Jeannie Longo and the 1987 Tour de France Féminin
By Owen Mulholland
Since Owen wrote this in 1987, Jeannie Longo went on to win the Tour de France Féminin a total of three times. The photo at right is copyright James F. Perry.
Something funny happened on the way to Paris. Jeannie Longo changed clothes. After three years of trying she finally managed to pedal down the Champs Élysées in yellow.
The Genoblois has long been regarded as the most complete female racer in the world. Her success in all domains of the sport is a light year beyond anyone else. Yet one notch was missing from her belt of races she's gunned down, the most important one, the Tour de France.
Ms. Longo is a proud woman. She has every right to be. Here she was, world champion of practically everything, double hour record holder (at altitude and sea level), winner of every important race for women on three continents, yet when it came to her own back yard, to the race everyone knows to be the ultimate measure of a racer's abilities, she was a flop.
"You call second in 1985 and '86 a 'flop'?" I hear someone ask. No, I didn't say it, Jeannie did. Like all true greats, nothing less than first would do.
Guided by her husband, the one mentor she's ever been able to trust, Jeannie began a do or die program last winter to prepare for the Tour. In the spring she went to Colombia, not to win the tour there, which she could have done even as a paraplegic, but for the climbing tests at altitude.
Everything has its price. She felt she was climbing better. Bigger gears and less body weight seemed to imply that. But was it enough? The skinny little old lady from south of the border, Italian Maria Canins, could fly on the climbs. Was Jeannie getting close to the Canins' standard? Only the Tour would tell.
Meanwhile, Jeannie's speed was slipping. She failed to win such big pre-Tour tours as the Tour de l'Aude. It was a wild gamble to give up her favorite weapon in a possibly myopic quest for a better one.
The Tour started in apparent textbook fashion. Jeannie won the prologue time trial by five seconds over the ever young 38-year-old Maria Canins.
American strength, for the first time ever, was almost non-existent. Our placings began at 36th. The U.S. team (actually the second-string Winning Club team), was 11th of 13. the prologue is hardly the whole Tour, but these numbers weren't too encouraging.
One lady who can legitimately claim she doesn't give a damn about her time trial or climbing performances is Betsy King. She has won more Tour stages than all other Americans combined. Her favorite technique is to win the sprint from a small group on a flattish stage.
On the first stage no small group got away so it came down to a field sprint, which Betsy swears she hates. She grabbed what should have been the right wheel (that is, got in the slipstream behind), that of Jeannie Longo. Betsy said, "I noticed she had too big a gear. I thought, 'Should I try it?' I didn't and sure enough, she couldn't turn it either. She croaked with about 150 meters to go. Had she pulled through I might have got one." Betsy's fourth place was to be the best American stage finish for the whole Tour.
Of course Longo was so inexperienced as to be in the wrong gear by accident. She was hoping to make up in leg strength what she didn't have in leg speed. It didn't work.
The flat stages through western France were unkind to their national heroine. On stage two she lost the yellow jersey to Holland's Monique Knol.
On the third stage she lost her team. Two crashes shredded the field. At the bottom of the last climb Knol had a lead of 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Longo was livid. In an outburst of the straight talk which had not always endeared her to her cohorts, she complained, "Those muleheads! I tell them what to do, but no one budges. I can't do all the chasing myself!" Result: yet another new leader in yellow, this time a colleague of Canins, Roberta Bonanomi.
At last the mountains came on the fifth stage. It was a mere 35 kilometers, but just about all of them up to the Luz Ardiden ski station. When the flag dropped for the stage start, Longo knew seven months of preparation were on the line.
As soon as the serious stuff started she was happy just to follow Maria. Even that had been too much in the past. Jeannie climbed economically, not embarrassed to use the 34 of her triple chainwheel. In back, she was on 22 or 20. Canins turned a bigger gear more slowly, as flyweights often can. After two kilometers Jeannie came alongside the mighty Canins. There was no disguising it, Canins was breathing hard. For some time they rode side by side, their only thought being to keep the front wheels even.
Then, on the steeper bit that took more effort to maintain the rhythm, Jeannie moved ahead. Maria came back quickly, but that short lapse ignited the glowing embers of hope. On the next extra difficult pitch Jeannie went ahead, then up a gear. The effect was magical. Canins disappeared behind into the mist. There was no more hesitation. Longo put her new power/weight ratio to work, standing on the pedals wherever necessary, never letting her pace falter.
At the summit she had to wait over a minute before the Italian arrived. Jeannie was back in yellow.
The Tour was only a third over. Maria was to show she was one old dog who could learn new tricks. She even beat Longo in a sprint and a time trial to gain back that precious maillot jaune. But the mountains are the ultimate Tour decider and this time Jeannie rode a la Canins in the Alps, i.e. far ahead. By the time she descended from the snowy peaks the yellow jersey was Longo's second skin. It was hers all the way to the Champs Élysées.