PELOTON REPLAY: LeMond’s 21 Turns

From issue 05 • Words/images: Jered Gruber

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For countless Tour de France hopefuls, the path to glory and the top step of the final podium on the Champs Elysees goes through Alpe d’Huez. In 2011, the Tour de France will visit the famed 21 switchbacks from Bourg d’Oisans to the ski station of Alpe d’Huez for the 26th time in the history of the Grand Boucle. Coming only three stages from the final jaunt around Paris, there’s little doubt that cycling’s most famous ascent will play a crucial role. It always does.

The question when dealing with a climb like Alpe d’Huez is how best to do its legend justice. Do you detail its history, find impressive quotes, or describe its understood toughness from the saddle? Sure, that’s possible, but no. In this case, there’s little else to do but consult another legend, one whose legend goes hand in hand with the climb itself, Mr. Greg LeMond. The three-time Tour de France winner battled the climb and his rivals in each of his three triumphs, and his tales of those three years on Alpe d’Huez are stories worth reading.

1986: Hinault vs. LeMond

‘86 was the most bizarre. Hinault and I had fought and raced against each other for the entire Tour. I always tried to mend the relationship that year, and looking back, it was ridiculous. I should have just said, ‘Screw it.’ As teammates, we were just plain racing against each other.

I don’t even know where to start. It goes back to ‘84 and ‘85. Hinault and I were crossing paths in terms of ability. I had left Renault. There was really nothing for me there, because of Laurent Fignon. I wanted to be a leader, so I went to La Vie Claire, and after sacrificing my chances in ‘85, Hinault had promised me his support. You don’t agree to work for someone the year before unless you get down to the point where the other person is clearly strong enough to follow through. In principle, if we were both of equal ability then he would still work for me.

That sounds great, but in reality, as soon as the ‘86 Tour started, that changed immediately. I kind of expected it to change, but I didn’t expect it to be so underhanded. It would have been easier to just say, ‘Screw it, I want to ride my own race to go for my sixth Tour de France title, and you’re going to race for yourself.’

That year, I had just taken the lead of the Tour for the first time the day before. Hinault had had some difficulties on a climb, but either way it looked like I was finally done racing against Hinault. Right on the first descent of that stage, however, he started attacking like he always did when he wasn’t racing well. He was attacking on the descent, and I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It’s a very long descent, so he’d get away, someone would bridge to him, then I’d follow the next group back up to him. The whole time this is happening, Zimmerman, who is third overall, is just sitting on my wheel.

Eventually, Hinault ended up splitting the group, and he went away with a couple of teammates. There were six people in the break, and basically the field stopped riding on the descent. I’m in first overall, and Hinault is now in a move with some teammates and other riders who are pretty much riding flat out.

I should have just attacked or chased right away, but I waited. Going down the north side of the Galibier, there’s a little climb up the other side of the Telegraphe, and at this point, my coach, Paul Koechli is telling me I couldn’t ride with Zimmerman, because he’s in third overall, but the win was riding away. Then I found out that the gap was a minute and a half, and I just went ballistic. I sprinted up the Telegraphe, opened a gap on Zimmerman, and by the time we were at the bottom of the Telegraphe’s descent, I had caught Hinault’s group and just went right by them.

I made up about a minute and a half. I did a very, very fast descent. At that point, Zimmerman was isolated, and the break all started working together. I pretended like nothing had happened. It was all part of that year’s psychological game. Hinault thought he had a minute and a half, and then I came up on him on the descent—he was shocked, but I acted like nothing had happened.

When we got to the base of the Croix de Fer; I decided, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to start going hard.’ As soon as I started to set the tempo, Hinault was in difficulty. He asked for me to slow down, and I did. He told me, ‘I’ll set the pace, we want to keep Zimmerman isolated, you just sit on my wheel.’

I was OK with that. We had agreed. We rode up the climb, and it was a really nice pace, steady, but not really hard. We descended and went through the valley to the base of Alpe d’Huez. The team manager, Bernard Tapie comes up to us and orchestrates the final climb. He told us, ‘Greg, you’ve won the Tour. Let Hinault lead up literally for show. Let him lead up the climb, and let him win the stage. You’ve won the Tour.’

