1986 – 1989 The Greatest Tours Ever?


Greg Lemond’s hands. I can’t stop staring at them. They’re just across the table from me, nursing a glass. I’m struck by his strong workmanlike fingers. Those hands that gripped the handlebars as he climbed Alpe d’Huez with Hinault. The hand that gripped the Badger’s hand as they crossed the line side by side – though Hinault is credited with the win. The hands that rested on revolutionary tri bars as he rode the final time trial at the 89 Tour de France.

Confession time: I was never a Lemond fan, at least not of Lemond the rider. I was solidly a Hinault/Fignon fangirl (with the latter edging it). It was Hinault I was cheering for in the 1986 Tour, the one that really and truly and forever hooked me on the sport of professional cycling.

1989 is often said to be ‘The Greatest Tour de France Ever’ but 1986 lays a pretty convincing claim to the title – 7 riders traded the Yellow Jersey between them, Futuroscope hosted a stage finish and the mighty Col du Granon was used for the first, and only, time. Oh, and 2 teammates battled it out for the Maillot Jaune, though one had promised the other the win that year. Sound familiar?

Reading Hinault’s interviews with l’Equipe there’s a recurrent refrain: “I’m a happy man, I’m just a man like any other, I’ve been lucky, I’ve enjoyed my life”. He walked away at 32, still at the top of his game, a last time trial victory in the Tour in his pocket along with the polka dot jersey of best climber, secured on that epic, wonderful stage to Alpe d’Huez. Richard Moore in his definitive book ‘Slaying the Badger’ makes an interesting point when he writes “who would have predicted in 1986 that the stubborn, aggressive Hinault would end up becoming part of the establishment? And that the affable and engaging Lemond would end up being perceived by many as a troublemaker, even a thorn in the sport’s flesh”. Hinault might have been a rebel in the context of the race but he was, first and foremost, a Breton – that independent people, deeply conservative, tied to the soil. Hinault was a typical Breton, proud and stubborn, a lover of country pursuits like farming and hunting.

But he also loved his sport “My career has bought me 12 years of good luck” he said “but I wouldn’t have missed out on that otherwise because I’ve made the most of my life, at least I hope so”. As one of his faithful lieutenants, Alain Vigneron, said of him “I don’t think it was ever about the money for him. He sometimes marvelled that he was allowed to do as he pleased. But in his youth he had learned to make do with very little and I think he retained the mindset of his class. As for his success, he royally mocked it and that was also an essential part of his character. He was never aware of being a star – sometimes we had to remind him.”

L’Equipe ran a special edition magazine when the Tour celebrated its centenary back in 2003. They interviewed all the surviving Tour winners and I was struck by the contrast between the two Americans – then reigning champion Lance Armstrong and Greg Lemond. Armstrong gave the interviewers a bottle of beer, grunted monosyllabically and saw them off his property, beer undrunk. By contrast, Lemond shared the contents of his wide ranging memory and excellent wine cellar – the conversation and the wine flowed to the wee small hours. Which one would you rather have interviewed?

Maybe that’s what drives both Hinault and Lemond post cycling – the sheer love of the sport, manifested in its different ways. Hinault patrols the podium, congratulating the day’s winner, very much part of the establishment. Yet the enjoyment he takes in the role is palpable. Lemond has taken the other road; his love has manifested itself in a desire for change, to shake the complacency of the sport to its roots, to make it face up to its dark past. But in 1986 they were teammates and Hinault had promised that this would be Lemond’s Tour.

Patrick Chasse – lead Eurosport France commentator for 19 years – thinks the 1986 Tour de France was the most memorable race he ever saw: “I remember every day I was running in the metro to see the stage ending on TV, among an incredible crowd at Les Halles metro station – at that time there was TV in the metro!” He says that, though Alped’Huez is the iconic image of the race, it was already over and done with in the Pyrenees – Hinault attacked first and took the Maillot Jaune, but then a furious Lemond won at Superbagneres the following day when Hinault suffered a fringale. Hinault finally lost the Jersey at Serres Chevalier as a result of the knee problems he’d suffered all his life. And then came the Alpe…

Michel Laurent, the ex-cyclist who’d moved into team management with La Vie Claire said after that legendary stage that he felt Hinault was torn between two contradictory emotions: “Between the impression of coming close to taking a 6th victory and the enthusiasm of the crowd. He was very sensitive to that, was Bernard. But he’s enjoyed this Tour. At Pau, the evening he took the jersey, he said to me ‘you see, the others have their mouths open and I’m enjoying myself. When he attacked on the descent of the Tourmalet, he tried to win the Tour. But if he took that risk it was because he was totally relaxed and he knew if he suffered, then Lemond would win it.”

