On today’s stage 16, the peloton faced strong winds on the roads from Nimes to Gap, winds that forced the riders into echelons.
“We had incredibly strong crosswinds today,” says LeMond. “We rode through a canyon, a valley, and there were attacks all day long. Typically, if you’re trying to win the Tour, you have protection from your team on a stage like that—these are very, very dangerous conditions. Guys are assigned to help you, to keep you up the front, help close the gaps.”
“But, uh . . . that didn’t happen for me.”
Bernard Hinault used the wind to his advantage, slipping into a break of four riders after 120km. Hinault’s group quickly latched on to another group of four, making eight as they raced east toward the Hautes-Alpes along valley roads in which the mistral was swirling.
This time, LeMond was watching carefully.
“There was a lot of attacking in the valley,” LeMond said. “Guys jumping away, being caught; gaps opening, being closed. It was so windy you couldn’t get across on your own; you needed to be in a group.”
And then, “All of a sudden a group goes away—and this one’s got Hinault in it. I’d followed him in, I don’t know, about seven attacks. And this is the one I don’t follow. It wasn’t an attack; it was a split, but it goes, and boom! Everyone stops.”
“But the group goes,” says LeMond, “and I’m stuck behind in a group that’s going nowhere, and I’m thinking, Oh, my God, it’s happening again. . . .”
It wasn’t just the presence of Hinault that worried LeMond, though. In the initial group of four—which Hinault’s group caught—were two other La Vie Claire riders, Niki Rüttimann and Guido Winterberg. With Hinault, meanwhile, was Urs Zimmermann, the rider placed third overall. That surely spelled danger. Yet despite the presence of Zimmermann, the eight, including the three La Vie Claire riders, put the hammer down and rode hard. After only a few kilometers, they had gained 52 seconds.
“This time, I thought pretty quickly,” said LeMond. Knowing that he couldn’t ask his team to chase down three teammates, he approached a rider on a rival team. “I spoke to Robert Millar. I said, ‘Robert, I’m getting screwed here. Can you get your team to ride—and, if you’re close to me on a mountain stage, I’ll let you have it.’” Millar, a man of few words, nodded his agreement. “He got his team to ride,” said LeMond. “They chased, and got them back.”
But it was a chase that lasted 28 km, which tells how hard the front group was riding given that Millar’s Panasonic team was arguably, after La Vie Claire, the strongest in the race. When the groups merged, LeMond made his displeasure known, gesturing angrily at Hinault. Hinault reacted equally angrily. “I’m the boss of this race,” he told LeMond. “I know what I’m doing.”
With Hinault and company having been brought to heel, La Vie Claire played another card, putting Jean-Francois (“Jeff”) Bernard in the next break. There was no thrilling finale today, with Bernard fortunate that both his breakaway companions punctured on the descent of the Col d’Espreaux. But it was far from a lucky win for the young Frenchman; he arrived in Gap with a lead of more than 3 minutes on his pursuers and moved up to 13th overall, thus giving the team yet another man in the higher echelons of the general classification.
With 5 in the top 13. La Vie Claire’s grip on the Tour is tightening.
Bernard solos in for the win:
Join us first thing tomorrow morning for coverage of stage 17, a threatening mountain stage from Gap to Serre Chevalier. Will tomorrow see a shakeup on the GC?
Today’s race report was adapted from Richard Moore’s new book Slaying the Badger. Slaying the Badger is an incomparably detailed and highly revealing tale of cycling’s most extraordinary rivalry and the greatest ever Tour de France.