I’m still trying to be the good teammate, and I say, ‘That sounds OK for me, as long as the battle is over. I just want to know that.’ The agreements came, we went up the climb, and to me, it was almost like a training ride. We rode up it in the most relaxed fashion, and we still ended up taking five minutes out of Zimmerman.

I was satisfied. Hinault is going to win, and I don’t have the pressure of worrying about him doing some kind of backhanded attack or working out tactics with other riders. It was going to be over. I was genuinely happy. I was so relieved that I had the Tour de France in my pocket, done with the fighting. We crossed the line together, holding hands, which was all planned by Tapie. I was happy though, well, happy until the press conference. That’s when Hinault said, ‘The race isn’t over until the final time trial.’

All I could think was, ‘You son of a bitch.’ I wish he would have said that at the bottom of the climb. We wouldn’t have stayed together, we would have raced against each other, and I would have dropped him and won the stage. I wouldn’t have had to worry about him anymore. It was amazing.

I know it’s hard to understand, but he was a great teammate. Regardless of what happened in ‘86, he was always good to younger riders, that’s probably why I always wanted to kind of give him the benefit of the doubt. He treated me really respectfully. He treated me like a younger brother. When it’s like that, it makes it even more difficult to handle that kind of underhandedness.

1989: LeMond vs. Fignon,
De Cauwer vs. Guimard

The next time I raced up Alpe d’Huez was 1989. That was probably my most memorable ride up Alpe d’Huez. The 1986 ride up Alpe d’Huez with Hinault was a non-event for me. It was a fake race. It was staged. I couldn’t race the race. It is kind of like having a race already done, you don’t really have to race. It became a non-event.

In ‘89 I came in to that stage at a point where I was really not confident in my ability. I kept doing better as the Tour went on, and I got the yellow jersey two days before Alpe d’Huez. I just had to get through that stage, and then we’d be close to Paris. That was the culmination of two years of recovery.

In ‘86 I got shot, then I had two other surgeries. I was on and off my bike through most of ‘88 to ‘89. My performances on the bike were so varied, that it was this week I’m quitting cycling, next week I’m going to stick with it, next week I’m quitting cycling. When I started that Tour, I had already made the decision that I would quit racing unless I could slowly improve that year. I always think the day I said I was going to quit was the day I started to do better.

With all that over the previous years, I arrived to Alpe d’Huez in the lead of the Tour de France with only a few stages remaining and one monster obstacle remaining. I came in to the climb, and I actually felt really good at the bottom. I attacked a few times, but I got reeled in by Delgado’s Colombian teammate, Rondon. He then started setting this pretty hard pace for Delgado, and I went from feeling good, to kind of struggling, to really hurting.

Fignon was the guy that I really was worried about, so despite my suffering, I just had to watch him. From all outward appearances, I was feeling good on that climb. I had attacked a couple of times at the beginning, but it was suddenly gone. I could tell Fignon wasn’t feeling so good either. This was supposed to be the big day for him. If he was going to make a difference, it was going to be that day.

My coach on ADR at the time was Jose De Cauwer. I did not have any experience with him or who he was before I came on that team, but he turned out to be a really good tactical coach. He knew me, and he knew what it took to make sure the other team coaches, specifically Fignon’s coach and my ex-coach, Guimard, couldn’t get up to his rider to relay messages. I probably would have lost the Tour there if De Cauwer hadn’t driven so well, although there were some stages where Fignon would have lost as well.

When I get tired, I start dropping my shoulders, and Guimard could see that from behind. I had no idea what was going on behind, but De Cauwer was doing everything he could to block Guimard from getting to Fignon to tell him to attack. With about 5k to the top of the climb, Guimard finally made it up to us.

Guimard’s face is about three feet away from me in the car, Fignon is right in front of me and Guimard is yelling at him, ‘You have to attack. You have to attack now.’ I’m sitting there like, ‘Please don’t attack.’ At this point, I’m not realizing why he is telling him to attack, because I don’t think that I’m showing that I’m getting tired. Fignon, looks at him and says, ‘I can’t.’

