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Tour de France, 1986: LeMond & Hinault

by Owen Mulholland

Stage-by-stage results for the 1986 Tour de France

The late Owen Mulholland was the first American journalist accredited to the Tour de France.

Story of the Tour de France Volume 2

Bill & Carol McGann's book The Story of the Tour de France, Vol 2, 1976 - 2018 is available as an audiobook here. For the print and Kindle eBook versions, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

Owen Mulholland writes:

Every race has a "crunch", a time when them that's got gits, and the rest attempt to survive. The Tour de France, 1986 edition, has had an exceptional number of crunches. Each one has reduced the number of pretenders to final victory. Once "crunched" there is no chance of a comeback, not with Monsieurs Hinault and LeMond operating the crunch machine.

Today is the last of the crunches, the 58 km time trial, the so-called "race of truth". The overall time gap of 2 min. 43 sec. would appear to be a secure lead for LeMond, but Hinault has declared that the "race is not over". Clearly, Hinault is hoping for another miracle in a race where he has performed many already. And Greg LeMond is nervous.

LeMond time-trialing in the 1986 Tour de France.

At stake is far more than an approximate 1 1/2 hours of sweating on a bicycle. The ability to maintain a near 30 mph pace is merely an entry level requirement in this morality play that the Tour has become. Americans who have followed Greg's career will know how patient he has been, deferring his own ambitions so that he could learn the nuances of his profession from the master himself. On the final podium of last year's Tour Hinault publicly dedicated himself to assisting his American understudy to occupy the same position in 1986.

So why all this tension between two teammates whose positions appear to precisely fulfill their expectations? The answer is complex and reveals why the Tour de France, especially in vintage years such as this, transcends the limitations of VO2 uptake.

As any of the 7-Eleven men will confirm, the Tour is in its own dimension of difficulty. For the best of our home brew only one goal remains---survival. Imagine what kind of animal it takes to win this event, and then not once but five times. Only three men are members of this very exclusive club: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, and Bernard Hinault.

A sixth victory would assure a unique immortality that couldn't help but be irresistible to the type of dementia capable of pushing a body to such extremes. Last year Hinault weakened in the second half of the race, a not totally unexpected development from more than a decade of serious self-abuse.

After a quiet spring Hinault arrived at the Tour start in his best form in years. What could he do---throw such form on the scrap heap of Tour history? Of course not. To hell with sentimental prognostications. Bernard went for it in a way not seen since the great days of Merckx.

And France has responded. Their beloved "Badger" has come out snarling once again. This man is not lovable. Once in the saddle he seems to carry a "Beware of Dog" sign across his face. The only way not to get bitten is to stay behind. But admire him one must. Europe, and France in particular, has always asserted that the notion of the democratic must not drown the assertion of the elite. When a natural master demonstrates his dominance the latent Romantic chord in his audience is struck. The unfulfilled thirst of the ego is quenched at the fountain of the superman.

"Promises? Promises? I don't gotta show you no stinking promises!" such a man might say. "I show you myself and let the dogs lick the crumbs." Into the clutches of such an "hombre" has our Greg been entrusted.

Hinault came out swinging, riding as only a man sure of himself can do. Attacking on the flat, winning the first time trial, and fearlessly blasting off on the first day in the Pyrenees; the opposition never had a chance to get set. Eleven days of infernal speed across the horizontal regions of western France crunched the Colombians, their renowned ability to hop up mountains like so many uninhibited fleas crippled by the muscle stiffener sprayed on by the original cycling insect repellant. Former double Tour winner, Laurent Fignon, found himself in a similar fix. On the comeback trail after a year of convalescence from the surgeon's knife, he too needed an easy start, and didn't get it. One day in the mountains and Fignon was incinerated. The next day he was out of the Tour.

Hinault is indeed the "Blaireau" (the Badger), the animal that can't be intimidated and always gets what it wants. Hinault likes the comparison so much he has three of the critters stuffed at home.

