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.
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.”
Part 4, LeMond’s farewell, coming soon…