Laurent sensed that Hinault was a rider with 5 days left in his career – and he was right. The Frenchman – the Breton – walked away at the height of his career, at the age of 32.

Let Patrick Chasse have the last word: “For me, Lemond was not a bad guy. But he was not as inspired as Hinault”.


“Who’s that coming out of the mist? It’s Roche – it’s Stephen Roche!”

We all remember it – those of us whose only access to the Tour in the 1980s was half an hour on Channel 4 in the company of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. It was the moment of the race – the moment when Stephen Roche went into oxygen debt and did the ride of his life to save the Tour de France by almost catching Delgado on the climb of La Plagne, though the Spaniard had been over a minute ahead of him earlier in the climb. Everyone who was glued to the C4 coverage can give a fairly decent impression of Liggett’s hyper excited commentary.

But it never happened. You can watch it for yourself on youtube. Laurent Fignon takes the stage from Fuerte in a beautifully staged last gasp sprint attack. Delgado came across the line for fourth place with another rider just behind him. Who could it be? Over to Liggett: “Who’s that rider coming up behind – it looks like Roche – that looks like Stephen Roche – IT’S STEPHEN ROCHE!!!!” That’s what he actually said – though not on the live coverage where he was quite flustered as to the identity of the mystery rider. A clever little bit of editing later and Liggett delivers his immortal line.

“And he comes out of the mist but it makes no odds” is what Liggett said when Roche won stage 16 to La Bourbole in the 1992 Tour de France where weather conditions were awful and Roche indeed did come out of the mist. And it didn’t make any odds (he was a very distant 9th, over 20 minutes down). But there was no mist at La Plagne that day. There was no mist when he won solo on the Aubisque in 1985 either, though the crowds were immense.

Why does our folk memory conflate those two stages, 5 years apart? Is it that we want the drama to be even more intense than it was? The exploit to be more legendary? Was it not enough that he’d ridden himself almost to a standstill? Did we need it to be in atrocious weather conditions too?

You only have to think back to any Giro stage ridden in a blizzard or any Paris-Roubaix so wet the rider’s faces are masked in mud to have the answer. If Ocana had crashed on a pleasantly sunny day, even sous le canicule, there wouldn’t have been half the drama of that terrible torment on the col de Mente in a raging thunderstorm. We need Roche to emerge, unknown and mysterious, out of the fog – it adds to the suspense, the ‘will he? Won’t he?’ of the potential Double. And it’s mythic – Roche the hero emerging from Niflheim, the realm of fog to his rightful place in the warmth of Valhalla.

Roche said of his herois ride that day: “I saw the opportunity on Madeleine and pushed myself to an extreme that I wouldn’t have done today. In 1987 I didn’t have any race radio to rely on. I was good on the tactical and psychological side and I just went for it. If I’d had the kind of info they get on the Tour today I might have eased off when I was just 30 seconds down on Delgado. But because I thought the gap was so much bigger I kept grinding on. I was in survival mode. I didn’t even register what I’d done. It was the journalists who knew. They were so shocked because they all thought Delgado had won the Tour that day. It was only when someone shouted: ‘Roche is coming … Roche is coming’, that they suddenly turned to see me. They had to rewrite their stories.”

As for the rest of the race that year: Hinault – retired. Lemond – recovering from the hunting accident that nearly killed him and left him with a body full of lead. Fignon was there but he was having a nightmare with his time trial and could only manage a distant 7th to the winner, Stephen Roche. It was an annus mirabilis for the Irishman – he became the only Triple Crown winner – the Giro, Tour and Worlds – apart from Merckx. The rumours of doping came later – that Dr. Conconi had administered something called erythropoietin or EPO to members of the Carrera team.


It was Jacques Chancel, in his programme “A Chacun sonTour”, that put a bomb under the 1988 race.

JC: “Pedro, are you certain you’ll get to Paris in Yellow? You’re not worried something might happen? An incident of some kind?”

PG: “No, I’ll be in Yellow in Paris!”

