“In the midst of competition, Hinault attempted to snatch victory like a furious, clawing rodent… he acted not only for himself but for a nation horrified that its great race might be hijacked by an American outlaw.”
Rolling Stone, 1986
Stage 11, 1986 Tour de France. It has been a hot Tour so far. France is in the grip of Tour fever. The General Classification is delicately poised. Denmark’s Jorgen V. Pedersen finishes Stage 11 with a minute over Joel Pelier of France, followed by one of the favourites for the overall race, Stephen Roche of Ireland at 1’05”. In 4th is France’s hero, Bernard Hinault, 5-time winner and reigning champion. He is 5 seconds behind Roche. In 8th, 43 seconds being Hinault as the Tour heads into the high mountains of the Pyrenees, is the American Greg Lemond, the hot favourite for the Maillot Jaune in Paris. Tomorrow, Stage 12, will be the first real test of this Tour de France…
Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond were teammates on the best team in professional cycling at the time, La Vie Claire. Hinault was the last in a line of great French riders, a man’s man, tough as nails. His nickname was The Badger, and it was well-earned for just as a badger snarls and scraps and fights for its life when cornered, so too did Hinault. He was the patron of the peloton, and he had earned that too, having won five Tour de France, equalling two of the greats, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil. He had been World Champion, won three Giro d’Italia and a slew of the top Classics. He was a monster of a cyclist and had a stare that terrified other riders. In 1986 he was coming to the end of his career.
His co-leader was as different from Hinault as night is from day. Fresh-faced, amiable and yet also fragile, his natural talent was so huge that it led US Cycling coach Eddie Borysewicz to describe the 16 year old Lemond as “a diamond, a clear diamond.” The French viewed him as an anomaly, for how could this youngster, and an American no less, be this good? Lemond had adapted very well to the European pro circuit and was crowned World Champion in 1983 at just 23 years of age. In 1986 he was 26 and riding into the best form of his career.
Stage 12, 1986 Tour de France. Bayonne to Pau, 215km. On the first true mountain of the Tour, an elite group forms at the head of the race, including the two favourites and teammates, Hinault and Lemond, and Pedro Delgado of Spain. Also in this group is Jean-Francois Bernard, another La Vie Caire rider. On the descent Hinault attacks and rides away with Delgado. Lemond sees this happening and feels strong but he cannot chase a teammate – his position as Hinault’s right-hand man has burned a sense of loyalty into his psyche. “But we had an agreement!” Lemond thinks, totally confused as to why Hinault would try to gain time on him rather than working together.
Hinault is riding like a man possessed. Here is his chance to win a record sixth Tour de France. Win this, in his final year, and he will be hailed as the greatest Tour de France rider ever – overtaking even the great Merckx! Delgado rides hard too, knowing that Hinault will not contest the stage win if he helps him to distance the chasers…
Lemond, behind four minutes, five, then more, is reeling from this betrayal, sitting nervously in the elite bunch of climbers. They are unwilling to work to chase Hinault, whom they all fear and who looks now like the inevitable winner. Lemond finally snaps, seeing his chance of Tour victory slipping dangerously away, and sprints from the group to try to claw back some time on Hinault. He is joined by the Colombian climber Luis Herrera.
The pair approach the finish line. Delgado, Lemond sees on the screen, won. 6 hours and 3 minutes. Hinault? One second behind the Spaniard. Lemond is a devastating 4’37” down now.
The Tour is lost, everyone in France will tell you that…
Rewind to the 1985 Tour. Hinault was tipped to win his record-equalling fifth Tour and with the pre-race favourite, fellow Frenchman Laurent Fignon, 1984 winner, out due to injury, things looked good for Hinault. Lemond was on the La Vie Claire team specifically to secure the overall win for Hinault. However, in the 1984 Tour, the American upstart had made a fantastic debut, finishing just 1 minute and 4 seconds behind Hinault. Fignon, the winner, was over ten minutes ahead by the end of the race. To his American fans, it looked like the younger American had a better chance than The Badger to win in ’85.
