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By the Numbers: The Greatest Tour de France Ever

That's 1989, yo.

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With all due respect to Richard Moore, there is a clear winner in the category of Greatest of All Time (GOAT) Tour de France, and it's not his beloved and very consideration-worthy 1986 edition. It's 1989, and not entirely for the reason you are thinking of. The 1989 Tour remains to this day the closest and most dramatic finish to a Tour de France, and maybe any grand tour. I'm sure there are other nominees for GOAT that, if they took place today, would rank higher in our collective minds. But 1989 was a great one, didn't happen all that long ago, and benefited from significant enough media coverage that the entire world could decipher what was happening.

And what was happening was a collection of charismatic individuals (including three former winners and one rather notable future one), a series of I-can't-believe-it moments, and a series of stages which flipped the overall lead and set up the incredible finish. It took place at a crossroads in the sport's history, where technology was about to evolve and played deeply into the result; where TV coverage was growing; and where doping was about to hijack the entire enterprise. 1986 may have been great, and set the standard for inter-team shenanigans which will never be beat. But if you are looking for things to talk about for decades to come, the 1989 edition has much more going for it.

Let's dig in.

1989 Tour Leaders Numbered

1. I see you and your hair, Gert-Jan Theunisse

If there was a more imposing figure in the sport at that time than Theunisse, I couldn't tell you who it was. The Dutch climber was coming off a breakout Tour in 1988 that included a ten-minute penalty for taking testosterone, and on this day he was about to cap off his legend by winning atop Alpe d'Huez. If you want to know why people call it Dutch Mountain, it has less to do with Theunisse's win there than perhaps any other. Theunisse's 1989 effort was actually the last win by a Dutch rider atop the Alpe, but in the 13 previous finishes there had been seven Dutch winners, including Steven Rooks the previous year and multiple victories by Peter Winnen, Hennie Kuiper and Joop Zoetemelk.

Theunisse's style was wooden-faced, and his shady history, lowland upbringing and long hair gave him an air of absolute defiance. His life after the 89 Tour is no less stunning. He got popped for PEDs on multiple occasions, though he largely pre-dated EPO. His career stalled out after 1989, and he eventually retired with heart trouble, a condition that has included multiple heart attacks prior to his acquisition of a pacemaker. He got hit by a car while training in 1997 and suffered spinal column damage that occasionally renders him unable to walk. He took to mountain biking, coaching and riding allegedly 150km a day. He went on to win 12 races including the European over-30 championship, but continued to suffer heart, spinal and muscular problems, and is considered partially handicapped. He retired from mountain biking in 2005, but works with disabled athletes in Mallorca and is said to be aiming to complete in the paralympics.

I could have sworn back in the day that Phil Liggett called him the Cannibal, though that sounds absurd in hindsight. I see that he had several nicknames, including the Blond Angel and "de Maaskant," which I thought was a surname and doesn't seem to want to translate for me. If he's game for another one, may I respectfully suggest "Rasputin"?

Theunisse tee shirt

2. I see you there, Laurent Fignon

I'm going to save him for last.

3. I see you there and couldn't miss your kit from outer space, Greg LeMond

LeMond, of course, won this Tour and is as famous a cyclist to our forum as anyone. At this time his back story was well known. He was the first American to win the Tour in 1986, in that legendary edition. He could have won in 1985, when he acceded to the team's request to not attack out of deference to his wounded leader, Bernard Hinault -- a request that was justifiable at the time, if laughably hypocritical a year later.

His race in 1989 began with a prologue showing that was better than expected -- LeMond was coming off a poor Giro d'Italia, but began receiving anti-anemia treatments during the race and finished with a strong time trial, so being six seconds down wasn't a shock. Still, he wasn't thought of as a favorite, coming back from two years of injuries and the hunting accident, until he won the 73(!)km ITT to Rennes on stage 5, putting him in yellow a scant five seconds up in Fignon. And even then, few believed he would survive through the mountains (including LeMond himself, IIRC). What transpired was a two-man battle like no other.

GC after Stage 5: (LeMond win)
  1. Lemond
  2. Fignon, at 0.05
GC after Stage 10: (no changes stages 6-9)
  1. Fignon
  2. Lemond, at 0.07
GC after Stage 15: (LeMond surges, Fignon cracks)
  1. Lemond
  2. Fignon, at 0.40
GC after Stage 16: (Fignon slips a bit)
  1. Lemond
  2. Fignon, at 0.53
GC after Stage 17: (Alpe d'Huez; LeMond suffers)
  1. Fignon
  2. LeMond, at 0.26
GC after Stage 18: (Fignon win)
  1. Fignon
  2. LeMond, at 0.50
GC after Stage 19: (LeMond win, Fignon s.t.)
  1. Fignon
  2. LeMond, at 0.50
GC after Stage 20: (no change)
  1. Fignon
  2. LeMond, at 0.50
GC after Stage 21: (LeMond win)
  1. Lemond
  2. Fignon, at 0.08

His stage 21 performance still arguably ranks as the fastest time trial in Tour history, even with all the doping that came into vogue later on. Two prologues (including this year's) were faster, but prologues are prologues. Also Dave Zabriskie topped LeMond in 2005, but that result was later voided.

