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Tech king versus traditionalist

From issue 10 • Words by John Wilcockson with images by John Pierce (Photosport International)

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How Greg LeMond overcame Laurent Fignon at the 1989 Tour de France.

It’s July 6,1989. Greg LeMond has just screeched to a halt 50 meters beyond the finish line of a Tour de France time trial. He quickly dismounts from his low-profile Bottecchia, knowing that he’s about to be mobbed by a scrum of reporters. As he unbuckles his Giro helmet, there’s a glint in his soft, blue eyes that shine through the sweat, muck and mucus sticking to a face hardened by riding through heavy rain into sunshine. In the seconds before the TV brigade arrives, I tell LeMond his likely winning margin. “Is that all?” he says, half serious, half in jest. He then looks up and, with a small grin, whispers to me: “It’s the bars ….”

LeMond’s victory in that fifth stage of the ’89 Tour, which also netted him the yellow jersey, caused a sensation, being his first win in any bike race since almost losing his life in a hunting accident more than two years before. “It’s like winning the world championship,” he said. “This is the most wonderful day of my life. It’s almost a miracle.”

But the true miracle happened 16 stages later in the much shorter, final time trial into Paris, when LeMond came back from a 50-second deficit to defeat Laurent Fignon by 58 seconds and win the Tour. This was the greatest moment in LeMond’s career, and his eight-second margin of victory remains the closest in Grand Tour history. The reason usually given for the American’s “miracle”—in which he gained almost a minute on his French rival in a time trial of only 24.5 km—is technology. LeMond raced with innovative clip-on triathlon bars; Fignon did not. LeMond wore an aero helmet; Fignon wore a ponytail. But that’s only part of the story. It had just as much to do with the two men’s very different backgrounds and very different ways of thinking.

Although the Frenchman with the pebble-lens spectacles was nicknamed the Professor and was one of the few pro bike racers of his era to reach a college-level education, Fignon’s intellectual streak didn’t extend to bike tech. He’d been skeptical of new products ever since the 1982 Blois-Chaville classic when his prototype Campagnolo titanium bottom-bracket axle snapped and caused him to crash and lose a race he looked certain to win.

LeMond was the opposite. “I was always interested in my bike,” the former hot-dog skier would say. “Even when I was 16, I would ride on the rollers and have my mom hold me up, while I tried to make my back as flat as possible …. So, from the beginning, I was interested in aerodynamics.”

He was also interested in riding the lightest bike he could find. And when he first had a problem with an innovative item—his titanium saddle rail cracked during the 1979 junior worlds—he wasn’t skeptical of the equipment. He just made sure that any product he used from then on was reliable.

LeMond was always on the leading edge, being among the first to embrace bike computers, heart-rate monitors, aero helmets, clipless pedals and carbon-fiber frames. But even though he and Fignon were teammates at Renault-Elf-Gitane for three years in the early-1980s, and raced on the same equipment, Fignon remained a traditionalist. He let his longtime team director Cyrille Guimard make the technical decisions while he focused on racing. He didn’t like change, particularly when it came to time trialing, and once he had found a TT bike set-up that was comfortable and effective, he was reluctant to switch.

Fignon was dominant in the time trials during his second Tour win, in 1984, but was less confident when he returned to racing after tendinitis and Achilles surgery caused a hiatus in his career. It took winning the Tour de l’Avenir in late-1988, and following that with a victory at Milan-San Remo, in March 1989, to restore his confidence to a level where he was ready to shoot for a double: the Giro d’Italia and the Tour.

LeMond also planned to ride the Giro and Tour, but he first did America’s 10-stage Tour de Trump. He wasn’t a factor in finishing 27th overall, which resulted in Sports Illustrated saying: “Now—after missing most of the last two years with an assortment of injuries [including a broken wrist and an emergency appendectomy]—even LeMond’s most ardent supporters must wonder if, at 27, he can ever make it back to the top.”

He may not have had impressive form at the Trump race, but he came away from it greatly impressed when 7-Eleven sprinter Davis Phinney, never a strong time trialist, took a startling 11th place in the closing 38.5 km time trial—because he used clip-on aero bars (by Profile-for-Speed) that also helped Phinney’s teammate Dag-Otto Lauritzen take the overall title.

LeMond wasn’t as taken with the clunky design of the Profile bars, which had high-mounted armrests. He preferred the neater look of the U-shaped aero bar being developed by Scott Sports’ Boone Lennon, which had small armrests that were unobtrusive compared with those used by 7-Eleven. [The Lennon-designed clip-on bars were very different, and narrower, than the early versions of his spaghetti-like Scott DH bars that had become popular with triathletes.]

European teams attending the Trump race were aware of the U.S.-made aero bars, but the top Dutch squads, Panasonic and PDM, both turned down the chance to work with Lennon. Not LeMond. He soon made contact with the former U.S. Ski Team coach-turned-inventor.