It was good for me to hear that, but it wasn’t over. So Guimard goes back and probably a couple kilometers later, he’s back, and this time my shoulders were probably really dropping, and this time Guimard makes it clear: ‘You either attack or you’re fired.’ He told Fignon that I was cooked, fried. This time, when he told him to attack, he did, and I tried to follow him. Guimard went back, and I went right to my limit and cracked. I had to slow down to the point where I could barely pedal. I slowly recovered and all I did was try to limit my damages. I lost a minute and a half. A lot. I was happy I kept myself from losing more than that. I would have been out of the race. That day I lost a lot of time to Fignon. The next day he took some more time out; three days before I was 8 seconds down.

When we got back to the team hotel that evening, you could see that the car’s front bumper was gone, the back bumper was gone. I remember all these dents on it. Jose told me about how Guimard was trying to get up to Fignon, and Jose knew exactly what was going on, that I was not riding well. He did everything he could to prevent Guimard from talking to Fignon.

They were crashing into each other behind us. He kept him off a while the first time. When Guimard finally got around to talk to Fignon the first time, De Cauwer did everything he could the next time to keep him from getting back to Fignon. It probably saved my race. It was a delay of 30 seconds. It was great. That was the race that went on behind the race. The directors are watching the race, and they see it from a broader perspective. A good coach knows his rider and other riders too. Guimard knew me, because he was my former coach, and he knew Fignon, and he knew there was an opportunity. Had he not been able to get up there to relay the information, Fignon might not have attacked. He didn’t know that I was hurting even more than he was. That was probably my most memorable Alpe d’Huez.

1990: LeMond vs. the
Little Old Lady

It went from that to the next year, where I got second place on Alpe d’Huez. I think the most exciting part of that year’s race was when my teammate, Ronan Pensec took the overall lead from a break that got ten minutes on the first day. It was good for me, because I was able to ride the Tour without being in contention after the first day, because they had such a big lead. It gave me the chance to ride myself into a little better shape. I had been sick that year with mono and had been totally wiped out. I only started feeling better in May and June. I was always in survival mode, but I slowly pulled back the time that I had lost.

The story from that day isn’t from Alpe d’Huez though. It occurred at the feed zone earlier that day. We were going through this feed zone in the valley, and we’re riding at around 25 mph. I had both hands in my back pockets, and I was adjusting my food and getting ready to put an extra bottle in my pocket. At that point, I hit a pothole, and the pothole took me straight to the sidewalk. I was still trying to get my hands out of my pockets when I slammed into a woman who was walking on the sidewalk with her husband. I hit this woman flat out and knocked her down. I got up from the crash, and I see this woman who is probably 80 years old, with wide open eyes, just shocked. She has no clue what happened to her. She’s sitting there on her back looking straight up, and it’s like she’s frozen in time. I’m asking her if she’s OK. ‘Oh my god, are you OK?’ She never responded.

I was world champion at the time. I was wearing my world champion’s jersey, standing over this woman with no idea what to do, when her husband looks at me and says, ‘Greg, Greg, she’s going to be fine. Go on, get on your bike. She’ll be fine.’

I’m standing there worried about this woman, and her husband tells me, ‘Go on, she’s fine!’ She’s clearly knocked out cold. I ask, ‘Are you sure?’ and that’s when I realized that my middle finger was dislocated and pulled to the side. I tried to get everything together, and I’m like, ‘Holy shit.’ I had to put my right hand on my middle finger, yank it outward, and then put it back into place. I got on my bike again, and man, I’ll tell you, adrenaline is a powerful natural drug. It took me a couple of kilometers to catch back up.

I never really thought about my finger again until I was at the top of the climb going into the very final turn to the finish line of Alpe d’Huez ready to sprint for the win. I wanted to win that stage. I came into the turn a bit too fast, but that’s not a bad thing. I tried to soft brake, just to control my speed a little bit, but when I went to hit my front brake, my finger wasn’t working. So I compensated too much on my rear brake, grabbed it way harder than I should have, locked it up, slid around the turn, lost all of my momentum, and got second place to Bugno. I won that Tour, but it was my last good ride on Alpe d’Huez.

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.