Défaillance, part 3: les hommes forts

The 1992 season for Greg LeMond was the beginning of his slow descent. But what we can now see with hindsight was not so evident at the time. “I can’t believe that a rider of his quality is finished at 31,” his director, Roger Legeay, had said.

Before looking in detail at LeMond’s disastrous seasons in 1993 and 1994, it is worth pausing to comment on the adversaries that he was up against in those years and the performance shift that was underway in professional cycling.

At the press conference after the 1991 Tour, where LeMond finished 7th, Miguel Indurain – the winner – sat down next to him. “L’homme fort,” LeMond said, according to Samuel Abt (Indurain did not speak French, nor did he understand it when LeMond repeated it in English, Abt noted).

But it was not just Indurain ‘the strong man’ that LeMond had to worry about.

The performance shift

LeMond may have had his own problems finding his form, but it was also clear that les hommes forts, the strong men, were changing the face of cycling. As has been mentioned here before, Cyclismag has provided an extensive discussion on the historic power output of riders at the Tour. According to this analysis, 400 watts on average on the major climbs (equalized for comparative rider weight) was the limit of performance in the late 80s to early 90s. Lucho Herrera was producing 395 watts on Alpe d’Huez in 1987, while Pedro Delgado was at 390 watts two years later. LeMond and Fignon were topping out at a similar level in their duel that year; even LeMond and Indurain were at the same level in 1990.

Indurain’s performance in 1991 was slightly below this level. But by 1993, he was producing 430 watts on the major climbs – a 10% improvement in 3 years. And he was being matched by Swiss ride Tony Rominger. In 1994, Marco Pantani pushed the threshold up to 440 watts and Indurain recorded 445 watts in 1995; others, like Rominger, Luc Leblanc, Alex Zulle, Richard Virenque, Bjarne Riis, Ivan Gotti, and even Claudio Chiappucci were not far behind up to the mid-90s.

But it was not just Indurain’s 15% improvement in 5 years that interested analysts. By 1993 only a select few riders were producing over 410 watts on a handful of climbs; by 1994 there were five riders averaging over 410 watts; eight in 1995, and eleven by 1996. Six years after he won his last Tour, there were eleven riders producing at least 5% more power than LeMond had ever recorded. Even in top form, the same form that won him three Tours, LeMond could not have won in 1993 or 1994.

As well, while there were new, young riders coming onto the scene, it was the performance gains that more mature riders were making that was LeMond’s main challenge. It is often said that Grand Tour winners take time to mature, but it was Indurain who was the start of this new assumption. Prior champions like LeMond, Fignon, Hinault, Merckx and Anquetil announced their intentions and showed their potential early in their careers. As LeMond’s career was winding down, some riders were just getting started.

A good case in point was Tony Rominger, born the same year as LeMond. He was a late starter in cycling, turning pro in 1986 as LeMond was winning his first Tour. When LeMond was on the top step of the podium for the third time in the Tour in 1990, Rominger was 57th. But he was on the ascent, having won the Giro di Lombardia in 1989. In 1990 he won Tirreno-Adriatico. 1991 was his breakout year: the Tour de Romandie and Paris-Nice were his major wins. In the latter he showed his new climbing prowess with wins on the stages finishing on Mont Faron and the Col d’Eze. He would place second in the 1992 edition, winning again on Mont Faron but losing the stage and the overall to ‘Jeff’ Bernard on the Col d’Eze.

But there was more to come: winner of the Vuelta three times, 1992-94; the Giro in 1995 with four stage wins (at age 34!); and two hour records in 1994, breaking the best effort by Indurain who also set a new record that year. As noted, he was 2nd in the 1993 Tour – his best year – and won the KOM classification; in 1996 he could still manage 10th overall at the Tour (climbing at 440 watts, according to Cyclismag) and third in the Vuelta.

Rominger worked under the training guidance of Michele Ferrari throughout his career, starting in 1987 when Ferrari was the doctor on Rominger’s Château d’Ax team. Ferrari, as is well known, would have remarkable success as a doctor and specialist coach with riders on the Gewiss-Ballan team and a host of private clients (including, of course, one Lance Armstrong). In the 1995 Giro, which Rominger won, the top four finishers were all Ferrari’s riders (including Gewiss rider Evgeni Berzin, the winner in 1994; Ferrari had transformed the burly rouleur into a serious grimpeur). Indeed, as LeMond was struggling in the early nineties, his main opponents were all either clients of Ferrari’s or were advised by Professor Francesco Conconi (or doctors attached to Conconi’s sports institute).