Then Chancel closed his programme with the following bombshell:

JC: “Tomorrow, despite the short stage that brings the race to Limoge, there’ll be a storm on the Tour. I have a premonition (he looks at the sky) that something is about to happen…”

On the daily round up “Journal du Tour” Patrick Chene took Chancel’s statement and ran with it:

PC: “We have some big news that was only a rumour this morning that has developed during the day. We’ve learned that, in the coming hours, in the coming days, there’ll be the announcement of a positive doping control for Pedro Delgado, Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France”.


The reactions came thick and fast – this from Jean-Pierre Courcol, the director of l’Equipe and the Societe du Tour de France”:

“Yes I’m a ‘new boy’ in the world of cycling. Yes, I’m like a starry eyed teenager in the face of sport. Yes, the daily battle that the riders deliver enthuses me and moves me. Yes, I still believe that professional sportsmen are role models for our children and they have the duty to bring a love to their sport that is educative and enriching. Yes, cyclists are part of a sport that is hard, demanding, sometimes brutal and I admire them for their passion and their athletic qualities. And I think that, until now, the power of sport was the principal proof of a clean sport. I was deceived. Today, I’m ashamed and perhaps tomorrow I will have the duty to tell my children not to go too far in the pursuit of sporting excellence”.

This from Jean-Marie Leblanc, who was named as Goddet’s successor at the head of the Tour:

“No one is duped: Pedro Delgado owes his victory to the pathetic mix up that surrounds his positive test, to the pressure that has been exercised in his favour – political, economic, judicial – than to his own talent, however great. Which is why the fete that is the right of every Tour de France winner will be diminished. Which is why the prestige of the Tour, the image of cycling and the ethics of sport have all been affected. Those who sincerely love cycling have taken a beating. And it’s true, champion cyclists are the most exposed when it becomes a question of not crossing the fragile line that separates doping and the excessive efforts that are demanded of them. But we won’t go back, please God, on the deterrent of doping controls and sanctions. On the other hand, it is possible to attack the roots of this scourge that is doping. Through information, prevention, reducing rider’s workload, and, above all, by the establishment of impartial ‘justice’”.

Interesting that Leblanc spoke of ‘impartial justice’ – Delgado walked on a technicality: probenecid (a masking agent for anabolic steroids) was on the IOC list of banned substances but not the UCI’s (the 2 lists weren’t yet aligned). Gert Jan Theunisse – who tested positive for testosterone – copped the full 10 minutes penalty and dropped from 4th to 11th overall.

Theunisse rode for PDM – or Plein de Manipulation or Pills Drugs Medicine or (insert your own doping related acronym here). In 2013 De Volksrant revealed that PDM had been flirting with a whole raft of performing enhancing procedures, including blood doping – claiming they had acquired the expertise from the Italians. After all, Dr Ferrari was with the Chateau d’Ax team that year.

But what of Delgado? He claimed the probenecid had been administered by his own doctor, Dr. Bellocq, for a problem with excess acid in his urine. Dr. Bellocq was quick to distance himself from the Spaniard. But he was also linked, tangentially, to one Dr Fuentes through the Orbea team. The major players in the EPO and blood doping scandals of the coming years were already present at the Tour.

Delgado walked and would be back again to defend his title the following year. He even admitted taking probenecid  “I took probenecid just after that Alpe d’Huez stage. We used it to assist draining from the kidneys. It was also used to mask anabolic steroids, but if I’d wanted to hide something in that way I would have had to have used it every day and it only appeared on that one.” But the viewing public had had a glimpse into the dirty world of doping – and it was only going to get worse in the years ahead.

Ironically enough, Delgado rode the last 5 stages of the race to warm support from crowds who remembered the triumphs of Bahamontes and Ocana.


It’s all written on his face as he stands on the podium. Every disappointment you ever had – not passing that exam, breaking up with the ‘one’, getting booted from your job – you can find them in Laurent Fignon’s unfocused, far away gaze as he stands next to a grinning Greg Lemond on the podium having just lost the Tour de France by 8”. Or 82 metres. Whichever way you look at it, it was a horrible way to lose a race that had thrilled from start to finish. He said he was the man who won the Tour de France twice but, as he stood on the podium, he was the man who lost the Tour de France – and the chance of doing the Giro/Tour double -by 8”.

Fignon himself said “I’d always felt that I could be beaten. Losing was never a problem. A cyclist who doesn’t know how to lose can’t be a champion.”

If ever there was a race of ‘what ifs?’ then the 1989 Tour is it. And they start right at the beginning of the race:

What if Pedro Delgado had made his prologue start time?