Lemond & Hinault discuss tactics at the 1985 Tour.
By Stage 13 Hinault led the Tour by over 5 minutes from the 2nd placed Lemond, but then on Stage 14, Hinault crashed and broke his nose just 400m from the finish line, resulting in severe breathing difficulties for the Frenchman. Whereas most riders would have abandoned the race, Hinault soldiered on. On the 17th stage, the hardest of the race, Hinault began to falter, and with it his lead over Lemond. The American had followed Stephen Roche as he broke away on the Tourmalet climb, both riding strongly. Hinault was losing time rapidly.
Roche turned to LeMond. “I’ll take the stage,” he proposed, “and you’ll take the yellow jersey.”
The La Vie Claire management had other ideas though, and they told Lemond to stop helping Roche and to wait for Hinault to come back. Video fo the stage shows Lemond remonstrating furiously with the people in his team car. Eventually, selfless as ever yet boiling with anger, he stopped riding with Roche and the pair were caught before the finish, by a group containing Hinault.
“I had my chance to win today,” LeMond said after the stage. “My team stopped me.”
Lemond was caught on camera after, arguing with his coach. “All I have to say is, if Hinault was in my place, he would not have waited,” LeMond said. “That’s all I have to say.”
Hinault, after the stage, knowing that he would win now a 5th Tour thanks to Lemond’s loyalty, then promised to help the American win the 1986 Tour de France. It was a ‘peace deal’, they said, yet the American was so disheartened that he was going quit.
“I was going to quit after that stage, but Hinault agreed that night that he’d work for me the next year.”
Stage 13, 1986 Tour de France. Lemond is now focused on revenge after Stage 12 and Hinault destroyed the promise he made in ‘85. “The objective tomorrow is, I’ve got to make the time back. Hinault’s gonna pay!”
First is the Col du Tourmalet, a monster of a climb, then the Col d’Aspin, followed by the Col du Peyresourde, followed by a 22km climb to the finish. It is a chaotic and savage start with riders attacking Hinault left right and center. Others sense that the great Frenchman is vulnberable, despite being in the Yellow Jersey.
Incredibly though, Hinault breaks away, alone. But it doesn’t last. Lemond is back on his wheel with a small group after an amazing descent of the Peyresourde.
Hinault attacks, cheered on by all of France.
Onto the final climb, the pure climbers in the group attack and Hinault cracks, Lemond pushes ahead in the group as Hinault loses more and more time. Lemond attacks next, and he’s away solo. He pushes on and on, anger and bitterness fueing his ride.
By the end he is the first American winner of a stage of the Tour.
Greg Lemond finally took the Yellow Jersey on Stage 17 of the 1986 Tour de France. Hinault attempted more than once to gain time back to win himself but failed. Lemond then suffered from paranoia for the rest of the race, genuinely fearful that his food might be poisoned, a drug test tampered with or his brakes made to fail. In the end though Lemond stamped his authority on the race to become the first American to win the Tour, at only his third attempt.
All smiles in Paris but Lemond was made to sweat it out by his teammate Hinault.
Hinault soon retired. Lemond may well have joined the greats in winning five Tour de France had it not been for his loyalty in 1985, and a horrible shooting accident in 1987 whilst hunting, that forced him to miss the next two years of racing. He almost died, his doctors citing his huge respiratory system being the key to his survival. More than 100 shotgun pellets had entered his body. More than 30 pellets remain in his body to this day, two of them in the lining of his heart.
Lemond returned to racing in 1989 and incredibly won with the Tour de France and the World Championships that year, stunning the cycling world. He won the Tour again in 1990. Lemond has never truly received the respect he should have as a cyclist, but he is truly a living legend.
Would you like a left hook Bernie?
And the music of 86 too!