Défaillance, part 2: the slow descent

From a quick glance at the results sheet, 1990 was a pinnacle season for Greg LeMond. He won the Tour de France for the third time, whilst in the jersey of the World Champion. In professional cycling, there can be no greater display of dominance.

Yet, as we saw in part 1 of this series, LeMond had expressed doubts about his condition going into the Tour. And commentators were also quick to note that his win in the Tour had hardly been a dominant performance. Those doubts were also there in the lead-up to the 1991 Tour, where LeMond would start in the number 1 jersey of the previous year’s winner.

“I don’t feel I’m at my very best right now,” he told Samuel Abt just before the Tour’s start. “I’ve done a lot of work this year and things haven’t come together as I’d hoped.”

LeMond had dropped out of the Giro earlier in the year (which was won by Franco Chioccioli) and had finished his traditional warm-up race for the Tour, the Tour of Switzerland, in 22nd.

“A lot of riders are coming on strong and that’s going to make it a tough Tour,” LeMond noted. “I was in decent shape [at the Giro] but these guys were in very good shape. These guys were like me usually in the Tour. Year after year, people just seem to be getting in a little bit better shape.”

LeMond was likely referring to Claudio Chiappucci, second in the Giro and second behind LeMond in the Tour in 1990, and Gianni Bugno, who placed third. These two riders were the flag bearers of Italy’s cycling renaissance. Also expected to do well in the 1991 Tour were Erik Breukink, riding for the Dutch PDM team, and Pedro Delgado’s faithful lieutenant, Miguel Indurain.

Perhaps no-one quite expected just how good Indurain was going to be. LeMond had him beat in the short prologue, placing third, and took the yellow jersey on the second day. He had it back for four more days, but would not wear it again. LeMond did not surrender without a fight, however, and on the first long ITT finished second just 8″ behind Indurain (with Breukink 4th and Bugno 5th).

The Pyrenees loomed as the first mountain test, but before the Tour reached their slopes there was scandal, a foreshadowing of many years of scandal to follow. The entire PDM team dropped out of the Tour sick. The initial explanation was food poisoning. But when that excuse was demolished, the injectable food substance Intralipid was blamed. This seemed to settle the issue, although why the riders needed this product injected was never well explained. Many years later, it was revealed in almost explicit terms that the culprit was the poor storage of the EPO being used by the riders.

Erik Breukink was gone from the Tour but LeMond stood to benefit little. As the road hit the mountains, he was struggling. On the 232-kilometre stage from Jaca to Val Louron, taking in the climbs of the Pourtalet, Aubisque, Le Tourmalet, Aspin, and the final ascent to Val Louron, LeMond watched the leaders ride away on Le Tourmalet. He fought back, but the day belonged to Indurain and Chiappucci, who were completely dominant, the latter taking the stage win with the former just behind. Bugno was at 1’29” and a valiant Laurent Fignon held on for fourth at 2’50”.

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LeMond watches the ’91 leaders ride away on the Tourmalet.

Dominance in the mountains

Indurain had gone into the Tour with vague statements of continuing to work for Delgado. But it was clear that the young Indurain – well, three years younger that LeMond – was the stronger rider. His tactic for winning the Tour was later described as dominating the time trials and staying with the climbers in the mountains. But here he was dominating the climbers on their own territory.

On Alpe d’Huez, with Bugno winning the stage, Indurain was just 1″ behind. Stephen Rooks, the stage winner in 1988, was down 43″ in 5th; Delgado at 45″ in 8th; Fignon at 1’12” in 9th; and LeMond rolled in just shy of 2 minutes back to take 14th. In his company was Gert-Jan Theunisse, a former KOM winner and Alpe d’Huez stage winner in 1989. Theunisse was back from a drug suspension (elevated testosterone, which he fought, Landis style, and later blamed on a diagnosed thyroid condition) and had targeted the stage, riding up it a reported 80 times in training during his months of suspension.

“I can’t win this race,” LeMond said after the stage. “It’s over now. Indurain’s too strong.” He’d had a viral infection, and said that his legs were fatigued. But he still had five more stages to finish.

