beating Hinault, who had been recovering from his knee operation. Hinault had won the following year, but Fignon had been absent, recovering from an operation on his Achilles tendon. The rematch that had been highly anticipated since the end of 1984 had not yet materialized, so everyone hoped to see it in 1986. Even the latest addition to the canon of cycling publications, Cyclisme Internationale, asked the question on the cover of its fourth issue, which featured a photograph of Hinault in yellow: “On his way to a sixth victory?” Again, not a word about LeMond.
Strangely, everyone—or almost everyone—had forgotten Hinault’s public promise at the end of the 1985 Tour to LeMond, who had played the role of perfect teammate: “Next year, I’ll be at your service!” A seemingly clairvoyant Maurice Vidal wrote, “Do you really believe that? I still believe Hinault is sincere. Life is based on intentions but sometimes changes course. To such an extent that what will happen between the two racers (and their boss) is just another uncertainty.”
What a perfect assessment of reality! It was the terrible year of Chernobyl and the year of French governmental “cohabitation.”1 It was also the year of the difficult cohabitation of Hinault and LeMond within the La Vie Claire team over the course of this explosive Tour, the last for the Badger, who was more determined than ever to show that he was still a force to be reckoned with.
Hinault got things started in the time trial stage at Nantes (61.5 kilometers [38 miles]), affirming himself the stronger of the leaders by finishing 44 seconds faster than runner-up LeMond. Then Hinault wreaked havoc in the first Pyrenean stage from Bayonne to Pau. He broke away with Pedro Delgado (who would win the stage) on the Col de Marie-Blanque, pulling on the yellow jersey later that day with a lead in the overall standings of over 5 minutes to the second-place LeMond, who struggled as soon as things heated up. It was beginning to look as though the Badger had his sixth Tour in the bag.
Fignon’s poor form completely changed the face of the Tour. Trailing by 12:43 and running a fever, he abandoned the race in Pau. With the great French rivalry put off, probably forever, everyone now spoke of nothing but Hinault’s promise to LeMond in 1985. It was a good way to rekindle interest in a Tour that seemed over before it had really gotten started, thanks to an Hinault who was proving elusive in more ways than one. “Just try to take back 5 minutes from Hinault!” he exulted.