Team tensions and power struggles: From Hinault and LeMond to Sastre and the Schlecks

Rivalries within La Vie Claire and CSC-Saxo Bank reveal the tension between cycling's team ethic and personal ambition.

Photo: James Startt

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News that Chris Froome could leave Team Ineos is providing endless fodder during this unexpected lull in racing. It can be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps it is no more than the four-time Tour de France winner testing the waters for a potential move in 2021. Or perhaps it reflects an internal power struggle with what has become the sport’s biggest grand tour team. It is many things to many people, but one thing is certain—such a situation is anything but new in the sport of cycling.

Certainly, when Egan Bernal became the third rider on the team in three years to win the Tour, in 2019, it became clear that there was an abundance of talent on the team, and historically such situations have a limited life span in the cycling world.

In this two-part series we reflect on some of the sport’s biggest teams over the last 40 years. All came into the Tour de France with several potential leaders, and the powersharing could easily get complicated.

Power struggle at Ineos? Many things, but nothing new!

Reports of Froome considering leaving Ineos amid leadership tensions is not the first internal rivalry in cycling’s top teams. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Team Ineos, of course, is not the first powerhouse team to transform the sport with marginal gains and overwhelming success.

Back in the 1970s the French Renault team did just that. Backed by French automotive giant and benefiting from its Renault-Elf Formula 1 aerodynamic team, the squad, led by Bernard Hinault, soon became unstoppable.

But as Hinault matured and started struggling with a string of knee injuries, team director Cyril Guimard, along with Hinault, went to Reno, Nevada to personally recruit a certain Greg LeMond, who they both saw as a potential successor. And when injury sidelined Hinault just before the 1983 Tour, up-and-coming star Laurent Fignon stepped up to win his first Tour de France. Suddenly the team had three leaders.

“Between, Hinault, Fignon and LeMond, you really had three completely different personalities, cultures, and characters,” Guimard told VeloNews. “They were united only by their desire to win. You had Hinault, who grew up in post-war France in many ways. You had Fignon who was the new generation and then Greg, who grew up in a completely different culture and learned our language and had to adapt to our culture.

“Hinault was just like his nickname, The Badger,” Guimard continued. “When he was cornered, or angry, he could be so aggressive. Fignon was like an injured animal, and everything was based on logic and reflection. And Greg was a mix between a cat and a fox. He had the intelligence of a cat and the finesse of a fox. But I never had a problem working with all three of them on the same team.”

Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault at the 1986 Tour de France

Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault at the top of the Alpe d’Huez in 1986 Tour de France. Photo: Getty Archive

Guimard insists that management is key in such situations, as it is ultimately the team manager that must keep any potential rivalries at bay. “You can’t improvise being a manager. Being a good manager is a 365-day-a-year job. Your management must evolve every day. Good management is based on human relations, a sense of hierarchy and credibility. And your role as a manager starts the day you recruit a rider. And with Hinault, Fignon and LeMond, I recruited them all. I knew them all.”

But while Guimard is still considered one of the best managers in the history of the sport after guiding Lucien Van Impe, Hinault and Fignon to no less than seven Tour titles, he never had to manage three potential Tour winners in the same year.

Hinault, sensing the rise of the younger generation, and tiring of Guimard’s authority, formed his own La Vie Claire team in 1984. And while LeMond was wearing the rainbow stripes of the world champion, the 1984 Tour was his first, and riding in support of Fignon, the defending champion was only logical.

But when Hinault recruited LeMond to La Vie Claire the next year, a real power struggle erupted. And it played out on the roads of the 1985 Tour de France. Although Hinault was in the yellow jersey, he struggled in the Pyrenees, after breaking his nose in a crash in the town of Saint-Etienne only days earlier. Suddenly his dream of winning a fifth Tour de France was in doubt.

Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond

LeMond and Hinualt, although friendly today, had a legendary rivalry on the La Vie Claire team in 1985 and 1986. Photo: James Startt

LeMond in contrast was floating through the mountains, and on the stage to Luz-Ardiden was clearly capable of taking over the yellow jersey himself. But he was given strict orders from team director Paul Köchli to stop working in the breakaway. Although frustrated, he accepted Hinault’s promise to work for him the following year.

But with the Pyrenees on the horizon in 1986, Hinualt, who had won the time trial in Nantes, went on the attack and took over the yellow jersey in Pau. Suddenly his pledge to LeMond became more nuanced, and victory would fall on the American if he could prove that he was clearly stronger.

Suddenly a power struggle erupted on the roads of the Tour de France. Köchli, although respected for his training and coaching, struggled to manage the two Tour hopefuls. LeMond went on to win his first Tour de France with Hinault eventually finishing second while Andy Hampsten, another American, finished fourth and Swiss rider Niki Rüttimann finished seventh. The team had no less than four riders in the top ten of the Tour de France. But the team was in tatters and as the dust of July settled, it soon exploded.