After that first Pyreneen recital LeMond was in second place, but a stunning 5 min. 25 sec. in arrears. Dolefully, he admitted that his life was not at the "La Vie Claire" (a pun on his sponsor's name which means "the clear life"). Greg swore that "this time I came to win", but how to do it....There seemed to be two sets of rules at work. Hinault could attack Greg, but Greg couldn't attack Hinault, especially now that Bernard was race leader. The Frenchman argued that he expected to be caught after he had attacked. Greg would have easily followed the chasers, and then Greg would be the freshest for a final assault. So you see, the offensive move was really a defensive move. It wasn't Bernard's fault that the plan only half worked. Out of this haze of doublespeak only two things were certain: Bernard was in yellow and Greg was in a bind.

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"Le Blaireau" has always been a man who liked to win big. On the second Pyreneen stage, an even tougher four pass ball-buster than the one the day before, he went for the knockout. He took off on the descent of the first mountain---one of the boldest moves in Tour history. If he could gain another five minute advantage then a minute lost here and there in the Alps would be no problem. Most of all, the one man who could seriously threaten him, Greg LeMond, would be locked into his support role once again.

For two hours the gap grew and this poker game appeared to be heading for a quick finish after just two hands. But over the Peyresourde, the third climb, it became obvious that Bernard didn't have every ace. He was weakening while the chasers weren't. Robert Millar, Scotland's gift to the climbing school of cycling, Urs Zimmerman, Switzerland's comparable donation, and Luis Herrera, the Colombian winner of the climbing competition in last year's Tour, all showed they weren't out of the game yet. In their wake, doing nothing to help, were Greg and new American recruit, Andy Hampsten.

With Hinault captured, and in obvious distress beginning the last climb, it was Hampsten who showed how rich the "Vie Claire" deck was. Rarely has a first year pro adjusted so quickly to the enormous step up from the amateur ranks. And he made it look so easy: upper body steady, hands in the middle of the bars, face uncontorted by the effort, and only the steady drip of sweat from his chin to reveal the labor involved.

LeMond took the cue, jetted up to Andy, and then at last displaying the ample talent all have suspected but rarely seen, he turned on the turbo to soar up the remainder of the climb to a glorious solo win. The Badger fought back to save his yellow jersey by 40 sec., but it was now obvious that the Alps would not be a postscript to this Tour.

Despite posing for such shots as knitting a yellow jersey for two, Hinault and LeMond approached the Alps not as teammates, but as competitors. Hinault is a master of disguise and appears to revel in social graces that mask other intentions. LeMond could never comfortably adapt to such a state of permanent schizophrenia. To never be able to trust his former mentor, to never know when Hinault might disappear up the road, to live in a constant state of tension beyond the already extraordinary demands of the race---this was a challenge he hadn't anticipated.

But cope this man can, and once the road tilted upwards into the Alps Greg was ready. At the first sign of weakness on Bernard's part Greg gassed it and only Urs Zimmerman could follow. Through Briancon at the bottom of the second descent Zimmerman showed his usefulness by taking strong pulls at the front. Ten kms of gradual climbing brought them to the foot of the Grannon, a new climb to the Tour even though the road has existed since the thirties when it was supposed to be a short cut to Italy. The French built their side, but for some reason Mussolini didn't build his.

Ten kms at 8 to 10 per cent are followed by a last kilometer of 16 per cent! It's the kind of climb that instantly reveals weaknesses. Zimmerman set a tempo that he hoped would probe any chinks in LeMond's armor, but even if none were revealed Urs knew that he was pulling himself into second, an exalted position he hadn't anticipated at the race's beginning. He never let up for a second and Greg was happy enough to allow the man from the Cantons have the honor of taking the stage. Not since 1951 have the Swiss had such a promising rider.

Of course, Greg LeMond could afford to be generous. Now he was wearing the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) of the Tour de France. July 20, 1986, a date to remember.