Several theories did the rounds about the Spaniards absence from the start gate but, according to Delgado, the truth was far more prosaic:

“It’s been said that I arrived late at the start because I was having a coffee or because the police stopped me. But it wasn’t that. I went to warm up far from the press and the fans. I met Thierry Marie and asked him what the course was like, and by then I’d gone too far from the start and ended up setting off 2 minutes 40 late. That night I couldn’t sleep and in the team time trial I was a broken man and my teammates had to wait for me. But I never felt as well prepared physically as I was that year. I could have ridden on one leg. We all went to the Vuelta to ride for Indurain and when he broke his wrist I took over leadership of the team and won the race”.

Extraordinarily enough, despite being 2’ 54” late for the prologue, Delgado’s finishing time was only 14” slower than the winner, Erik Breukink. What if Delgado had turned up on time? He finished the Tour in 3rd, 3’ 34” down – you do the maths. He placed well ahead of both Fignon and Lemond on all the major mountain stages and beat them both in the uphill time trial. He had a nightmare in the team time trial and was 10 minutes down after only 2 stages. But if he’d turned up on time for the prologue, the race would have been ridden very differently – maybe Delgado wouldn’t have ridden himself almost to a standstill in the mountains. Though given Delgado’s attacking style, probably not.

What if Lemond had had a stronger team?

Lemond’s Belgian ADR team (including Johann Museeuw) weren’t built for the Grand Tours, unlike Fignon’s Super U squad. Lemond had always raced with his head and he needed all his smarts for the 89 Tour. Fignon accused him of not taking his responsibilities as a Maillot Jaune – Lemond argued he simply didn’t have the team and was doing what he could. It led to a fascinating battle of inches and seconds. As Fignon said later “I don’t think I lost the race on the Champs Elysees. I could have taken 10” in other stages. There are thousands of places where I lost the Tour. And thousands of places where Greg won it.”

What if Roche had been fit?

The hero of 1987 was never really in contention in this Tour – although he’d been 9th in the Giro behind Fignon – but a recurrence of his old knee trouble after a monster stage in the Pyrenees (stage 10: Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde, Superbagneres) left him in agony and unable to continue. He’d picked up the knee injury in a crash in a 6 Day event in December 1985, crushing the cartilage. He spent the rest of his career, on and off, fighting knee problems. The ultimate insult? That Roche’s Fagor team were already in talks with Greg Lemond.

What if Fignon hadn’t developed a saddle sore?

Difficult to say: after all, the final time trial played straight into Lemond’s hands – he was much better against the clock than the Frenchman.  But there’s no doubt Fignon was in a special kind of agony – he’d had to delay giving a sample for doping control after the penultimate stage (which gave rise to a rumour that he’d skipped it altogether). “The pain started in the Chartreuse mountains. For two days I haven’t been able to sit down properly. I have an inflammation, I don’t really know too much about it. But what I do know is that I haven’t been able to sit down for two days.” Now imagine trying to get on your TT bike for the race of truth and being unable to turn the pedals…

What if Guimard had complained about the tri bars?

Fignon was quite clear that, if Guimard had complained about Lemond’s unauthorised use of tri bars, the outcome of the race would have been very different. At the time, the UCI rules stated that during a time trial riders were allowed three points of support – Lemond’s clip on aero bars provided a 4th point. Fignon believed the bars to be in contravention of the rules but the area was a grey one. He used them himself in the GP Eddy Merckx in September that year – the commissar imposed a strict implementation of the rules and the bars were disallowed.

What if Fignon had worn a helmet?

While Lemond worked everything to his advantage – including a goofy looking aero helmet – Fignon rode bareheaded, ponytail flapping with his effort. It’s estimated that even a cloth casquette might have saved him some vital seconds. But in many ways the contrast in their appearance on that fateful time trial was symptomatic of something more – a final shift away from the glory days of panache towards a more percentage style of riding. Fignon wasn’t fond of Lemond’s style – he called him ‘the great follower’ – and wrote:

“Many people feel this is the day that divides two radically different kinds of cycling. Is that surprising? The craftsmen were defeated by mass-production. Handmade goods were overwhelmed by factory-made stuff. Individuals were submerged in the anonymous mass. The people’s heroes were strangled and the glory of the Giants of the Road trickled away.”

That contrast in styles – the elegant, attacking Parisian versus the calculating American – was one of the many elements that made this race so utterly compelling.

What if the race hadn’t finished with a time trial?

