Monday, July 4, 2011

Tour legends and legends of the tour; stage 3 - 1989

Throughout this, the 98th edition of le Tour de France, I will be writing a daily despatch on some of the things that have combined to make this race one of the biggest, most celebrated and anticipated sporting shows on earth.

Fignon and LeMond

With Contador losing 80 seconds to his main rivals on stage 1, there is already talk that he may have lost the Tour. And indeed, if he happens to lose by less than 80 seconds, all will look to the events that occurred between the Passage du Gois and Mont des Alouettes.

In most walks of life, 80 seconds isn't all that much. In cycling, it's heaps. Indeed, it was one tenth of that amount that separated Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond in the 1989 Tour after three weeks of racing. This 8 second time difference still stands as the closest Tour de France ever.

While there were some great riders in the race, including previous winners Pedro Delgado and Stephen Roche, it soon became clear that victory would go to either LeMond or Fignon. LeMond had recently returned to cycling after nearly being killed in a hunting accident and still had thirty shotgun pellets lodged in his body. Meanwhile, Fignon was the favourite, coming off a Giro victory and being the number one ranked cyclist in the world.

From stage 5, LeMond and Fignon swapped the yellow jersey five times. Fignon was stronger in the mountains while LeMond made up time in the time trials. Lucky for him then that there were three time trials that year.

Part of LeMond's success in the time trials was no doubt due to his use of extremely modern time trial equipment. Unlike Fignon, who had his ponytail flapping in the wind, LeMond employed the use of triathlon bars and an aero helmet.

Fignon rides sans triathlon bar or aero helmet

While an individual time trial traditionally took place on the penultimate day of the Tour, 1989 saw a time trial placed on the last day. Fignon went into the 24.5 km stage with a 50-second lead. Most thought this would be enough; some French newspapers had even prepared their front page celebrating a French victory.

It wasn't enough. Fignon crossed the line 58-seconds behind LeMond.  LeMond's average speed of 54.55 km/h was at the time the fastest individual time over a distance greater than 10 kilometres.

LeMond rides avec triathlon bars and aero helmet (he doesn't look nearly as cool as Fignon though)

Bicycling Magazine estimated that LeMond's use of triathlon bars saved him a minute while his helmet gave him a further 16 seconds.  They didn't conduct any tests on Fignon's ponytail but I reckon it must have slowed him by at least a minute or two.

Still, to say that Fignon lost the Tour on the last stage would be erroneous, just as it would be false to blame stage 1 if Contador happens to lose. As Fignon said after his loss, "I should have gained 10 seconds somewhere else.  There are a thousand places where I lost this Tour, and a thousand places where Greg won it." 

Sadly, Laurent Fignon died earlier this year, aged 50.  He was involved in cycling up until the last.

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