Greg LeMond won his second Tour de France stage today after his La Vie Claire teammate and race leader Bernard Hinault cracked spectacularly on the climbs leading to the finish in Superbagneres. LeMond’s win is the first ever mountain stage win for an American in the Tour de France.
Today’s stage 14, from Pau to Superbagnères, was one of the toughest of the race, featuring four climbs, all stacked toward the end. The climbing began with the Queen of the Pyrenees, the Col du Tourmalet, starting 75 km into the 186-km stage, followed by the Col d’Aspin and the Col de Peyresourde. It ended with the first summit finish, at Superbagnères.
Hinault attacked on the descent of the Tourmalet and quickly opened a gap. He sped through the gray concrete ski resort of La Mongie, 4 km down the mountain, at 80 kph and continued to plummet like a stone. By the valley, he led by 1 minute 43 seconds.
Why? is the question. Why attack so early on the stage? Why persist on his own? One theory is that the Badger might have been inspired by a stage that did as much as any to create the Eddy Merckx legend. During the 1969 Tour, Merckx attacked on the Tourmalet, near the top, and carried on alone, for 140 km, to win in Mourenx by 8 minutes. In L’Équipe, Jacques Goddet coined a new expression in response to that astonishing performance: “Merckxissimo!”
The chase group that finally caught Hinault on the descent of the Peyresourde contained all the strong men: LeMond, Zimmermann, Millar, Herrera, and one of the revelations on this brutal day in the mountains, Andy Hampsten.
Today, as they rode through the pretty, café-lined central boulevard of Luchon, it became clear that Hinault was paying for his effort and suffering. Really suffering.
“Hinault suddenly began drifting aimlessly across the road,” as one reported—a classic sign of the dreaded bonk, or fringale. Hinault was in terrible trouble because he was still facing the 15.3-km climb to the 1,569-meter summit of Superbagnères.
There are conflicting reports about a conversation between LeMond and Hinault just before the climb.
Some reports tell of this exchange:
LeMond asked Hinault, “Do you want anything?”
“I’m dead,” replied Hinault. “Follow the others.”
LeMond can’t recall if Hinault spoke at all. “I asked him how he was feeling,” says LeMond, “and he just grunted. I don’t know what he said. I didn’t care. I was just seething.”
Hinault, it was clear, was enduring a thousand agonies. He persisted with the huge gear, his legs turning ever more slowly, and he lost contact with LeMond’s group.
Hinault cracked and was caught by the chase group:
With the shackles off; this was LeMond’s moment, his time. Herrera set the pace as the road rose toward Superbagneres. LeMond followed. Zimmermann sat third. Millar, who had been trailed off, regained contact and came up to Zimmermann’s back wheel.
To rescue any hopes of winning the Tour, LeMond had to attack. He had to go.
But, as Hinault struggled behind, the story of this Tour took another unexpected twist. An American in a La Vie Claire jersey attacked.
But it wasn’t LeMond.
Andy Hampsten—who had just returned to the group in the company of Robert Millar—accelerated up the left side of the road on the approach to a right-sweeping hairpin bend. No one reacted. A few seconds later, Hampsten looked back over his shoulder to see daylight and nearly overshot the hairpin turn. Behind, in the group, it’s as-you-were: Herrera, LeMond, Zimmermann, Millar.
LeMond looked around, waiting for the reaction. Instead, the riders fanned across the road to look at each other until, finally, Hampsten makes another move. He bounds up the climb. As Hinault always said he would.
Hampsten’s attack opened the door for LeMond’s countermove:
Then Hampsten slowed a bit, unable to sustain the pace, which created the opening for LeMond’s stage-winning counterattack.
LeMond jumped around Zimmermann and quickly bridged the gap to his teammate Hampsten.
Hampsten offered him a bottle and tried to set pace for LeMond, but he couldn’t sustain the effort.
Now alone, LeMond rode up the mountain to victory—his second stage win after the final time trial in 1985—sprinting to eke out every last second’s advantage.
With this win, LeMond becomes the first American to win a mountain stage of the Tour:
The damage? Did LeMond make Hinault pay, as he promised yesterday?
Hinault lost 4:39 on the stage, precisely 2 seconds more than he had gained on yesterday’s attack to Pau.
Hinault retains the yellow jersey — by just 40 seconds.
Join us this afternoon as we seek reactions from Hinault, LeMond, Hampsten, and other riders!
This coverage of the 1986 Tour de France was adapted from Richard Moore’s new book Slaying the Badger. For much more on cycling’s most extraordinary rivalry and the greatest ever Tour de France, please find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online.