Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault and the
1985 Tour de France
by Owen Mulholland
In 1975 Owen Mulholland became the first American journalist accredited to the Tour de France. Here's his report of the 1985 Tour, written shortly after it finished.
Greg LeMond is probably the nicest guy to ever win bike races. It's so simple. Somebody says, "Go!", you step on the pedals hard, and down the road you try to cross a line before everyone else. It's a game Greg plays very well and the last thing he expects is criticism for winning.
So why was Mr. Nice Guy shouting at his team director, Paul Koechli, at the finish of the seventeenth stage of this year's Tour de France. Hadn't Greg finished fifth that day, best of his team? What gives? Anyone who enjoys the Dallas TV show can appreciate the twists that make a simple story into a soap. In this case the plot is extra sudsy.
Greg is hot property. Everyone recognizes that he has some of the fastest legs in the business. The problem for Greg is to find a situation that will allow him to use all that dynamite. When Bernard Hinault, the aging lion of European cycling, asked Greg to join his team for 1985 as co-leader, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Hinault publicly declared that he would like to devote his last two years to developing a young rider. The whole cycling world knew he was referring to Greg.
Hinault was probably as honest with the world as he was with himself. He appeared to have difficulty recovering from knee surgery and a supporting role would be a graceful way to bow out of the sport.
But the thirty year old Breton is a born winner, and when he nursed himself back into top form this year the unspokens were louder than the overtly expressed.
Bernard and Greg crashed the Tour of Italy garden party in May. Bernard kicked ass from one end of the Italian boot to the other, and while he took a breather Greg landed counter-punches. They rolled away from the race, first and third, like two western outlaws after a good barroom brawl.
Having been the perfect sideman in Italy, Greg arrived at the Tour de France half-hoping it was his turn to start the shoot-out. Half hopes became quarter hopes in exactly 8 minutes and 47 seconds, the time it took Hinault to fly around the opening 6.8 km prologue time trial. Greg could only manage fifth, at 21 seconds.
Bernard Hinault winning the prologue
In a race that takes over 100 hours, what's 21 seconds? Not much in time, but everything in pecking order. As the headline in L'Equipe said, Hinault's performance "showed he was still the master of the peloton…and his team."
Of course being in yellow before his hometown fans didn't hurt le Blaireau's (he's known as the "Badger" for his tenacity) popularity. They knew this might be the last time they would see their hero leading the Tour, the last chance he have of equaling the record of five Tour victories.
Through the first week Bernard was only too happy to let others take the yellow jersey and its attendant responsibility of controlling the race. It's very tiring for a team to monitor attacks and Bernard knew his men would need to be as fresh as possible for later. But behind the mask of disinterest the Badger was carrying a big stick and could strike at any time. Fear paralyzed his opponents.
On these flat stages through northern France it was necessary to look elsewhere for subplots. North Americans could be especially proud to find Steve Bauer (Canadian) and Doug Shapiro (American) place first and second on the list of Tour neophytes. The list ran to over 80. All were employed as "domestiques", cannon fodder for the team generals. They do all the fetch and chase work so the generals can pedal along in relative serenity. That Steve and Doug could dutifully carry out their orders and still be placed well shows how quickly they were adapting to the Tour. Most newcomers soon slip to the back of the classification sheets, worn out by the incessant toil and extra distance pros are expected to handle.
Both Steve and Doug are graduates of the Olympic class of '84. Bauer had to settle for the silver medal while Shapiro had an even more traumatic time; on the eve of the race he was told he wouldn't be on the team. Someone else had been selected in his place. After the games both men turned pro and went to Europe.
Bauer was recruited by LeMond for his La Vie Claire team while Doug accepted an offer from the Dutch squad, Kwantum. Both knew what was expected of them, but wearing the white jersey of best rookie was an honor Shapiro coveted. "It's hard to tell how things will go, " he said hesitantly, "but sure, I'd like to have that jersey. Maybe in the mountains…"
Furthermore, just about anyone who might challenge Hinault knew French as a second language. Phil Anderson, the Australian with an American wife, had the nerve to challenge Hinault in the mountains during his first Tour. Every year he's near the top, but he always has a bad day, and loses too much time. Still, at 26 he was at the height of his maturity and experience, and his Dutch Panasonic team was one of the strongest in the race.
The rather small country of Ireland pulled off an genetic miracle by fielding two super riders, Sean Kelly and Stephan Roche. Kelly, at 29, is a tough country lad who speaks little and does everything well. In 1984 he was Europe's best overall rider. He's on the tall side though, which hampers his climbing.
His younger compatriot is just loaded with talent, but the consistency necessary to be a Tour winner has always been missing. He hoped 1985 would be different.
Then there was Robert Millar, the slim Scot who climbs on two catapults. He had almost won the Tour of Spain in April when bad luck dropped him to second. He hoped for better in the Tour.