I wonder if LeMond looks back on his life in complete wonderment. Drama seems to permeate his entire existence. He was born in Nevada, with generational athletic ability, particularly in his cardiovascular system. Cycling managed to find him, which wasn't a given in those days, though it had a foothold in nearby California. He survived sexual abuse by an uncle, the sort of thing that has ruined untold lives. He got to Europe, which was remarkable enough, and dominated races to the point where he was chosen by Cyrille Guimard to be the successor to Bernard Hinault, for crissakes. He went on to serve on two of modern cycling's greatest Tour factories, Guimard's Renault venture and the La Vie Claire program of Hinault, Kochli and Tapie. The former won more and for longer, but the latter dominated the race completely for two years, taking ten stages, the top two GC spots both years, and six top-ten placements.

He had exactly the personality needed for an American to succeed -- defiant, independent, and confident enough to rewrite the traditional rules of the sport; smart enough to learn French and sincere enough to become a beloved figure in Belgium and France. Not crippled by the homesickness that had prevented most Americans from even approaching the scene. All of this made him exactly the wrong person to serve as Hinault's appointed successor, not unlike so many successions of royal authority in history, which led to the drama in '85-86, but if he had been meek enough to do Hinault's bidding, he'd have gone home before the trouble started.

He was an early world champion. He won the Tour. Then he was shot, and almost died. Probably should have. Then he was back, and 1989 happened. He won another Tour in 1990, though that was hardly routine too. He was a forerunner for technological change, then he became a victim of doping, losing perhaps two more Tour victories to EPO, on top of the two he lost to injury after the shooting. In retirement chapters 9, 10, 11 and so on of his life story were tied to Lance Armstrong -- engulfing his status as a businessman selling bikes, a commentator on Armstrong and the sport, and his place as the great American pioneer. Only in recent times, with Armstrong going away and a vindicated LeMond just living his life, does the drama seem to have loosened its grip on America's greatest -ever cycling hero.

4. I see you there, Pedro Delgado

If LeMond had a stranglehold on most dramatic grand tour career, Delgado did his part to stay in contention. He was an instant success at the Tour, holding a podium place through stage 17 at the age of 23 before falling back. By 1985 he was a mountain stage winner. In 1987 he lost the (then) second-closest Tour in history, to Stephen Roche, by 40 seconds. He won in 1988, in dominant fashion over a weakened field, but not before getting popped for probenicid and briefly risking a serious penalty before the Tour determined that the rules did not call for any. That was a bit like getting popped for weed at a club that went on to become Studio 54 the next year. The Tour director asked him to voluntarily walk away, but he insisted he was taking it for his kidneys, not to mask steroid use. Delgado has no further doping history and his reign as the 1988 winner is secure.

So secure, apparently, that he saw no need to hurry up and get to the start house for his prologue time at the beginning of the 1989 Tour. By the time he discovered the problem and got out of the start house, he had added 2.40 to his time. This sent him into a terrible emotional crisis, where he lost sleep and was so bad in the next day's road stage/TTT double-dip that he was more than seven minutes out on day 2. He finally got his act together, finished second in the 73km ITT, and spent the rest of the Tour climbing brilliantly. Heading into the final Paris ITT, Delgado was a mere 2.28 behind Fignon on GC -- the "virtual Tour leader" if you could wipe out his self-imposed deficit. Considering he would have been in a position to beat LeMond and Fignon, this was arguably the greatest grand tour of his career. With a good start, it's not hard to imagine him winning. Sure, he lost a minute to LeMond in the final ITT, but that was a mere post-script. Oh, and he would have had plenty of team support: five of his teammates finished in the top 33, including a young guy from Pamplona, name of Indurain.

And yet, this might not be the most dramatic moment of his career. Plenty of people, led by Robert Millar, would argue that the shenanigans of the 1985 Vuelta a Espana, Delgado's first major victory, put it over the 1989 Tour in terms of drama. But that's a story for another day. Ultimately Delgado is remembered partly as the dominant climber of his time, which he was, and partly as a one-off Tour winner, which is a pretty fair assessment. He maybe lacked the killer instinct to dominate the sport, but he was certainly the strongest rider when LeMond and Fignon weren't around, and occasionally when they were too.

