[Felix Magowan, writing for Velo-news offers up his preview of the Tour favorites.]
Ask any European what is the greatest bike race in the world and he will answer, the Tour de France. Why? The reasons are not so obvious. The Tour of Spain (Vuealta a Espana) has more mountains and spectators. Three-time Vuelta participant Sean Kelly claims the Spanish race is harder than the Tour de France. The Tour of Italy (Giro d’Italia) has often had better organization and more humane distance. The Race Across America is longer at 3,000-plus miles. The Tour of Switzerland has a larger prize list — 350,000 francs ($195,000).
But the Tour de France has tradition. Now in its 73rd year, it is the oldest national tour. The Tour came up with many innovations now followed by stage races around the globe, such as point-to-point road racing on a grand scale, a special jersey for the leader, time trials, and general classification based on time instead of points.
What really reinforces the Tour’s reputation is worldwide attention from the press. Last year, more than 500 journalists and 35 television and radio chains reported on the Tour to an audience of 500,000,000 people. The Tour de France is the world’s most-followed annual sport event; only the quadrennial soccer World Cup and Olympic Games receive more attention.
Because of its enviable track record and the publicity it gives sponsors, it is not surprising that the Tour is the only major race to demand that all of its teams pay hefty entry fees — $35,000 per team this year.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the Tour’s preeminence is that its all-round format of flat stages, time trials, and mountain stages, and its large number of teams effectively ensure that the best man wins. This cannot be said for the Vuelta, Giro, or even the Coors Classic. For instance, in the Giro two years ago, Laurent Fignon was by most accounts the moral winner, but he was cheated of victory by a last-minute course change that favored Italy’s own Francesco Moser. In last year’s Vuelta, Scotsman Robert Millar was likewise deprived of victory on the penultimate stage when he was ganged up on by the Spaniards who made up most of the field.
The Tour is above all a team race. Invariably the winner comes from one of the strongest teams. There is the team time trial to worry about, and a team must be powerful enough to control the racing by policing breaks and staying at the front. in 1984 Bernhard Hinault’s chances of winning were hurt by a weak team, so powerhouses Greg LeMond, Kim Andersen, and Steve Bauer were later added.
As it stands now, there are six French teams (La Vie Claire, System U, Peugeot, Fagor, Kas, R.M.O.), four Spanish (Zor, TS Batteries-Reynolds, Seat-Orbea, Teka), three Dutch (Kwantum, Panasonic, P.D.M.), three Italian (Carerra, Gis, Malvor-Bottecchia), two Belgian (Lotto, Hitachi), two Columbian (Cafe de Colombia, Postobon), and newcomer 7-Eleven-Hoonved of the U.S.
The Yellow Jersey
The ’86 Tour appears to be the match-up the ’85 Tour should have been: a battle for overall supremacy between Fignon, Hinault, and LeMond.
The new twist for ’86 appears to be the changes for American Andy Hampsten. Winner of an unusually mountainous Tour of Switzerland June 10-20, Hampsten must now be considered a legitimate contender for the yellow jersey in a very hilly Tour de France. Hampsten not only convincingly won the prologue of the Tour of Switzerland, but took 1:19 out of LeMond in a later 24km uphill time trial.
True, Hampsten had two of the best riders in the world — LeMond and Hinault — working for him throughout, and on some stages the Frenchman would motor for more than 50km to save Hampsten’s jersey.
Hampsten has proven he can shoulder the responsibilities of being a race leader in a difficult European pro race — something even LeMond is not accustomed to.
Rumor has it that having been “given” the Swiss victory by LeMond, Hampsten will now return the favor by riding his heart out for his fellow American in the Tour.
The mere fact that Hampsten is a potential Tour winner gives La Vie Claire an immense tactical advantage. Hampsten reputedly is the equal or better of LeMond in the mountains, and in a mountainous Tour this could plan to Hampsten’s advantage. If all else fails, having such a qualified domestique at high altitude should be a great benefit to both LeMond and Hinault.
Like Hampsten, LeMond has a limited chance at snaring overall victory because he is not the best time trialist in the Tour and because he is riding on a French team. The fact that he makes more in one day ($1,000) than most of the team makes in a month has caused team friction. Not surprisingly, the riders most loyal to LeMond — Steve Bauer, Andy Hampsten, Niki Ruttiman and the now-banned Kim Andersen — are not French.
Even if LeMond had an all-American team behind him, many doubt he could win. The chief criticism directed at him is that he is not a winner. “Le Poulidor Americain,” the French press labels him in reference to the eternal second-place Raymond Poulidor. As if to underscore this point, LeMond placed second no less than four times in the Swiss tour. Confirmed Fignon in an interview after the Giro, “I don’t even know if we should call him a favorite for the Tour. He isn’t a leader, he doesn’t take risks to win and thus he can’t win. He’s an excellent second, but not a winner.”
More conciliatory were the remarks of Roberto Visentini after his own recent victory in the Giro: “Greg doesn’t have enough self-confidence yet, but one can never say what would have happened if he hadn’t crashed at Catania [where LeMond lost 1:38]. He was my real adversary in the Giro.”
The Australian rider Phil Anderson’s remarks about being a leader certainly apply to LeMond. “Taking the yellow jersey means a lot more than just the jersey. You have to defend it and assume the weight of the course. Hinault does that. He controls the racing macho-like — staying at the front, pushing a huge gear, daring others to come around him, growling. You have to earn the respect of the other riders and it’s all a bluff, but like I found out in the Dauphine and Tour de Suisse, you have to play the game if you want to be a leader. I don’t think Greg has learned all this yet.”
LeMond and Hinault enter the Tour as equals. Whoever is in the lead going into the mountains is designated team leader. It is unlikely LeMond will ride as faithfully in the mountains as he did last year for Hinault.
As for sharing team leader responsibilities with LeMond, Hinault said, “I will be at Greg’s service in principle, as I said last year, but nobody is able to say what he will act like once the racing starts.”