And so after three weeks we finally reach Paris. When I decided to write this series back in February I had several ideas for the stages I wanted to include which made the final selection no easy task. When it came to the final stage to Paris however, there was always only going to be one candidate; 1989, LeMond versus Fignon, and the most dramatic and thrilling end to Le Tour in its long history. I also wanted my friend Robert Horvat, a lifelong fan of LeMond, to write it. So without further preamble it’s over to Robert to tell us the story of that famous day.
Rarely is the Tour decided on the last day of racing. In the final days leading to Paris, the battle for the Tour is often already won after the last mountain stage battle or when the last major time trial has been raced. Whoever is in the lead by then usually goes on to enjoy the theatrics of the last day as winner of the Tour De France. With the status quo largely enforced there are some laughs, relieved faces, photographs, and a sip of champagne; with the serious racing of the final day left until we arrive on the streets of Paris, where the sprinters get their last chance to shine. Only an absolute disaster would deny the expected winner of glory. In saying that, the 1989 Tour was turned on its head in arguably the most exciting last day of racing in Tour history.
In that year, Paris would host what was expected to be a short boring twenty-four kilometre individual time trial on the last day of Le Tour. Frenchman, Laurent Fignon, a two-times winner in 1983 and 1984, was expected to win and was on the verge of his third Tour victory. Except, somebody forgot to tell Greg LeMond that he wasn’t supposed to pull back a near impossible 50 second deficit. Analysts and critics alike believed LeMond would, of course regain some time, possibly one second a minute, but the stage was far too short to make up the two seconds per kilometre that were needed to claw back the entire deficit.
Dressed like a Martian from outer space, with his aerodynamic bike, LeMond had nothing to lose as he sizzled around the time trial course from Versailles to Paris. It is in an amazing moment captured on camera: Lemond catching Pedro Delgado for 1 minute 56 seconds scant metres from the finish line; Fignon finally arriving at the finish 58 seconds behind LeMond’s scorching time; LeMond visibly stunned at having won the Tour; his wife Kathy screaming, “You’ve won Greg! Oh, my God, you’ve won!” Newspapers worldwide had to rewrite the fairytale ending, changing their pre-written copy that had Fignon winning Le Tour to take account of what had actually happened on the road. LeMond had won the final stage and the Tour by only 8 seconds! It was the smallest winning margin in Tour history. It is fair to say that no Tour since then has eclipsed the 1989 incredible comeback! It is hard to see any other Tour in the future ever being decided by only a handful of seconds again.
Who would have thought that the 1989 Tour would have been so dramatic with a seesaw battle between Fignon and LeMond, where the lead changed hands between them no less than four times. Who would have thought that Greg LeMond would ever again win the Tour, after the hunting accident in 1987 that nearly cost him his life.
Two long years of sorrow, pain and misery almost saw LeMond quit the sport. He only managed to find his mojo again after finishing second in the final individual time trial stage of the Giro d’Italia. LeMond’s hopes of doing well in the ’89 Tour finally looked brighter. He hoped for a high place finish, but after winning the stage six time trial against reigning champion Pedro Delgado by 24 seconds, he aimed instead for a podium place finish. Not until the eve of the last day of the race did he believe he could actually still win it. He went on to say after the Tour that, “I have put out one hundred percent the last two years; a heck of a lot of training, a heck of a lot of suffering, a heck of a lot of pain to get where I am now…I knew I would have the last say.”
Laurent Fignon had equal belief that he could win the Tour on that last day too. In his autobiography published in 2009 he wrote:
“I was convinced deep inside that I could not lose. According to my calculations, I knew that it should take the American about 50km to regain more than a minute on me, not the 24.5km between Versailles and the Champs-Elysées. I could not see how it could happen. It was not feasible.”
The 1989 Tour went according to plan. He was in good health again after years of injury, his morale was good and he was slightly stronger than LeMond in the all important mountain stages. At Alpe d’Huez, he retook the yellow jersey and the remainder of the Tour should have been a formality for Fignon. But Fignon appeared worried, he even lashed out at French television by spitting at the camera the night before the final stage. Fignon had everything to lose, while LeMond probably would have been content with 2nd place, a “moral victory” considering the horrible last two years he endured to get back to competitive form.
