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From Inside Peloton: The Great Escape

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In 1992 Claudio Chiappucci took off on a breakaway doomed to ruin his whole season. Somehow, precisely the opposite occurred.

Words: Patrick Brady
Images: Michael Crook (black and white images) & Yuzuru Sunada (racing images from 1992)

When the Italian pro took off on a breakaway during the 13th stage of the 1992 Tour de France, the move had the hallmarks of racing from a bygone era. In the early days of the Tour, it was not uncommon for riders to be out on the road alone, separated from one another by minutes. Stage winners would sometimes amass a lead of 20 minutes or more. However, racing in the second half of the 20th century was quite different. With the emergence of the peloton, the effects of drafting on one’s ability to conserve energy meant that riding alone was the domain of the supremely brave or foolhardy.

The 1992 Tour was an unusually difficult edition, as it contained eight mountain stages. A typical Tour de France will contain six stages in the mountains. In ’92 the race practically started in the mountains. Following the opening prologue, the riders spent two days in the Pyrenees. The next eight stages included six flat stages and two time trials. The first time trial was for the teams, where all nine riders work together—in those days often averaging 30 mph for more than 40 miles; the second time trial was for individual riders. The flat stages, by contrast, had been largely dominated by sprinters as the pack stayed together over the flat roads of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. And while these roads were called flat, some of them would prove to be quite hilly to you or me. In the eyes of the Tour de France, anything a pro cyclist could climb in less than five minutes didn’t merit mention.

When the peloton left Saint Gervais on the morning of July 18, the riders were beginning their third of six straight days in the Alpes. The previous two stages had been 155 and 166 miles, respectively. Lucky number 13 would be an equally grueling 158 miles. For a car on the freeway at legal speeds we’re only talking about 2.5 hours or so, but when you throw mountain roads in there you’re looking at more like four hours, and that’s only if you don’t mind making your passenger sick as you speed up and down those winding roads. For the world’s greatest pros, each of these days would mean six to seven hours in the saddle. 

Chiappucci was in his ascendancy. He had risen from anonymity to the yellow jersey in the 1990 Tour de France. He was one of four men who formed a now legendary breakaway on the race’s first stage. The quartet included the Canadian rider, Steve Bauer, who was a legitimate threat to take the race lead; in 1987 he had finished the race fourth overall. Everyone looked to the previous year’s winner, Greg LeMond, to send his team to the front to shut down the Bauer-led breakaway. However, the race leader was Thierry Marie, who had won the previous day’s prologue. 

There is a complicated formula by which one determines the team saddled with the responsibility of chasing down a breakaway. On flat stages typically won by sprinters, it falls to the sprinters’ teams to mount the chase. LeMond believed it was their duty. When it doesn’t fall to the sprinters’ teams is when the race leader stands to lose something. With Bauer up the road, many thought that LeMond should be concerned. But Marie was a teammate of rival Laurent Fignon. Fignon’s Castorama team knew that they would be riding for Fignon, their star rider and dedicated team leader; Marie was a talented prologue specialist and the team had no intention of protecting his leader’s maillot jaune. While the breakaway picked up time, the field looked to LeMond, and he looked to Castorama and the sprinters’ teams … and called their bluff. Bauer, Chiappucci and the others finished with 10 minutes in hand. 

LeMond would spend the rest of the race clawing back each of those 10 minutes, ultimately winning the race by just two minutes and change. Chiappucci would stun the world by finishing second to the American. The following year, when LeMond finished seventh, Chiappucci finished third. So when the 1992 Tour rolled from the start in San Sebastian, Spain, Chiappucci was no longer a pawn or even a wild card, he was a legitimate contender. 

Near the top of the first of six climbs that day, Chiappucci took off with 15 other riders. The Italian was leading the king of the mountains competition and wanted to protect his lead. After passing under the banner at the top of the mountain, Chiappucci attacked, forcing a real breakaway. Among the riders in the group was Frenchman, Richard Virenque, a talented climber with an ambition to wear the climber’s polka-dot jersey. This would not be his year, but Chiappucci didn’t know that; he needed to protect his jersey.

It was not unusual for a talented but inconsequential climber to take off early in the day. It was a chance to gain valuable TV time for sponsors and every blue moon or so one of these breakaways would work. But for a guy lying seventh overall, this was a move as suicidal as trying to fly to Bangkok by hanging onto the wing of a 747. It was not only certain not to work, it threatened to knock Chiappucci from his slot in the top 10. 

El Diablo—the devil—as he was called, admitted he never meant to be away for so long. “Honestly,” he told peloton, “it was not in my plan to go from so far away. I was hoping to win the stage as it was the only stage finishing in Italy and I made a recon of the course months before.”