5. I don't see you very well, Steven Rooks

The forgotten figure of this Tour, Rooks was a player in the latter half of this race and the reigning #2 from 1988. He won the uphill time trial to Orcieres-Merlette, and the year before he won on Alpe d'Huez -- Dutch Mountain. He's also a two-time national champion and a winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Zurich and Amstel Gold. Later he confessed to doping but only after 1989.

A few more...

1989 Tour others numbered

6.  I see you there... Paul Kimmage?

Here's where this photo thing gets tricky. I honestly can't see this person well enough, but am using the presence of a Fagor rider to mention a couple items of interest. One is about Kimmage. As LeMond always says, doping took over the sport by 1991, and that didn't happen overnight. Kimmage, who went on to become more famous for his reporting work, particularly challenging Lance Armstrong and Pat McQuaid for their transgressions than he was as a cyclist, was in fact a cyclist and formed his opinions of doping at this very stage of his career.

He was also an Irishman, and Irish riders spent the 1980s making some incredible memories. In 1989 Kimmage was riding in support of Roche, who had moved to Fagor after falling out with the same Carrera team for whom he won the Giro-Tour-Worlds Triple Crown in 1987. Kimmage occasionally rode in support of Sean Kelly, at Worlds and at the Nissan Classic, won by Kelly in 1987.

7. I see you there, unknowable 7-Eleven rider

For all their colorful history, Team 7-Eleven had run out of miracles in 1989. The previous year, Andy Hampsten had won the Giro d'Italia, the first and only American ever to do so. In 1987, Hampsten had won the Tour de Suisse. In '86 they made their well-documented Tour debut, winning a stage and briefly holding the maillot jaune. In 1985, they made their entry into European cycling with two Giro stage wins.

I wonder what happened to cause Raul Alcala to leave 7-Eleven before the 1989 season, when he joined up with PDM. Probably money. Maybe the addition of Hampsten, who fled the madness of La Vie Claire in time for the 1987 season. Anyway, Hampsten was a brilliant climber but lacked consistency (hello, clean cycling). His 22nd in 1989 was his worst Tour finish (his best was fourth in 1986, for La Vie Claire). Meanwhile, Alcala seemed like an ideal fit, the first great Mexican rider on a North American team (7-Eleven was Canadian-friendly too). He won a stage in the Coors Classic that got him noticed, and by 1989 he was reaching his peak at the Tour, finishing eighth. Might have paired well with Hampsten, if there were room for both. Oh well. IIRC Alcala still hasn't retired, though he hasn't won a major race since a national title in 2010. At the age of 46.

8. I see you there, unknowable Team Z guy

Another random placement, and an excuse for a sidebar. One point people make about LeMond in the 1989 Tour is that his team, ADR, was terrible. It's true that he lacked support in the mountains, but they did finish with four riders, and you can only throw so much shade at a team that included a young Johan Museeuw and an aging Eddy Planckaert. There were three stages in Belgium, and LeMond came out of those pretty well. So there's that.

Still, by 1990 LeMond was on top of the world again -- literally, with the rainbow jersey -- and could ride with whomever he wanted. He chose Team Z, in part for the money and also because he could count on some support in the mountains of the Tour de France. One of those supporters would be Robert Millar, an opponent who was on friendly terms with LeMond in 1985 and 86, when LeMond was isolated by his own team. It may be that Millar offered him support in 1989 when again LeMond was isolated. Or I'm making that up. In any case, Millar was a fine climber and a bit of a character, an ideal teammate for LeMond. So too were Eric Boyer, Ronan Pensec and Bruno Cornillet, all of whom were top-20 finishers or thereabouts. LeMond's 1990 Tour was a topsy-turvy event anyway, with a massive gap being let out early on and the yellow being held by Steve Bauer of 7-Eleven, then Pensec, then Chiappucci -- all beneficiaries of that stage one gap -- until LeMond finally claimed it on stage 19. That was his one year with a team truly behind him.

I can't for the life of me tell you who the "Z" sponsor was, but the team went on to become Credit Agricole and lasted until 2008.

9. I see you there... Martial Gayant?

La Vie Claire... or their shadow anyway. I think this is Gayant, but again it's hard to say. Gayant was a northern French guy, and a classics hardman. He's still around coaching at FDJ with one of his 1989 teammates, Marc Madiot. By 1989 things had changed a lot from the La Vie Claire days. Now called Toshiba-Look, owner Bernard Tapie was slowly ceding control of the venture and would depart after the season. Already gone by 1989 was Paul Koechli, who had "directed" the victories of Hinault and LeMond, albeit with much interference by Tapie. Hinault more or less founded the team with Tapie in 1984, but by 1989 he was out of successors. First LeMond got shot and departed. So too did Hampsten, in part because he was sure that they wanted Jean-Francois "Jeff" Bernard to be their next leader. Bernard won a stage in 1987 and took over the maillot jaune... it was all so perfect... but Bernard cracked under the pressure, by his own admission, and saw his career derailed by knee injuries. Their Tour team was bereft of a grand tour challenger in 1989, and their top finisher was Fabrice Philipot, 24th. The Toshiba team and its Piet Mondrian-inspired jersey were consigned to history after the 1991 season.

