Cycling History

Le Tour de France: Stage 16 – Blagnac-Luz-Ardiden, 1990

Thirteen years before Ullrich and Armstrong’s infamous battle on Luz Ardiden the Pyrennean slopes were the scene of another epic stage in Tour history. Le Tour had started on stage 1 with a 138.5 kilometre loop that began and ended in the Parc du Futuroscope. After just 6 kilometres the Italian rider Claudio Chiappucci attacked, accompanied by Steve Bauer, Ronan Pensec, and Frans Maassen. For the next 30 kilometres the peloton kept the breakaway on a tight leash, with the lead never rising above 30 seconds. Then the peloton went to sleep. By the time the quartet rolled back into Futuroscope they had extended their lead over the bunch to 10 minutes and 35 seconds.

Admittedly none of the four were regarded as threats to the final general classification, but 10 minutes was still a considerable chunk of time to whittle down before the race finally reached Paris. By the close of stage 15 Bauer, Pensec, and Maassen had dropped down the standings but Chiappucci, now in yellow, still had a 2 minute 24 second advantage over defending champion Greg Lemond in third place.

(l-r) Frans Massen, Steve Bauer, Claudio Chiappucci, and Ronan Pensec during the stage 1 breakaway

(l-r) Frans Massen, Steve Bauer, Claudio Chiappucci, and Ronan Pensec during the stage 1 breakaway

By stage 16 Chiappucci, until then a largely unknown quantity whose most significant win had been the Italian amateur national championship in 1982 at the age of 19, had been the revelation of Le Tour with his attacking style and determination to take the yellow jersey to Paris. The previous three days of racing had seen his lead whittled away, with the biggest margin of loss occurring on stage 13 after his Carrera team had been forced to chase down a breakaway by Pensec whose then fourth place overall made him still a potential threat to yellow. While Carrera expended their energy chasing Pensec the Frenchman’s team mate, Lemond and the rest of his Z domestiques were happy to be dragged along behind. With Pensec finally caught at the foot of the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret an elite breakaway including Lemond attacked with 40 kilometres left to ride. Chiappucci missed the breakaway and lacking support thanks to the chase that had tired his tema mates lost nearly five minutes of his lead.

As stage 16 began Chiappucci knew that with two major mountain stages and a 45.5 kilometre individual time trial between him and yellow in Paris he could not afford to lose any time in the mountains. If anything with Lemond now 2 minutes and 34 seconds behind he needed to gain time. Chiappucci attacked on the Col d’Aspin, breaking away from Lemond and forging a lead that by the Col du Tourmalet saw him nominally 3 minutes and 20 seconds ahead of Lemond in the GC. Lemond, a talented descender, hurtled down the descent from the Tourmalet at speeds of up to 108 kph to reel Chiappucci back by over a minute when he reached the valley below, finally catching Chiappucci in the village of Luz-Saint-Sauveur.

On the final climb of Luz Ardiden Fabio Parra attacked followed by Lemond. Chiappucci, exhausted by his solo efforts, was dropped and Lemond forced the pace to ride to the stage finish with the Spanish riders Miguel Indurain and Marino Lejarreta for company. In the final few hundred metres Indurain got away to take the stage win from Lemond by 6 seconds, with Lejarreta placing third at 15 seconds. Behind them Chiappucci bravely laboured on, losing time but fighting to stay in yellow. As he crossed the line he was 2 minutes and 25 seconds behind Indurain and still in yellow, just, by 5 seconds. It was too small a margin against Lemond, a far better time trialler, and Chiappucci finally lost his hold on the yellow jersey on stage 20 as Lemond put 2 minutes and 21 seconds into him during the 45.5 kilometres at Lac de Vassivère. The next day Lemond rolled across the finish line on the Champs-Élysées to take his third Tour victory. To his credit Chiappucci, who if it had not been for the unlikely success of the stage 1 breakaway would probably never have been in yellow, finished in second place overall. It was a remarkable performance from an individual who had never been considered a contender for a Grand Tour victory. Had it not been for the tactical error on stage 13 when he missed the breakaway it’s likely that he would have won Le Tour that year.

Greg Lemond leads Miguel Indurain on the climb of Luz Ardiden, 1990

Greg Lemond leads Miguel Indurain on the climb of Luz Ardiden, 1990

It was to be Lemond’s last Tour win. The next year the winner at Luz Ardiden, Indurain, was to win Le Tour, heralding a new era of dominance in which he became the first rider to win five consecutive Tour’s. Lemond, never truly the rider he was after the shooting accident that nearly cost him his life in 1987, retired in 1994. Had it not been for the accident Lemond, the first non-European winner of Le Tour, may well have also been the first five time consecutive winner, he certainly had the class and ability. As for Lejaretta, third on the day, he also has his place in the history books as the only rider to complete all three Grand Tours in a single year on four separate occasions, in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1991.


4 comments on “Le Tour de France: Stage 16 – Blagnac-Luz-Ardiden, 1990

  1. roberthorvat
    July 20, 2015

    When nobody would help LeMond chase down Chiapucci, he did it himself. When the Tour had to be won, it was won here on this stage by LeMond. One of my favourite LeMond moments. It was such a frenzied climb up Luz Ardinen, I’ve always wondered what did Indurain think as a passenger on the LeMond train? Its a shame he didn’t go onto win the stage. Nonetheless, an awesome stage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • aaroncripps
      July 21, 2015

      Indurain was right to go for the stage win that day but I can’t help feeling it would have been more honourable if he hadn’t after being towed to the finish by LeMond.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. kiathuang
    July 21, 2015

    Quite a story! It’s fascinating that looking back on previous decades of cycling that rider’s exploits stinginess appear bolder and riskier. Today’s racing choices by the favourites in a GT seem almost clinical in comparison.

    Liked by 2 people

    • aaroncripps
      July 21, 2015

      It’s fair to say that today’s GC riders have a rational tactical approach to the race and arguably there’s a more level playing field thanks to contemporary sports science, training, and the equipment and other resources available to a rider and his team. That said, I think we also remember the exceptional performances from past Tour’s, forgetting the editions and the countless stages that were won by gaining and defending a lead rather than a series of bold, and potentially very risky, attacks.


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