The Alpe d’Huez is one of the true Meccas of cycling. Since the Tour first climbed up to this ski resort in 1952, it has staged many great showdowns. On each of the 21 switchbacks along the 16-kilometer climb, a sign lists the names of previous winners. One name conspicuously absent, however, is that of three-time winner, Greg LeMond. The American may have won the Tour de France on three occasions, but when it came to racing up the Alpe d’Huez, he lost just as many times.
Words & images: James Startt
From: Alpe d’Huez, France
LeMond, who his covering this year’s Tour de France for Eurosport, laughs now, but admits, that on several occasions, the Alpe was, to say the least, problematic for him. “They always say if you win on the Alpe d’Huez, you don’t win the Tour,” LeMond said from his camper, parked behind the finish on the Alpe today.
In 1986, he appeared to be on his way to victory. LeMond had taken the upper hand on Bernard Hinault, his teammate-turned-rival, after a fierce duel in the Pyrénées. Hinault appeared to finally accept defeat to LeMond in the final days of the race.
Before the race, the five-time French winner promised his support to LeMond, after the American had been a key to his last victory in 1985. But early into the 1986 race, Hinault changed heart and became a stubborn opponent. LeMond finally took over the jersey the day before the stage up the Alpe d’Huez. Clearly the strongest two riders in the race, LeMond and Hinault dropped their challengers early on into the 16-kilometer climb that is the Alpe, then rolled to the finish line hand-in-hand, before LeMond let Hinault have the victory.
“At the bottom of the climb, Bernard Tapie (the owner of his La Vie Claire team) said, ‘Okay Greg, you’ve won the Tour. Ride up with Hinault and let him win.’ It was all arranged, just like Hollywood.”
Little did LeMond know that Hinault had no intention of relinquishing, and continued to apply pressure until the final time trial.
In what can only be called pure revisionism, Hinault says to this day, that he planned all along to help LeMond, and that his attacks were only planned to set up LeMond. “My word is my word,” Hinault said early in the year. “I never had any intention of going back on it.”
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But other teammates, like Frenchman Jean-François Bernard, who was in Hinault’s camp at the time, confirm that Hinault only abandoned hopes of an unprecedented sixth Tour de France, when he was truly beaten by the pioneering American cyclist.
“Hinault was definitely going for victory,” says Richard Moore, author Slaying the Badger, the definitive book on the 1986 Tour. “It was innate in Hinault to go for victory. He didn’t know how to race the Tour any other way!”
Three years later, Lemond was coming back from a life-threatening hunting accident. Riding brilliantly early on in the race, he captured the yellow jersey mid-way through the three-week over another rival Frenchman, Laurent Fignon. Again LeMond hit the bottom of the climb with yellow jersey on his shoulders, but faltered in the final kilometers.
“In 1989 I was feeling really good up the climb,” LeMond said. “But then I started to fade. Everybody was in the red, and I was on my limit. Fignon’s director, Cyrille Guimard, was my old sports director. He saw my shoulders dipping and he knew I was struggling. We didn’t have radios then, so he tried to go around my director to tell Fignon. But my director, Jose de Cauwer, knew what was happening, and he blocked Cyril from getting to Fignon for two or three kilometers. A lot of damage was actually done to both cars,” LeMond adds with a laugh.
But on that day, damage was also done to LeMond, who cracked in the last four kilometers, losing one minute and nine seconds as well as the yellow jersey. He would only recuperate it on the final day of the race, when he upset Fignon by a mere eight seconds in a time trial down the Champs-Elysées in Paris. That year’s Tour is often considered one of the greatest in history, but for LeMond it was a complicated affair until the end.
A year later, LeMond was preparing his third victory, and had dropped all competition on the Alpe, save the up-and-coming Italian, Gianni Bugno. He appeared set for victory until the last turn. “I nearly crashed earlier in the race and re-dislocated my finger on my left hand. Then in the final turn, when I tried to brake, my finger locked up and I broke too hard. I launched the sprint from a near standing start, and Bugno beat me.”
But while LeMond never won on the Alpe d’Huez, he still loves it. “I’ll never forget the first time I climbed up it in 1984, with all of the crowds and all of the switchbacks. It’s like a 16-kilometer stadium jammed with people. It is the most spectacular setting of any climb. It is the Superbowl for cycling!”
Lemond says that, the switchbacks are what sets the Alpe apart from many other climbs. “We’ve seen a lot of steady climbs in the last couple of days, but the switchbacks and the varying pitches, create a lot of opportunity to attack on the Alpe.”
“What I like about the Alpe is that there are the switchbacks that flatted out and then the pitches that vary. That creates great opportunities for attacks. What we’ve seen a lot in the last couple of days is a lot or climbs that are much more steady.
After retiring in 1994, LeMond only returned to the Tour intermittently. But for the past two years he has been a featured consultant on Eurosport. And here at the Tour, there are so many Eurosport cars with his image on the doors, that even LeMond has trouble finding his own car.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” LeMond says. “I’ve never done TV and I was very nervous to have my TV show. But I love racing. I love strategy. I wish I could be everybody’s director sportif. I’m always thinking, ‘Why is he doing that? He should do that!’ Yeah, it’s good to be on the Tour.”
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