LeMond knew that his form wasn’t good enough to compete with Fignon at the Giro in May and June, so he decided to wait until the Tour in July to add the Scott bars to his arsenal, not wanting to give away his “secret” to the competition.

Meanwhile, LeMond started the Giro, hoping to rediscover the brilliance he displayed in winning the worlds and Tour before suffering near-fatal gunshot wounds in his May 1987 hunting accident. However, LeMond had such a hard time in the mountain stages of the ’89 Giro that he almost quit the sport—but that’s a story for another time.

In contrast, Fignon was back to his pre-surgery best. The Frenchman proved an easy winner of a Giro that included three individual time trials, and he was confident he could maintain his superb form through the Tour. However, he knew that LeMond might be a handful in July after the American—using two disc wheels but no aero bars—beat him by more than a minute for second place in the Giro’s flat final-stage time trial of 53.8 km.

At the Tour, the rivals finished in the same second in the short, hilly prologue. Then, five days later, they faced the longest time trial of 73 km between Dinard and Rennes—the stage LeMond would stunningly win and then tell me “it’s the bars.” The bars that LeMond referred to were first fitted to his TT bike (and test-ridden by him) only the day before. Lennon had brought the bars from the Scott facility in Ketchum, Idaho, where they were handcrafted by engineer Charley French, also a novice triathlete, who helped Lennon with the design.

The result was excellent for LeMond. He beat Fignon by almost a minute at Rennes, but it could have been a much bigger margin. The new bars weren’t bolted to LeMond’s regular cow-horn TT bars as tightly as they should have been, and on a bumpy section of back road early in the stage, they twisted downward. This caused LeMond to become too stretched out, denying him the full benefit of the aero position.

Fignon wasn’t aware of that malfunction, which may have cost LeMond a minute; otherwise, the Frenchman might have more seriously considered using the rudimentary aero bars that Guimard obtained for him before the final, vital TT from Versailles to Paris. Fignon reasoned that because he had lost only 54 seconds over 73 km he should concede only 20 seconds or so over a course only one third of that distance. So he was sure he’d made the right choice in opting not to ride with aero bars for the first time in his life, and he felt certain that his yellow jersey was safe.

Fignon rode an excellent time trial, averaging more than 52 kilometers per hour and showing that the saddle-sore problem he’d kept secret wasn’t much of a handicap. The major problem was that LeMond was riding almost 2 km/h faster to set the fastest average speed in any Tour time trial longer than 20 km. He rode a 54×12 gear the whole way, except for shifting to the 13 on the gradual rise up to the Arc de Triomphe near the end. Even so, Fignon looked like keeping his lead until the very last dash down the Champs-Élysées, from the Arc to the finish line.

This is how LeMond described his rival racing toward the line: “I heard the announcer say that Fignon still had 20 seconds in which to win the Tour. Then I looked up and saw him, just there. I thought then that the worst thing that could happen was that I’d lose the Tour de France by a second.”

“I was actually speaking with Greg at the ramp. I remember saying to him, “You’re going to win!”. I meant the TT, rather than the race, but have no idea what Greg thought I meant. I said he would win easily and was very confident. I guess in the back of my mind the GC was already ‘gone’. Greg was extremely nervous, perhaps he thought they would not let him use the handle bars.”
—John Pierce.

But the clock kept ticking …. Fignon, after finishing, collapsed to the hot pavement, gasping for air. His face was scarlet, covered in sweat. He didn’t know he’d lost until his soigneur told him; and then he cried—for the first time since he was a kid, he said.

The home crowd was stunned into silence; some fans even booed. There was exhilaration for the Americans, despair for the French. The contrast was total. Greg LeMond had won the most astonishing victory in Tour history.

Later, the American revealed that he did not get as much advantage from his equipment as was first thought. “We did wind-tunnel tests after the Tour,” he said, “and it turned out that my natural position was already so aerodynamic that the bars only made up about eight seconds … and the helmet, because it had a lot of room inside that created a sort of parachute drag, cost me about 12 seconds.”

To become the Tour de France champion takes more than winning one or two time trials, of course. Ironically, LeMond almost lost that Tour because of an age-old problem: a flat tire. He only had one in the 21 stages and 3,285 km of racing, and if it had happened at a critical part of a stage, he could easily have conceded more than the eight seconds by which he won the Tour—especially as none of the riders on his small Belgian team, ADR, could stay with him in the mountains to help out.

LeMond’s lone puncture came on the valley approach to the Col de Vars on the alpine stage to Briançon, when teammate Eddy Planckaert, who’d win Paris-Roubaix the following year, was still in the peloton and able to give up a wheel to LeMond. If he had flatted moments later, on the climb, when the bunch split apart and without teammates to help him, the American may well have lost the Tour right there. And the dramatic showdown in Paris between Fignon the traditionalist and LeMond the tech king would never have taken place.