Défaillance, part 1

The diocese of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne honours Saint Aprus, who founded a refuge for pilgrims and the poor in the seventh century. Greg LeMond found little refuge in the town of the same name during stage 14 of the Tour de France in 1992 but could certainly feel our pity.

The town is at the foot of the road that climbs westward up the Col de la Croix de Fer on the main local highway that leads to the local alpine ski resorts and over the border into Italy. On this day during the Tour, LeMond had already made it over the lonely road that climbs the Col du Galibier but abandoned before the tough ascent of the Croix de Fer.

LeMond had failed to ignite the race. But it had already been a thrilling affair. Continuing to lead the so-called Italian renaissance in cycling, Claudio Chiappucci had completed an epic escape the day before, leading for 250 kilometres – almost the entire stage – and winning at Sestriere, over the border in Italy. “One of the finest escapes I’ve ever seen in any of twenty Tours,” said commentator Phil Liggett. LeMond was 130th on the stage, nearly 50 minutes adrift.

And on stage 14, LeMond’s American compatriot, the leader of the Motorola team, Andy Hampsten, was setting himself up for a massive win on Alpe d’Huez, holding off the big names chasing his breakaway and cementing what would be an impressive 4th place overall in Paris.

It would be triumph for one American and disappointment for another. Already lagging behind as he rode with a teammate into Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, LeMond looked tired. Almost emotionless, he pulled over to the side of the road, hopped his bike up onto the curb, and abandoned the Tour. Just two years prior, LeMond had won his third Tour; now, he was stepping off his bike – defeated.

Défaillance. A sudden weakness. A synonym: un jour sans. A day without. All cyclists experience it sooner or later, from the most hardened professional to the lowliest amateur pretender. It differs from the ‘knock’, when the body runs out of energy, and the remedy for the knock is simple: take on more sustenance. Défaillance is something else, more insidious, its symptoms like a creeping dread. On a climb, one struggles to find one’s rhythm, or settle into the saddle and spin, to find a gear that feels comfortable, to follow wheels as they pull inexorably ahead. The remedy is also not immediately obvious. Overtraining? Undertraining? A myriad of other possibilities, physical or even mental.

For those watching LeMond abandon on stage 14 in 1992, it was a shock to see the three-time Tour winner in so much difficulty. Yet for the last four seasons, LeMond’s performance seemed to be a struggle against the odds, and what a thrilling rollercoaster ride it had been.

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LeMond chasing in 1992.

1989

Greg LeMond’s win in the 1989 Tour de France, this year the twentieth anniversary, was a ride for the ages, a story so often told that every cycling fan knows all but the smallest details of his comeback to victory after near death in a hunting accident.

In many ways it was the Tour he should not have won. His season up until that point had been a struggle, most obviously at the Giro d’Italia. “I was planning to stop cycling at that point,” he was reported saying. “I couldn’t, but it enters your mind: maybe I am finished, maybe there is something wrong with me. I had no strength at all…in the first climb.”

Diagnosed with an iron deficiency, LeMond took a course of iron injections and saw improvement throughout the Giro. “The day before the last time trial was the first day I felt capable of staying with decent riders in the climbs,” he said. “I finally felt I was getting power, I was getting good. I hadn’t felt that good for two years.”

LeMond placed second in the final time trial. But the winner of the Giro, himself making a comeback of sorts, was looking super strong. Laurent Fignon had already won Milan-San Remo that year and was laying down the template for Grand Tour dominance for 1989. “He’s very good right now,” LeMond observed. “Very good – maybe as strong as in 1984.” In that year, Fignon had won his second Tour de France by 10 minutes, winning all three time trials as well as two mountain stages. “Fignon showed not the slightest hint of weakness,” French media reported for that win.

Fignon was the favourite but a resurgent LeMond seemed determined to give the fans and the public an epic, history-making showdown. As we all know, Fignon held a 50 second advantage going into the final time trial on the streets of Paris, having won the prior stage in the Alps. But LeMond, with his aero bars, turned the deficit into an 8 second victory. For LeMond it was a remarkable, unprecedented win, an incredible performance on the bike. “I didn’t think,” he said. “I just rode.”

For Fignon, un jour sans. Struggling with saddle sores, without aerodynamic assistance, and the same breeze that blew at his pony-tail making riding with two disc wheels problematic. “I rode the hardest I could,” Fignon said, who collapsed onto the tarmac at the end of the stage, totally spent. “Obviously it wasn’t good enough.”

LeMond went on to win the World Championship that year, taking the rainbow jersey into the next decade and another chance to continue his comeback.

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Even Fignon can manage a smile next to a jubilant LeMond on the podium in 1989, with Pedro Delgado on the third step.

1990

It was another difficult start to the year for LeMond, struggling with illness and to make progress in his training. “I feel I’m in worse shape this year,” he told reporter Samuel Abt in May of that year. “Everybody else is at such a high level of condition. I feel pretty lousy and there’s too much difference in ability out there.”

LeMond was also approaching his 29th birthday. “I’m getting older and it’s getting tougher to stay in top condition.” He was again planning on using the Giro as training. “Either it’s going to kill me and I’ll never be good this year or else I’ll be very good. It’s going to be one or the other.”

As it turned out, it was neither. Fignon was sidelined due to injuries at the Giro, but it was clear that the 1990 Tour was the start of Italy’s cycling renaissance. Nearly two hours behind LeMond in 1989, Claudio Chiappucci was in 1990 attacking in the mountains with incredible strength (enough to wear the yellow jersey for eight days) and Gianni Bugno won two stages. More new names were emerging: Holland’s Erik Breukink and one Miguel Indurain from Spain.

On the major mountain stage in the Pyrenees, over the Aspin the Tourmalet and then a final ascent to Luz-Ardiden, Indurain showed the form that would take him to five straight Tour wins starting the following year. As LeMond fought to pull back time from Chiappucci, Indurain sat calmly on his wheel. LeMond was fighting with his bike, in-and-out of the saddle, swaying from side-to-side. Indurain was immovable, ticking over his big gear, completely unshakeable. At the line, Indurain swooped past a spent LeMond for the stage win.

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LeMond and Fignon discuss old times in the 1992 Tour. Fignon won stage 11 and finished 23rd overall.

LeMond had done enough, though, to win his third Tour, but by just 2 minutes over Chiappucci and Breukink, the latter having won two of the three time trials. LeMond used the final time trial to take the yellow jersey from Chiappucci but had not done enough on the whole Tour to even win one stage. He was good enough to win the overall, but had neither been ‘very good’ or ‘never good’ as he had predicted earlier in the season.

“Greg is a very great racer,” former winner Lucien van Impe was reported saying, “but he hasn’t won a stage. He hasn’t shown the panache of a Merckx or a Hinault.”

“I think I’ve dominated this race from start to finish,” LeMond said at his news conference. “If I had worried about individual stage victories, it’s possible I would have lost.”

And panache? “It’s a race of tactics, not panache,” LeMond said.

But the following year, in the 1991 Tour, LeMond would have little chance to apply his tactics. A new generation were coming, the renaissance would continue, and LeMond – and even Fignon – would have to fight even harder against défaillance.

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The magnificent ride of 1990 (Sports Illustrated).

Part 2, coming soon: the 1991 Tour, LeMond’s retirement, and the real renaissance.

4 thoughts on “Défaillance, part 1

  1. Great story, reminds me of Owen Mulholland’s chronicling of the TDF…I would like to know more about the lead poisoning Greg faced after his hunting accident. Merci- et bon continuation.

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