Greg LeMond following Urs Zimmerman in stage 16.

To Hinault's credit he called a team meeting that evening. It was all right with him if Greg was in yellow (or so he said), but something needed to be done about that interloper Zimmerman. Second to Greg was bearable, but for Hinault to be third---this was too much. The Badger is never as dangerous as when wounded.

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The next day offered up another dose of steep climbs, Zimmerman's preferred terrain. Specifics weren't given, but Greg knew to expect an attack, which is more warning than he'd received before.

Hinault had no illusions about dropping Zimmerman going up, but going down, there young Urs might be vulnerable. Bernard went away with ease near the top of the Col (pass) du Telegraphe. Zimmerman rightly was more worried about LeMond. Then Steve Bauer (the Canadian on this most international of teams) jumped across, and finally, once onto the descent proper, Greg hit it. After a couple of turns he said "I looked behind and saw Zimmerman nearly go off the road. I knew I had him then."

The three Vie Claire men came together in the valley below were Bauer took the lead, as a good domestique is supposed to do. For 15 kms he sacrificed himself into a tough headwind. It hardly would seem to have been enough against eleven chasers, but the reality was different. It was Zimmerman chasing and ten leeches hanging on. In a straight pursuit match Bauer is much stronger than the poor Swiss.

His job done, Steve dropped off on the next climb, leaving Greg and Bernard to have a triumphant procession to the finish. While Zimmerman struggled to limit the damage, Greg and Bernard approached the finish line each holding the other's hand in the air. For that moment they could forget about everything else and just revel in a day's work well done.

The Badger had chewed his way back into second, but would he be content with that? Greg's hopes for Bernard's support for the rest of the way to Paris evaporated when he heard Bernard's "race isn't over" remark.

That was two days ago. Greg hasn't slept well since. Such is the power of Hinault. The time trial is one of Hinault's aces, but Greg is no slouch either in this department. Greg would like to win, but limiting the damage to less than 30 seconds lost will be enough.

The first time checks are coming in now. At 15 km Greg leads by four seconds. A good omen. Now there seems no way Hinault can pull back the nearly three minutes he needs.

At 30 kms, Bernard has a slight advantage. Oh no, Greg has crashed. He's taken a bend too quickly and hit the sidewalk. That's not the real Greg. He doesn't make those kinds of mistakes. He's up and away quickly, but at 46 kms Hinault's lead has obviously been augmented---up to 30 seconds. Later we learn that LeMond had to change bikes a few kilometers after his crash. Bernard must win now, but at the last time check 6.5 kms from the finish LeMond had reduced the difference to 16 seconds. It could be close. Most of those last kilometers are downhill and it appears they will favor the heavier Frenchman. Yes, Bernard has been in for a couple minutes; everyone starts counting. At ten seconds he is in sight, but it's a long uphill to the finish and try as he might Greg won't cross the line until he is at....exactly.....25 seconds.

Here in the salle de presse a great sigh goes across the room. The Tour is over, unless something catastrophic occurs. Greg must stay in yellow until Paris just three days away. Apparently Hinault agrees. At the post-race interview he is saying the race is Greg's. But can he be believed?

Paris, July 27

Well, Greg LeMond has done it. He has won the 1986 Tour de France. This will be old news by the time this magazine is in your hands, but news still worth savoring. Personally, I've been waiting 25 years, ever since I discovered the Tour and came to appreciate that this Everest of sporting events was devoid of American participation, let alone American winners.

Rampant nationalism has no place on sporting summits, but the world is replete with variety. Each approach route has its own problems, and the headstart Europeans gained had allowed them to play "King of the Mountain" throughout this century. By the late seventies domestic racing in widely dispersed nations became sufficiently sophisticated for brilliant individuals to be able to bridge up to at least the mid range of European performance. Of these Colombians, Australians, Poles, Canadians, Irish, etc., Greg is the only one to have taken this most coveted of titles.