10. I see you there... Dominique Arnaud?

Once again, I can't really tell who this is, but Arnaud was one of the challengers for the Red Jersey, and was built like an NFL fullback, at least by cycling standards. So I think that's him.

The red jersey? This defunct classification was awarded to the winner of the most points from intermediate sprints. Back in the day, every mass-start stage included multiple intermediate sprints, which also came with time bonuses and cash awards. It was worth pursuing, and anyway the points counted toward the Green Jersey points classification as well. By 1989, the red jersey was in its last go-round, presumably because of that last thing I said -- if it counts toward the green, you're probably giving both jerseys to the same guy, like Sean Kelly, who won both in 1989. Also on its way out was the combined jersey that added points from the green, red, yellow and polka-dot classifications. I always liked that jersey, usually because someone important was wearing it. But it too was kinda redundant.

1986 Tour Hinault and LeMond

11. I see you there, Jean-Marie Wampers?

Again, identification isn't easy here, but I think the ears nail down this one. Wampers was a twelve-year pro in his ninth season at this point. His first eight didn't yield a lot of flashy results, but in this photo he's the recently-crowned champion of no less a race than Paris-Roubaix, which he took in a two-up sprint from Dirk De Wolf, a star of the Ardennes in the early 1990s. Not too shabby.

***

I remember you well, Laurent Fignon

If you only knew Fignon from the 1989 Tour, you might remember him for being just a couple things -- the tragic loser of the race on the Champs-Elysees, and an unpopular guy with the media. Both of these impressions were foremost on my mind for much of my formative cycling-watching years. But I have completely changed my mind about him. Fignon was a great, proud champion, an imperfect guy, and yet another fascinating character from that era.

He was an excellent all-round rider, with time trial victories dating back to his first, shocking Tour de France victory in 1983 to high mountain wins in places like La Plagne and Villard-de-Lans to hilly stages as late as 1992. He was a free spirit, treating the press as he liked and admitting to using stimulants in his frank autobiography "We Were Young and Carefree." He rode with attacking flair, in contrast to LeMond (for example) in 1989. When he won, he won with style, and when he lost, it was usually something crazy, from the Paris ITT in '89 to the nonsense at the 1984 Giro. That was something -- the race canceled the highest stage to shelter Francesco Moser from getting thrashed by Fignon, and on the final ITT a helicopter rode in front of him, creating his own private headwind. The Sheriff won by 1.04. Fignon won the Giro in 1989. Knee injuries robbed us all of an era in which he and LeMond -- originally teammates at Renault-Elf -- slugged it out for years.

The loss in 1989 will go down as the most-discussed Tour time trial possibly ever. The most painful part has to be the choice of equipment, where Guimard allowed Fignon to ride with bullhorns, while LeMond rode with aero bars, apparently because Fignon believed the aero bars were prohibited and urged Guimard to protest. Fignon also eschewed the aero helmet of the type worn by LeMond, though he did use a front disc (which LeMond didn't) so the technological advantage was only 90% in LeMond's favor. It's interesting that he rode for Guimard for almost his entire career -- at Renault, at Systeme U, and at Castorama -- before spending his last couple years in the Gatorade outfit. For all the greats we have discussed who left Guimard, the partnership he had with Fignon was the one that lasted. Maybe it failed them in the end. Eight seconds could have easily been found in the final choice of equipment. But presumably it helped Fignon on too many other occasions to be overshadowed by that one day.

As you would expect, Fignon was haunted by that experience. LeMond told a story of how Fignon hated to go to the Champs-Elysees, because he would find himself counting out eight seconds as he walked, or biked home at the end of another Tour. When people would point out to him his notoriety, he would mention that he wasn't that guy who lost but rather a two-time Tour champion, of which he was rightfully proud. The misery didn't consume him, but it was hard to shake, of course.

His greatest tragedy was his last. After retiring to a life that seemed to include a lot of golf and eventually the ownership and organization of Paris-Nice, Fignon was diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 2009 and died a year later at the age of 50. it would be the worst kind of hyperbole to wrap this up by saying he died of a broken heart from the 1989 Tour. He didn't. He was a proud person, a fantastic and underrated cyclist, and could only have been struck down by a horrible, deadly disease. I'm sure he wouldn't mind my concluding with "fuck you cancer." But instead I'll go with Chapeau Laurent. You were a great champion, and even in defeat in '89, you played to win.

Laurent Fignon post career