Over the stage’s third climb, the Cormet de Roselend, Chiappucci shed the first of his breakaway companions. It was a day hot as only July can conjure. The azure sky gave the riders no escape from the sun’s broiling. Over the top the riders didn’t even grab newspapers to warm them on the descent—it was too hot. Down the descent they wound like a flying snake, schussing through the roundabout at the edge of town and barreling into the 30-mile climb up the Col de l’Iseran.

Mere miles into the ascent Chiappucci dumped his breakaway companions like this week’s high-school romance. If the move hadn’t seemed suicidal before, by this time it must have to the peloton. The radios bleated with the news: Chiappucci alone on the Iseran with two challenging climbs to go. What was he thinking?

The Tour de France categorizes climbs according to their difficulty. There are five categories divided as follows:

•4th Category: climbs that gain between 200 and 500 vertical feet

•3rd Category: climbs that gain between 500 and 1,600 vertical feet

•2nd Category: climbs that gain between 1,600 and 2,700 vertical feet

•1st Category: climbs that gain between 2,700 and 5,000 vertical feet

Hors Categorie climbs that gain more than 5,000 vertical feet 

The hors categorie (beyond category): Col de l’Iseran is so long and so difficult it has only been used in the Tour seven times. Compare that with the Col du Tourmalet (also hors categorie) in the Pyrenees, which has been used 76 times since its first appearance in 1910. To be utterly fair, The Iseran is also remote, which contributes to its rare use. The peloton can cross the Tourmalet from either the east or the west, and from there either head to another climb or north to the cities that line the edge of the Pyrenees. Riders must climb a mountain or two just to reach the Iseran. Once over it, the surrounding terrain offers few options to the race organizer that don’t involve sending the riders up yet another climb. To include the mountain is to give the riders an exceptionally difficult day.

The last time the Iseran was used in the Tour de France was 2007. That year the stage started in the ski town of Val d’Isere situated two-thirds (20 miles) up the mountain. From the start line racers climbed an astonishing nine miles up the mountain, gaining more than 2,900 vertical feet and topping out at 9,088 feet. Even though the climb had less than the requisite 5,000+ feet of climbing, because the stage started at an elevation many stages finished at—6,150 feet—the thin air of the stage’s start meant the climb was still awarded an hors categorie classification. 

Chiappucci remembers Virenque as the final rider to be shed on the Iseran. “On the Iseran, after leaving behind Virenque, the last rider of the break, I was hoping to receive some riders’ help, but no one came and I continued my solo ride.” 

And what buoyed Chiappucci’s spirits? What kept him going? “Well,” he said, “the more I was riding, the more I was hoping to win the stage in the polka-dot jersey.” 

While Claudio Chiappucci dove down the south side of the Iseran, the 1991 Tour winner, Miguel Indurain was in full chase. It might not seem like a team could set up a chase on a mountain, but the north side of the Iseran is a relatively gentle pitch. From Bourg St. Maurice to Val d’Isere riders gain 3,479 feet in a little more than 20 miles, giving the climb a gradient of just more than 3 percent—shallow enough for a train to ascend. Pro riders can climb a slope like this in the big chain ring for an hour with little difficulty. However, Chiappucci had the advantage.

The south side of the Iseran is as steep as the interest rate on a credit card. The first eight miles average more than 7 percent; there are long stretches of 9 and 10 percent, so for the rider with nerves of cast iron, serious time can be gained on this descent. And despite a relatively flat section followed a short uphill kick, another steep descent, this one only 2.5 miles long, took Chiappucci to the foot of the steep ascent of the Col du Mont Cenis.

The small Italian rocketed up the steep slopes of Mont Cenis until he hit the saddle just three miles from the top. That’s when the pitch turned shallow and he was able to pick up the pace. It was the descent of the Mont Cenis that probably saved Chiappucci’s beans. Had there been a short descent followed by a flat run through a valley to the final climb, the chase group composed of Indurain, Gianni Bugno (who was second the previous year), Andy Hampsten and Franco Vona could have worked together and eaten up big chunks of Chiappucci’s lead. This descent was different. First, it was steep; it averaged 6.5 percent and had pitches as steep as 8 or 9 percent. Second, it was long; at a whopping 15 miles, it was the day’s longest single descent. And it was technical; unlike some Alpine descents where turns come at a predictable and repetitive pattern, the Mont Cenis offered no chance for riders to get into a familiar pattern.

Of the advantage the descents offered, Chiappucci said they gave him a tactical edge. “I was climbing, not consuming too many energies, [though I was] losing time within the pack, but I was aware that I was going to regain being very strong and fast in the descent while the others were much slower.”

There really wasn’t even an inch of flat ground between the bottom of the Mont Cenis and the beginning of the climb up to the Italian ski village of Sestriere. If Chiappucci had any doubts as to whether he’d stay away, they surely came in the first mile or two up to Sestriere. With sections of 8, 9 and 10 percent, the slow pace compared to the descent he enjoyed just moments before can play tricks on a rider’s mind. With more than 27 miles to climb, he must have sweated each update on the time gap to his chasers. 