The 1992 Vuelta was Rominger’s first major Grand Tour win. Although he had shown good form in shorter races, he was not rated as a favourite, even – seemingly – by his own Clas team. But in one of the toughest courses for climbing seen for some years, Rominger proved more than capable of staying with the Spanish mountain goats. He was hampered by crashes and injuries and falling morale. Prior to the final time trial, when he was in second place overall, a crash the day before meant that he could hardly bend his knee the morning of the race. But by the afternoon he had recovered and he went on to win the stage and the overall. Coincidentally, Alexandre Vinokourov – managed by Rominger – would peform a similar feat of recovery to win the first time trial in the 2007 Tour de France after being badly injured in a crash; subsequently, though, he was disqualified for blood doping. Somewhat ironically, this prompted commentator Phil Liggett to note: “It is incomprehensible that Vinokourov could do such a thing when he must have known he was under suspicion because of his dealing with disgraced doctor Michele Ferrari.”

Rominger did not produce many results after 1996, but his achievements up to then had been beyond impressive. He was Ferrari’s ultimate success story, although suspicion abounded. Ferrari’s riders, indeed many of those associated with doctors and trainers in Italy, reported large fluctuations in their blood parameters, specifically haematocrit readings. According to documents seized in Italy from Ferrari, Rominger’s saw regular fluctuations of up to 12% within a few months, in the years 1989-96. In October 1989 it was 38.8, and it was suggested by investigators that this was his normal level. But during race periods as his career progressed, it allegedly kept peeking higher and higher – to 48.2, 50, 52, 55.5 and up to 56.5 in 1996. Later pressed in an interview on these numbers, Rominger brushed them away and said he knew nothing of their accuracy.

Faster and faster

But it was not just LeMond who was struggling with the pace in 1993 and 1994.

“I saw Greg race as a champion through the 80s, and into the 90s when the cycling community as a whole turned a blind eye towards doping and consciously ignored the onslaught of EPO in the peloton,” Andy Hampsten told Velo News in 2004. “Like Greg, I, too, saw what I believe were the effects of EPO when it entered pro cycling in the early 90s. In the first years it grew froma few individuals reaping obscene wins from exploiting its ‘benefits’,to entire teams relying on it, essentially forcing all but the most gifted racers to either use EPO to keep their place in cycling, quit or become just another obscure rider in the group.

The quintessential grimpeur, Hampsten was a former Giro winner and had won on Alpe d’Huez in 1992, placing 4th overall that year. Even by 1993 he was struggling and in that year’s Tour he was 8th, behind the unheralded Zenon Jaskula and Johan Bruyneel, amongst others (he could manage a top-ten in most of the mountain stages, except for a disastrous 32nd, just over 4 minutes down, on the seven-climb monster 15th stage in the Pyrenees).

“Everyone knows everyone else’s relative abilities. Of course, that changes, people get better and get worse, but it was an open secret from the early 90s on,” Hampsten said in an interview this year. For him, he noted at the time in other reports, he knew what his capabilities were and was relatively consistent from year to year in the level he reached and when he peaked. The problem was with everyone else.

“It went, during the 90s, it went from, ‘Wow, I’m not winning; it’s getting a lot harder to win a race that’s either a time trial or has hills or mountains’, to ‘it’s really hard to stay with the first group of fifty guys’.”

It was exactly the problem faced by LeMond. And even others saw the writing on the wall and quickly responded. According to the testimony of Willy Voet, Festina rushed EPO to the 1993 Tour but it was too late to make a difference for its riders. The 1994 edition would be different; Richard Virenque went from 19th in 1993 to 5th in 1994; after struggling with injuries for two years to replicate his 5th in 1992, Luc Leblanc was 4th in 1994 (and would later be World Champion that year) and out-climbed Pantani to win a stage in the Pyrenees. Leblanc admitted to his EPO abuse in those years at Virenque’s trial in 2000.

The anti-LeMond

In many ways, Rominger was the anti-LeMond. When he arrived young and fresh-faced in Europe, LeMond seemed destined to be a great champion – so obvious was his talent. And this proved to be the case. But the twilight of his career was full of challenges, struggles and setbacks. Not so Rominger, whose late arrival to the peloton initially created few waves; it was only later that he asserted his dominance and was able to retire only 2 years (at the end of 1997) after he was on the podium in a Grand Tour. Rominger achieved some of his best results in the same year, 1994, that LeMond was fading from relevance and quietly retired. What finished LeMond was not a generational shift, but a performance shift in the peloton: he simply could not keep up.