Since 1975 the race had finished on the Champs Elysees, most often in a triumphal parade for the Yellow Jersey’s final coronation. Zotemelk had tried to mix things up a little but Hinault had had the last laugh, beating him in a 2 up sprint to win in the Maillot Jaune. But throughout the 60s the race had often finished with a time trial that had had no effect on who finally wore the golden fleece. It’s a measure of how much racing was changing – and how instrumental Lemond was in that change. For good or bad he dragged the old European ways kicking and screaming into the modern era, not least through his use of cutting edge equipment and his negotiation of the first million dollar contract in the sport.

And finally, as Lemond said afterwards, “What if I’d won by 1 second?”

To which Fignon replied “It’s not the quantity that matters – 8 seconds, 20, a minute, what does that change? When Fignon finished that infamous time trial he pulled off the Yellow Jersey he had so narrowly lost. He would never wear it again.


8 thoughts on “1986 – 1989 The Greatest Tours Ever?

  1. Wonderful memories. As for many other Brits, these were the races that introduced me to the magic of Le Tour; what brilliant timing by C4 to start their coverage in this period.
    For me, 1989 will always be the greatest Tour. It was one of those extraordinary moments in sport when so many things come together at once that it really couldn’t have been made up: Delgado missing the prologue start; LeMond’s remarkable comeback after the shooting accident; the seesawing of the lead between the American and Fignon, with Delgado on their heels; the organisers’ unusual decision to have a time trial finale in what would turn out to be the closest Tour in history, ensuring the climax would go right to the last few metres; and the bitter defeat by eight seconds for a Parisien, Fignon, in the year of the French bicentenary centenary.
    But I agree with Fignon’s comment – even though it may seem like sour grapes – that the 1989 Tour, and the final ITT in particular, marked the end of the era of ‘panache’ and the beginning of a more calculated, even cynical period.
    That was why I never really warmed to LeMond at the time either, with his emphasis on attacking in the ITTs and defending in the mountains – a template he also followed in 1990, as have many others since.
    Interesting anecdote about Liggett’s famous La Plagne commentary, though in fairness the editors did a good job. Presumably they didn’t have time to edit Phil’s final day commentary in 1989 – he got a bit excited in the closing stages and called defeat for Fignon a minute too early.

    • It wasn’t so unusual to have a TT on the last stage – after all the finish on the Champs was relatively recent (1975). But it’s interesting that it’s never been repeated.

      Guess for me this was the greatest era of the Tour as it was the first that us Brits were able to actually follow – but the racing was incredible, wasn’t it? Great days

  2. Once again a thoroughly enjoyable addition to this wonderfull peice. Its comprehensive, well researched and leaves me anticipating the next installment. Ive mentioned before that I believe this is a peice of work that is worthy of being published. It more than stands up against many previously bublished books which in comparison are simply woefull. At very least should be turned into an e-book. Round of applause.

    • Thank you for the compliments – much appreciated. It has been a real labour of love and reminded me of just how much I’ve loved this sport over the years.

  3. Enjoyable memories. I was a teen ager when we would watch the Colombian cyclists on the Tour, specially Lucho Herrera, who fought both against Fignon and Hinault at several stages mainly Alpe d’Huez and in 1985 and 1987 he was King of the Mountains, becoming the second cyclist to be King of Mountains in the three Grand Tours (in different years, the first one was Spaniard Federico Bahamontes).

    • You know I could have written this so many times over about so many aspects, like the rise of the Colombians. Have you read Matt Rendell’s ‘Kings of the Mountains’? Brilliant read about the development of Colombian cycling + social history – one of the very best cycling books

  4. Little comment on the 1988 probenicid:
    Bellocq didnt distance himself of Perico, he went to the [Paris] lab on his behalf.

    Delgado was cleared a year later by doping expert Manfred Donike.

  5. …and triggers memories of the twitter conversation of the other night. You were right, the days of passions and panache are lost to us apart from one or two riders who still have that panache, the ability to pull us to the edge of our seats to stare at every pedal stroke, the ambition and ferocity to win that sees them attack 50km from the end of a stage rather than in the last 5km. The 80s were the end of the innocence, the end of the sneaky “behind the bikesheds” style of doping giving way to the programs and the medically spuervised blood doping era.
    I miss the passion that racing exuded back then, the pleasure that the big tours gave not only fans but the riders too, I don’t see that pleasure in their eyes any more.

    Panache these days is exhibited by very few Thomas Voeckler and Alberto Contador spring to mind, our sport could do with many more like them who mirror the stars of the past

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