As gambles go, this one was colossal. Not only was Chiappucci betting that he could hold off the previous year’s Tour de France winner, he was attempting to hold off Bugno, the 1990 winner of the Tour of Italy, the only man to wear the leader’s pink jersey from start to finish in the modern age, as well as one of the most talented climbers the Tour had ever seen, Andy Hampsten. The American made his reputation in the mountains, first in winning the Tour of Switzerland in 1986, then in riding support of Greg LeMond during his epic battle with teammate Bernard Hinault, and then stunning all of Italy by winning the Tour of Italy in 1987. Hampsten was on the best form he’d had since that year, and with three mountain stages to go it looked like he might finally make the podium. Chiappucci was running for his life and in this gamble, nothing short of boxcars would do.

Unlike some Alpine climbs that roll onto a saddle near the top, gradually decreasing in gradient, Sestriere reserves its greatest cruelty for the end. The final 6.4 miles climb at a near constant rate of 6.5 percent. There would be no rest until the finish.

Following Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands, Italy was the fourth country the Tour de France visited in 1992. And because the Tour was paying homage to the Italian Alpes, seemingly every Italian on vacation, or not actually shackled to their desks at work, was on the road to Sestriere that day. The crowds were six and eight deep on each side of the road and as the race officials’ cars drove ahead of Chiappucci they parted the fans like Noah looking out on the Red Sea. Unfortunately, the officials needed a miracle that day. With three of the five leaders on the road hailing from Italy, the fans, in their passion and zeal to see their heroes among the leaders of the Tour, swarmed into the road and the commissaires had to slow to avoid turning the tifosi into speed bumps. As the cars slowed, Chiappucci caught up, and, with nowhere to go, had to hit his brakes.

A rider never hits his brakes going uphill. It’s written somewhere. And despite slowing down a bit due to the crowds, Chiappucci remembers being “supported by the enthusiasm of the tifosi.”

The great irony is that the very people who most wanted to see Chiappucci succeed threatened his lead with their desire to bear witness to this once-in-a-lifetime exploit. And this truly was. Once you’ve pulled off a move like this once, the peloton doesn’t give you a chance like this a second time.

The vehicles lurched and honked. Imagine how tough his effort was, but imagine having to do it with while sucking the exhaust of two cars and a couple of motorcycles belching the black exhaust of cars running too rich for that altitude. Chiappucci coasted, accelerated, coasted again. His biggest problem, though? Sheer fatigue. With one kilometer to go, the race organizers erected barriers to hold the fans back and the vehicles zoomed ahead while the little Italian accelerated in their wake, squeezing every second he could from the clock.

He crossed the line 7 hours, 44 minutes and 51 seconds after setting out from the shadow of Mont Blanc, some 155 miles away. He crossed the line to kisses and cheers. He crossed the line with no rider in sight. Another 1:34 would elapse before Vona would finish, with Indurain another 11 seconds back. Bugno rolled in alone at 2:53, while Hampsten was fifth at 3:27, the only other rider to finish within five minutes if Chiappucci.

Chiappucci singlehandedly upended the race’s general classification. Indurain was the new race leader. Pascal Lino, the previous leader slipped to fourth, some seven minutes down on the Spaniard. Chiappucci leapt five spots, to second, only 1:42 out of first. Bugno climbed three spots, from sixth to third, but with a gap of 4:20, only an implosion by Indurain would see him wear yellow. The Spaniard wouldn’t implode for another four years. 

Chiappucci’s move is memorable, less for the fact that he broke away and won a mountain stage of the Tour than for the fact that he rode from the heart. Had the guy simply waited in the field, conserved his energy and then unleashed a massive acceleration to separate himself from Indurain, Bugno and the rest on the Mont Cenis, he would almost certainly have netted multiple minutes and maybe the yellow jersey with it. That said, Hampsten has said Chiappucci simply couldn’t accelerate like Contador to dump Big Mig.

In fact, Chiappucci’s ambition was more modest. “Well,” he admitted, “the more I was riding, the more I was hoping to win the stage in the polka-dot jersey.”

What he did was what bike racing is about deep in its soul: giving everything you’ve got in a massive, showy flourish. But this was no bow to the crowd. He was away for more than 125 miles, and completely solo for nearly 100. The other detail that makes his exploit truly staggering, on a par with Reinhold Messner’s ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, are the raw facts of the stage, which included six climbs: one category 2 climb, three category 1 climbs and two hors categorie climbs, for a total cumulative altitude gain of 21,250 feet. It can be argued that the Tour de France hasn’t featured a stage that difficult ever since.

Chiappucci had just played Russian roulette with a fully loaded six-shooter, and won.

Special thanks to Kelly Gerla for her assistance translating for Claudio Chiappucci.

From Issue 05.