In the mid-afternoon heat, on the 23rd July 1989, LeMond set out flying at full tilt from the starting ramp with one thing on his mind – victory! Before the race he told his team director not to tell him the split times with Fignon. It would only distract him. He planned to go all out in the hope that he would make up the deficit against Fignon. Furthermore, everyone knew LeMond had nothing to lose, therefore he thought if he did his best, he would have nothing to regret.
Fignon, in contrast, never seemed to find his rhythm. He looked uncomfortable and worried on his road machine. In fact, Fignon was suffering from saddle sores and as hard as he tried to push himself, the more he seemed to go backwards. At every single time check, the Frenchman was behind LeMond. In the end, Fignon couldn’t keep up the blistering speed of LeMond and crossed the finish line too late to hold onto the yellow jersey.
LeMond’s jubilant face said it all. He had overcome adversity in his personal and professional life to win a second Tour. His amazing time trial was the fastest in Tour history at 54.545 kph. In absolute terms it has only been bettered twice when Chris Boardman covered 7.2 kilometres at an average speed of 55.152 in the 1994 prologue, and during this year’s Tour when Rohan Dennis averaged 55.446 over 13.8 kilometres during the stage 1 individual time trial. LeMond’s remarkable effort remains the fastest time trial for a distance over 20 kilometres.
LeMond would go on to win his third and final Tour in 1990. Fignon, who never truly recovered from his defeat at the hands of LeMond ,would sadly never win another grand tour. When Laurent Fignon died in 2010 from complications of cancer, LeMond said:
“When he lost the Tour de France in 1989 it was one of the few victories where I felt we both won. The saddest thing for me is that for the rest of his career he said he won two Tours de France, when in reality we both could have won the race. He was one of the few riders who I really admired for his honesty and his frankness. We talked about a lot of different things outside of cycling and I was fortunate to really get to know him when my career stopped. I believe he was also one of the generation that was cut short in the early nineties because he was not able to fulfil the rest of his career. But he was a great rider.”
Indeed, we have both men, LeMond and Fignon, to thank for providing the greatest sporting drama in living memory.
Thanks to Robert for writing this for me. Lemond versus Fignon in 1989 is not only one of the greatest moments in the history of Le Tour, but one of the greatest in the history of all sporting endeavour. Both were true champions and in 1989 both had something to prove, to themselves if to no-one else, after coming back from their respective nadirs. That year they gave us one of the great Tours, a back and forth battle in which the yellow jersey changed hands between them several times and that was spectacularly decided on the final day.
LeMond’s comment after Fignon died that he was one of the generation of the nineties whose career was cut short was also true of Lemond. It was an experience they both shared. Had LeMond not been shot it’s certain that he would have been the man to beat in 1987 and 1988. Fignon also lost at least two years of his career to illness and injury in 1985 and 1986, not fully returning to the form that had seen him win Le Tour in 1983 and 1984 until 1989. Both were also victims of the insidious growth in the use of EPO in the peloton during the 1990’s.
Those 8 seconds undoubtedly haunted Fignon for the rest of the life. The day before the Paris time trial he’d patted LeMond on the back and congratulated him on his second place, utterly confident that he would win Le Tour. It’s difficult to imagine how Fignon must have felt as the realisation that he had lost by 8 seconds sank in. A year before his death of his cancer Fignon wrote in his autobiography, “you never stop grieving over an event like that.” LeMond sympathised. As they stood on the podium his feelings were mixed, elation after winning and sorrow for Fignon, later he was to say, “We basically both won the tour. Eight seconds is splitting hairs.”
Fignon was once asked “Aren’t you the guy that lost the Tour by 8 seconds?” He had the perfect reply, “No, monsieur, I’m the guy that won it twice.” Chapeau Laurent!
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