On the final big mountain stage, Thierry Claveyrolat (7th on Alpe d’Huez) won in bleak weather in Morzine after leading over the HC climb of the Joux-Plane. Indurain simply sat in the bunch with the climbers and was just 30″ back. LeMond was 59th: a disaster.

The next day, on the stage to Aix les Bains, he fought back for 4th, but was clearly no longer a threat to the overall. In the final time trial, he showed his form of old, finishing third behind Indurain, 48″ back. Bugno again showed how he had improved his time trialling from reasonable results in previous years to strong finishes now, placing 2nd at 27″ behind Indurain.

The final results showed a changing of the guard, a new era starting. Indurain was the clear winner, with Bugno at 3’36” and Chiappucci at 5’56” to fill the podium. France was still in the game with Charly Mottet in 4th and Luc LeBlanc, who rode strongly in the mountains, 5th. Fignon had been less than spectacular, but had rode solidly for this 6th, 11’27” down. LeMond was 7th, adrift by 13’13”, an unlucky pair of numbers.

“He’s the strongest man in the race, that’s for sure,” LeMond said of Indurain in the final press conference before the stage into Paris. “He deserves his victory.”

The beginning of the slow descent

He would not have known it at the time, but 1991 would be the last time Greg LeMond would finish the Tour de France. (His withdrawal from the 1992 Tour was covered in the previous post of this series.) In this Tour, Indurain was, as reports noted, ‘simply sublime’. In the first ITT, he was 3 minutes clear of his closest rival, and passed Fignon who had started 6 minutes in front. By Paris, he had won by over 3 minutes for the overall from, again, Bugno and Chiappucci, their positions reversed. That year Indurain had also won the Giro using the same template for victory, with Chiappucci also second. (Incredibly, Indurain would do the Giro-Tour double again in 1993.)

If anything, though, LeMond was more confident going into the 1992 Tour than in previous years, despite placing only 7th the year before and not starting as the favourite.

“My condition is very high,” he told Samuel Abt. “Last year, after the Tour de France, I felt fatigued. This year, after every stage race, I felt better, which is like my normal self. I just need to improve a little bit.”

His build-up had gone well with a 4th place overall finish at the Tour of Switzerland and 11th at the Dauphiné, despite being, in his words, 2 kilograms over his racing weight of 68 kg. “That extra weight is the only thing that kept me back from winning the Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour of Switzerland,” he said, although Charly Mottet was on fire to win the former race and Gianni Bugno seemed to be in top form to place second in the latter.

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LeMond on the attack at the Dauphiné in ’92.

LeMond told Abt before the Tour that most people considered him an outsider to win, and this proved to be more than the case. LeMond’s dropping out of the Tour was a shock, even to those who did not fancy his chances for the podium.

“This just shows how hard the Tour is,” LeMond said. “It’s not the end of an era.”

“We can’t tell yet if he’s finished,” Bernard Hinault was reported saying, sounding a slightly optimistic note. “What we do know is that LeMond’s taken a very hard blow to his morale and without strong morale you’re finished.”

Roger Legeay, LeMond’s director on the Z team sounded worried. “I can’t believe that a rider of his quality is finished at 31,” he said. Bernard Thévenet was also worried about LeMond’s morale: “It’s much more a drop in motivation than in your legs.”

His motivation clearly had taken a blow. But there were also other problems, too, so it was not just his head – his motivation – but his legs as well. And, as we have seen, new strong men in the peloton were dominating: Indurain, Chiappucci, Bugno and others, with the emergence of Tony Rominger – a rider the same age as LeMond – who had foreshadowed his late rise with a tremendous win in the ’92 Veulta. These were Les Hommes Forts, and would frustrate any attempts by LeMond to stage a comeback in 1993 and 1994.

The next post in the series, part 3, will look at those last two year’s of LeMond’s Tour riding, as well discussing his struggle to find answers to his drop in performance, and the inevitable comments on the new dopage that, by 1994, was becoming well entrenched in the peloton.

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