Hinault could read the tea leaves as well as anyone. He decided to bust up the place before anyone got the drop on him. The opportunity was clear enough; the eighth stage "race of truth", a 75 kilometer time trial in Alsace.
This was the longest Tour time trial since 1960. Their length has been reduced over the years since it was felt long time trials tend to favor a certain type of rider, and normally the Tour route is so balanced that the winner must do well in all the varied challenges it presents. By reinstituting a big time trial critics felt the Tour was attempting to do Hinault a favor.
That said, it's the same course for everyone, and the way Hinault tackled it he left everyone in a daze. Two minutes and twenty seconds covered the distance between the finishers from second to twenty-fourth. That same time gap yawned between Hinault in first and Roche in second! Hinault was back in yellow, and with such a show of force the others wanted to give up on the spot. Kelly, in a sign of begrudging respect, admitted that, "I believe you have seen the man who can make the big differences, one who is capable of winning the Tour."
It was like a boxing match in which the first real blow scored a knockdown. Awesome to see, of course, but hey, we came to see a fight, not a massacre. If somebody of the class of Millar can lose 6 minutes, 38 seconds in a mere 75 kilometers, it hardly matter what he might pull off in the mountains. He could never hope to make up such losses.
Still, hope flickered. Maybe it was a sucker punch. In three days the race would enter the Alps. Maybe then we would see a little resistance from someone.
But the Breton was of no mind to let anyone believe they had a chance. He almost spit out his challenge. "When you are the strongest, you make the law. Let the others suffer." Harsh words from a hard man, a man who had endured humiliations while on the comeback trail from surgery last year.
As soon as the field hit the first of three Alpine climbs Hinault floored it. The field went into shock. With 75 kilometers remaining in the stage no one dreamed he'd try a move so early. Shapiro remembered the surging attack. "After 120 kilometers of flat riding it takes a little time to get into a climbing rhythm. Of course I couldn't see what was going on up front, but we just started going faster and faster and faster. Gaps opened up and pretty soon I was in a dropped group."
It had been a pre-determined move. Greg was frustrated at not being in on it. "The plan was for Bernard to attack first and for me to come up to him with the first counter-attacks, but there weren't any!" he said with exasperation.
Hinault had done it again. Another blow and another knockdown. Only the Colombian condor, Luis Herrera, could hold the pace of the master. On they romped, while behind desperation was rampant. Roche lost more than two minutes, Kelly and Anderson over three, and the Italian, Roberto Visentini, a supposed longshot, was out of the ring at over five minutes.
The next day, featuring no less than seven mountains, offered all sorts of possibilities to anyone with ambitions. But who dared be ambitious? Indeed, rolling along at the front, surrounded by the strongest team, Hinault gave fits to others without, it appeared, even trying.
Kelly threw up on himself, yet still found the courage and strength to stay with Hinault. Others were less fortunate. Anderson, for example, lost more than two minutes, and this on a stage where Hinault hadn't even attacked!
Another time trial on the following day allowed Hinault to gain yet more time on his principal adversaries. Journalists threw up their hands in despair. Such domination, however magnificent, is hard to write about day after day. They were reduced to such extremes as, "Hinault didn't win by as much as expected."
The coffin containing all the supposed pretenders appeared to be nailed firmly shut. With half the race still to go, the headstone reads:
2. Greg LeMond @ 5' 23"
3. Stephan Roche @ 6' 8"
4. Sean Kelly @ 6' 35"
5. Steve Bauer @ 8' 23" (!!)
6. Phil Anderson @ 8' 33"
7. Niki Ruttimann @ 10' 31" (another Hinault man)
8. Pascal Simon @ 11' 11" (first French challenger)
9. Joop Zoetemelk @ 11' 14" (A former Tour winner, but at age 39, being only 11 minutes down was a miracle)
10. Pierre Bazzo @ 12' 39"
The two Alpine stages had actually been won by the Colombian mountain goats, Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra. Unfortunately, like all Colombians, they had lost so much time on the flat stages that their climbing prowess, however brilliant, didn't mean much in the overall picture.
Stage 14: Herrera goes and stays gone.
Small matter to the folks back home. Cycling is Colombia's number one sport. They had more media people at the Tour than any other country except France. After the twin stage victories President Betancourt personally phoned to congratulate them.
It's difficult to appreciate the psychological impact of such stage victories, but it's comparable to the effect on Japan after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. In sinking the Russian fleet Japan was able to discard the sense of inferiority most non-Western nations have had after their first encounter with the white man's world.
Of course millions suffered as Japan fulfilled its juvenile notion of equality, but insofar as the Tour battleground can serve as a national catharsis we can be thankful for this two-wheeled refinement on the crudities of warfare.
Colombia has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. When out raining the last rider carries a gun, and he is never dropped. (In Colombia good bicycles are as valuable as cars.) The RCN radio boys carry a device that bypasses a phone in the booth. Cut, cut, splice, and voila, direct transmission!