And while we might think of LeMond as cycling’s ultimate sportsman, Rominger had no illusions about the toughness of the sport and what was expected of him. He preferred to focus less on the sporting aspects of cycling and more on the hard work involved, with the victories delivering the publicity to the sponsors who demanded it.

He comment in a 2005 interview was telling: “I was a showman.”

Indurain battles Rominger, Mejia, and Jaskula.

Part 4, LeMond’s farewell, coming soon…

11 thoughts on “Défaillance, part 3: les hommes forts

  1. This series is a great read. What upsets me is that people who have the cloud of suspicion over them are still involved in the sport. I understand innocent until proven guilty. I also understand that mud sticks and this article, like many others falls into the mud category.
    If these riders cheated they will always know that is how they won and that is one sanction they cannot escape.
    But why would someone who is supposedly clean like Cadel Evans allow himself to be managed by Rominger. Surely there are squeaky clean managers who could do the job just as well? Mysterious.

  2. Your numbers seem all over over the place.
    Herrera weighed 55kg, maybe 58 (AT the VERY most).
    395/55 = 7.1 w/kg. That is absurd.
    Indurain at only 445 watts? He weighed 80KG. That is barely 5.6w/kg Even if he weighed 5kg less, he would barely be at the 6w/kg mark.

    Where did you get your numbers?

    Otherwise, I love every other article.

  3. Greetings from Spain and congratulations for the blog

    I have to confess that I find insinuations that EPO is the primary explanation of the outcome of the 1991 Tour de France irritating. Moreover, I don’t think there is any hard evidence supporting these conclusions (following Lemond’s article in Le Monde, obviously flawed, I am at the very least reluctant to accept any “findings” as those you mention). What I have gathered from my readings is that EPO was being used from 93-94 onwards (and Michele Ferrari was still achieving ridiculous results in 94 with Gewiss)

    It is particularly surprising to read insinuations that Indurain (or Bugno, for that matter) came from being an obscure domestique to winning the Tour de France all of a sudden. He was a rather precocious cyclist, becoming Spanish champion at 19, professional at 20, winning stages in the Tour de l’Avenir since his first participation and being the youngest rider ever to wear the yellow jersey in the Spanish Vuelta at age 20… You know like me that Indurain could have won the 1990 Tour de France. He beat Lemond in all time trials, not to mention how he left him in Luz Ardiden

    Honestly, I find that Lemond had a hard time to accept he was no longer at the top and has been looking for excuses eversince. He has given at least three explanations for his falling performance: lead poisoning, heart condition and finally doping. Is it so hard for him to accept that training methods had improved so that his immense natural talent did not give him the hige advantage he used to? How come Delgado did not enjoy a second youth and experienced a similar decline as Fignon and Lemond even though he was part of Indurain’s team? I recall Eddy Merckx saying in 1990 that Lemond was a lazy bum and did not take preparation seriously (and I believe this opinion was widespread at the time). As for Hampsten… a look at his palmarès does not show any significant shift in performance before and after 1991 (and this includes 1992)

    When Lemond won his first Tour de France in 1986, there were four (!) cyclists from La Vie Claire among the Top 10 (5 in the Top 15). Isn’t that ridiculous by today’s standards? I don’t have any reason to believe they were doping. It is more plausible to think that there was a huge gap between the rich and the poor in cycling, which shortened over time

  4. Bienpor, you are being quite naive. Your statement that Indurain dropping Lemond on Luz Ardiden was somehow normal says it all. Guys the size of Indurain do not climb with small men like Lemond. Period, full stop. It just doesn’t happen.

    Just like you I used to be a big Indurain fan, but that was when I didn’t understand the fraud that guys like him were.

    Yes Indurain was talented. No Indurain could never have won the Tour and hung with guys like Lemond unless he doped.

  5. In 1989 Greg Lemond won the tour, esentially without a team (only one team mate finished with him in Paris). On Bastille Day that year we can see Hinault consulting with Fignon from a tour car during a breakaway. So you have Fignon, Hinault and Cyril Guimard, all living legends, working together to get a Frenchman on top. Tactically what Lemond did to win that tour is nothing short of shocking. True, by the 1990 tour, Lemond was not as strong…but clearly he was remarkably consistent on the climbs. And really, Indurain did not look at his ease following Lemond on Luz Ardiden. Indurain might have won that tour if he hadn’t ridden for Delgado…might have…but probably not.