Beyond all else, of course, Greg is a stupendous athlete. He is one of those well rounded types who can sprint, climb, descend, time trial, etc. at the highest levels. Behind his ever smiling countenance resides a backbone of coiled steel. During one stage he got an acute attack of dysentery. Feverish, chilled, and weak he held his place in the pack as they would go up over the final 50 kms for the finish. Only brown stains down the backs of his legs betrayed how acute was his distress.

Such toughness is expected of top riders. Inevitably, though, he brings an American perspective to the sport. Unlike many Europeans, Greg has ample resources to make a living in other ways. If he prefers to race bicycles it is first of all for the pleasure it provides. Most Europeans would find esthetic inducements insufficient for the unparalleled rigors a professional cyclist's life demands. Europeans are quick to point to his fabulous million dollar contract (over three years) and the commercial importance his publicity gives to Bernard Tapie enterprises in the U.S. (Bernard Tapie owns the Vie Claire team).

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All that is true, of course, but his Tour victory signifies a return to innocence of a sort. All journalists comment on his refreshing honesty. When an Italian rider attempted to bribe Greg at a World Championship race Greg was shocked. Greg didn't need the money, but he did need to honor his ideal of the best man winning.

Conversely, when his job is well done he fumes when others don't honor their commitments. For a bricklayer's son who makes it in cycling a month's delay in pay may seem only an inconvenience compared to the life he might be leading. Such lassitude is relatively common in big time bike circles, but for Greg it's an insult. Similarly, when he has sacrificed himself for a teammate he expects reciprocity.

Greg, by insisting on certain standards for himself, is helping to humanize the sport. The frequent presence of his wife and family are not the distractions team directors have feared. Nor would Greg tolerate the type of treatment meted out to his good Aussie friend, Phil Anderson, earlier this year. Phil's team boss, Peter Post refused to pay Phil when an arthritic condition kept him off the bike this spring. Phil was awarded half his contract only after he signed a statement from Post agreeing not to speak to the press about the matter. (Needless to say, the source is neither the press nor Phil).

In time Greg dreams of heading an American sponsored team, and there have already been nibbles. But it is doubtful this development will come soon. Apart from the $3-5 million his father estimates would be a minimum budget for an effective team (no big deal for a major American corporation), the depth of American talent and receptivity of the American public are sill in the countdown phase.

Another impact Greg has had, however unintentional, has been to put cracks in the sealed vault of continental competition. Pay and amenities for these most oppressed of athletes are at slave wage standards for many. When Greg and his team came to the Coors last year European promoters finally realized they didn't have a closed shop anymore. More and more they will have to compete with promoters around the world and the long abused pro will inevitably benefit.

Greg's next objective is the world road championships at Colorado Springs on August 26th. Of the last four championships he has been twice second and once first. But there is nothing inevitable in cycling. Winning the Tour and Worlds in the same year is a feat accomplished by only two riders since WWII!

Meanwhile, the U.S. is beginning to realize this guy is someone special. On the Champs Elysée dozens of American reporters poured into the press tent to try to figure out in a few minutes what has taken years to put together. Their stories will at least associate Greg LeMond with the Tour de France, which is okay for starters. The morning after Greg was received at the American Embassy in Paris, and next week he will stop off at the White House. Inasmuch as Greg has been regularly received by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Francois Mitterand, and Jacques Chirac, and audience with President Reagan is certainly appropriate.

Top level cycling is necessarily abstract. It takes a little patience and investigation to appreciate that a Tour victory is one of the most sophisticated and difficult objectives available to modern man. But one doesn't have to understand every nuance to sense the novelty and scope of Greg's achievement. The pioneer spirit our President evokes so often in cloying terms is most perfectly represented in this new pathfinder. From the Cumberland Gap Greg has hewn we can't see much of the new land ahead, but already it's one helluva sight!