Today the two are quite friendly. Hinault still insists that he was there in 1986 to support LeMond, a champion that he had personally groomed to be his predecessor. But books [‘Slaying the Badger’] have been written about the epic 1986 Tour, and most would agree that with an unprecedented sixth Tour in his grasp, ‘The Badger’ was hedging his bets.

“Leadership can come from the riders or the team, but somebody has to take the leadership,” says Bjarne Riis, who had to balance leadership as both a rider and a team manager. “Very often you see managers or sports directors that don’t have the skills to take leadership and then it falls on the shoulders of the riders. But that can be dangerous because they are still very young in many ways, and conflict can arise more easily. But at the end of the day it is all about leadership.”

The Dane developed his chops as a support rider for Laurent Fignon under the watch of Guimard on the Castorama team, before going on to win the Tour himself in 1996. But his up-and-coming teammate Jan Ullrich, who finished second that year, went on to win the Tour the following year. And a decade later Riis directed Spaniard Carlos Sastre to victory in the 2008 Tour. The performances of both Riis and Ullrich have been tainted significantly as their victories came at the height of the doping era and both subsequently admitted to doping themselves.

But Riis’ qualities as a manager and sports director remain intact. “Bjarne was one of those directors that could really give you confidence,” Jens Voigt wrote in his 2016 autobiography ‘Shut Up Legs’. “He was capable of finding qualities in riders that the riders themselves couldn’t even imagine.”

Riis of course went on to manage powerhouse teams like CSC and Saxo Bank, directing some of the biggest names in the sport from Fabian Cancellara to Alberto Contador to Peter Sagan. But ironically his teams rarely won the Tour de France.

CSC won the 2009 Tour de France after Carlos Sastre took the jersey from teammate Frank Schleck. Photo: James Startt

That changed of course in 2008 when, using the power of numbers, he won the Tour with Sastre. At the start of the Tour that year CSC-Saxo Bank was clearly the strongest team as they boasted three potential winners, Sastre as well as Frank and Andy Schleck, not to mention a huge bed of support from experienced riders like Cancellara, Voigt and Stuart O’Grady. As Voigt remembers, the weakest member of the team that year was already a Tour de France stage winner, and several riders like Cancellara and O’Grady had won major classics like Paris-Roubaix.

But while the team had amazing depth, they did not have a clear race winner, as none of their leaders could time trial like rival Cadel Evans. And while Frank Schleck raced into the Alps with the yellow jersey on his shoulders, it was doubtful he could defend it against Evans in the final time trial without gaining significant time on the final climbing stages.

That all changed on the stage to Alpe d’Huez, when Sastre raced into yellow.

“I remember that day well,” Riis says. “I had a plan. But I played it differently. At the team meeting on the bus, I asked the guys, ‘What do you think we should do today? We have the jersey, but Cadel is not far behind. Frank what do you think we should do? Carlos what do you think we should do?’ Frank said, ‘Well let’s keep it together until the foot of the Alpe d’Huez and see what happens.’ And then I asked Carlos and he said, ‘Let’s keep it together until the foot of the Alpe and then we attack!’ For me there was no doubt that Carlos had a plan and knew what he wanted to do. Frank was a bit passive and wasn’t really clear. It is not that Carlos was any stronger, but he decided to win that day. Both Carlos and Frank had free roles. Frank had the jersey. He could have gone with Carlos and they could both have gone up the road too. But Carlos had the plan that day.”

Riis, however, admits that balancing the egos of the three team leaders, each with their own goals and aspirations, required him to use all of his management skills. “When I came to the Tour in 2008 I knew there was going to be this conflict. I really didn’t prefer one to another. They were on my team. They were my boys. I had to make it clear that we were all on the same team. I cared about all of them. But I knew that they would have trouble doing things together.

I knew Andy and Frank and Carlos. I knew them all. I knew their qualities and their flaws. And I had to know when was the right moment to talk to each of them. I knew the potential conflicts that could come. But I had spent a lot of time with each of them,” Riis explains.

“At the beginning of the Tour I said to them all, ‘Okay guys, we are all in this together. We race together. I don’t want to see any B.S.’ Fortunately I had guys like Jens Voigt, Stuart O’Grady and Fabian Cancellara around. I had strong personalities and experienced riders within the team with real leadership abilities. And we had a strong culture in the team. We worked hard in the winter already to be a team. Carlos alone or the Schlecks alone could not spoil that. We had clear boundaries set upon the team so if you came out of the boundaries you would be kicked back in. It didn’t matter if your name was Andy, Carlos, or Frank.”

Interestingly, although no one could really foresee it, only a year later another rivalry would play out on the roads of the Tour de France between American Lance Armstrong and Spaniard Alberto Contador…to be continued.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.