    Certainly Lemond is an extraordinary physical specimen…for a rider of that quality to fall so hard so fast is kind of telling. To see little Chiappucci climb toe to toe with Indurain in 1991 is also suspicious. I, for one, believe EPO was being used as early as 1990.

  6. Samiam and Eric, thank you very much for this debate, which is both interesting and necessary.

    I do not know whether EPO was used in 1991, and if used, whether it was used as effectively as in the mid-1990s, when Ferrari was obtaining obscene results for his riders.

    The problem is… you do not know it either. You just repeat the usual commonplaces one can find on the Internet. It is also Greg Lemond’s third hypothesis to explain a fast decline he could never accept (this explanation came after lead poisoning and a heart condition).

    Given that we do not know whether EPO is what explains Miguel Indurain’s rise to prominence, then the question is whether this rise to prominence could be explained exclusively by his talent and hard work.

    This is where I disagree with you. Indurain could climb cols even when he was 21 and weighed 85 kgs. He even surprised the directors of his team when he won the Tour de l’Avenir in 1986, they thought he would be a cyclist like Moser and then they realised he had the potential of winning a Grand Tour.

    Moreover, it is known by all cycling fans that Indurain’s physical potential was just out of this world.

    Indurain still lacked something other champions like Hinault and Lemond had, i.e. motivation and ambition to become the very best of his generation.

    If Indurain did not win the Tour de France in 1990, it was a question of motivation and mentality, not of legs. He was already a cycling star (Paris-Nice two consecutive years and the Critérium International in 1989) but had failed in the Vuelta–that is true–for different reasons in 1989 and 1990.

    Still, he beat Lemond in all long time trials in the 1990 Tour and, as far as I remember, in all mountain stages except for the famous stage finishing in Alpe d’Huez (when he famously had to wait for Delgado when he was the virtual race’s leader and then emptied himself) and the one finishing in Saint Etienne (when he was with Lemond and Breukink and again had to wait for Delgado). And, please, for those of you who say that Indurain was not at his ease in Luz Ardiden: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=702mu0o3xXY. I had never seen such an exhibition of power. Lemond left everybody behind but Indurain followed him without any apparent effort. Impressive.

    The question is then, why did Lemond win in 1989 and 1990? I believe it was a matter of luck. Delgado would have dominated the 1989 Tour, but made a childish mistake. And Fignon finished second only because there were no other serious contenders! He had been finished for five years! In 1990, there were no contenders with the necessary mentality, and just look at what Breukink did after 1990 (even though he rode for ONCE, one of the eternal suspects of doping. As soon as Miguel Indurain became convinced that he could win the Tour de France, Lemond had no chance.

    And why Lemond’s decline? Again, I believe it is a matter of motivation, as Hinault (if I remember correctly) said back then. Delgado was riding in Indurain’s team and had access to the same products. Still, his decline was almost as fast as Lemond’s, at the same time that cyclist of his age (Ugrumov, Rominger) reach the cenit of their careers…

    I do not believe EPO did not have an influence. My point is a different one. It is undisputed that EPO was being used in 1994, and that it helped many cyclists trained by Ferrari to achieve awkwardly brilliant results. But this is not enough to believe that Indurain’s rise to prominence (as well as Lemond’s decline) is explained solely (or mainly) by EPO use

    Ah, and I still think that Lemond is what the French call a “mauvais perdant”

  7. Bienpor:

    Perhaps Samiam does know. Some very informed people often read blogs such as this.

  8. I think the 1991 Tour was absolutely choc full of EPO, especially among the top guys. There’s no way you can watch that race now, with the benefit of knowing how hard a rider like Chiappucci had already ridden PRIOR to the Tour that year, and not marvel at what he did in the Pyrenees. Seriously, the man rode on the front all day and never tired, that stuff is just too good to be true. (for modern day examples see Michael Rasmussen or Ivan Basso in 2006)

    And in response to the Lemond basher above, take into consideration that we all know that Indurain ABSOLUTELY used PED’s by 1993 (his watts produced were obscene) and that fact alone makes his rapid ascent up the ladder in 1991 all the more troubling, no one is arguing that riders like Indurain or Rominger didn’t have immense talent over short stage races, people were just a little taken aback when they started converting those Paris Nice and Tour of Lombardy wins into dominance in the Grand Tours.

    Nuff said…

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