Herrera, Parra and company have shown their countrymen that they can play by the rules and win. It will take some time, of course, but their example will have its effect.
Fears of the big Tour being a big snooze haunted the race. With Hinault astride his competitors, the closest of whom was his young American teammate, there appeared no cracks in his impregnable edifice.
The only hope lay in the Pyrenees. Just possibly all those big efforts by Hinault might have a cumulative effect, or so it was hoped by anyone who dared to have even dreams of challenging the maillot jaune. The three stages across central France promised to be a lull before the storm.
Two of them were, but the first one, to St. Etienne, almost upset everything. In the field sprint Bernard was caught up in a mass crash at over 30 mph. He lay inert on the pavement for minutes before finally remounting his bike and rolling across the finish line. His face was a mask of blood. All France held its breath.
The verdict: a broken nose, but nothing terminal. To prove it he sprinted the next day, a risky and unnecessary thing to do, but impressive nevertheless. He claimed, "My form is as good as ever and I sleep like a baby," but it was hard to believe looking at his two black eyes and extensive cuts.
Mountains. For the Tour they are like the time trials, another form of truth serum. Sucking wheels doesn't help much under 10 mph.
Greg LeMond, the official team co-leader with Hinault, had hopes for an unlikely situation to develop. He was prohibited from attacking Hinault by their mutual non-aggression pact. But if, just if, a major rival got away on the climbs, and if, just if, Greg could go with the guy and Hinault couldn't, then Greg could conceivable be dragged into the race lead. On paper it was possible.
The seventeenth stage from Toulouse to the Pyrenean ski station of Luz-Ardiden had to be the promised land to anyone with pretentions. The 210 kilometer stage became progressively more difficult, culminating in an unholy trinity of the Aspin, Tourmalet and Luz-Ardiden.
Halfway up the Tourmalet, Stephan Roche zipped away accompanied by a couple of others, but not Hinault. Watchdog LeMond, just doing his job as chief defender, shot across the widening gap and became the caboose-in-residence. Roche had finally found his climbing legs just when the battered Hinault seemed to have lost his.
Over the top, down to the valley below, and then onto the final 13 kilometer killer. Fog closed in, television coverage went blank, and the pedaling robots, uninformed about the gaps to other groups, switched over to autopilot.
LeMond believed he was on his way to the yellow jersey. He tested Roche with small attacks, but finding resistance Greg went back to tailgating. Suddenly, out of the drizzle emerged the Hinault group. and although it didn't contain Hinault, Greg knew he couldn't be far behind.
Greg's paranoia that the team was really rigged for Hinault appeared justified. Upon crossing the finish line LeMond openly accused Koechli of "making me lose the Tour." If he had been informed of the group approaching from behind Greg could have gone a lot harder. "This was a day when I cold have won!" He shouted as the full sense of betrayal sunk in.
Koechli claimed that conditions made it impossible to get any information to Greg. If nothing else the incident showed Greg had exalted ambitions and private fears. The sweet detente had been broken and the bubbling rivalry between the two great riders had been exposed.
Fortunately, Greg's parents had chosen this day to visit the race. He returned to the team hotel in their car and his father, Bob, we instrumental in reconciling Greg to his team. "If Bob hadn't been there," Mrs. LeMond said, "I think Greg might have quit the team and the race right there."
The mountains were over and with them went Greg's last chance to win the 1985 Tour de France. There remained, however, one forum where Greg could clearly state his case, where his American notion of the-best-guy-wins could be given unequivocally.
It was the twenty-first stage, Saturday, July 20. 45.7 kilometers around Vassiviere lake in central France. Yes, another time trial, the last "race of truth". Its many corners and ups and down made most riders leave their disc wheels and aero bikes in the vans. No gimmicks this time, this "final exam" promised to reveal the most complete rider in the race.
One hour, two minutes and 837 milliseconds proved he was that man. Not panicked by the news that Hinault was slightly ahead at the first two time checks LeMond kicked in his turbo, just as the master, Bernard Hinault, had done so many times. Anything less than No. 1 just wouldn't do.
Bernard took his modest five second defeat with grace. "I couldn't be happier if I'd won, myself, " he avowed. "This is an historic day. The first stage win by an American in the Tour de France."
This reporter awaited Greg at his hotel, champagne at the ready. Greg arrived euphoric, the bitter thoughts of earlier days sweetened with the antidote of victory. "Yeah," he said purposefully, "I really wanted to win this one." The feeling was inescapable that the next win wouldn't be so long forthcoming.
It had been a little scary at time for the wounded lion, Bernard Hinault, but now nothing stood between him and the destiny all France wished to see. He arrived on the Champs Elysées like a king escorted by his court. There would be no more surprises. Bernard Hinault stepped into the record books, now equal with Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx at five Tour wins each. And that's about as close to immortality man is ever likely to get.