Saturday afternoon’s stage is a 56-km team time trial, an event La Vie Claire dominated in 1985, winning by over a minute. But now, in 1986 on the road from Meudon to Saint Quentin, something very, very odd happened.
It’s the La Vie Claire nightmare, the reemergence of the ghost. In fact, it’s the triumphant return to center stage of Laurent Fignon. Fignon’s Système U squad doesn’t just win the team time trial, and doesn’t just beat Hinault, LeMond, and La Vie Claire. It hammers them by 2 minutes. Two minutes!
Système U cyclists rode low-profile bikes, with upturned “cowhorn” handlebars and using disc wheels. The La Vie Claire riders look like throwbacks, riding standard road machines, their only concession to aerodynamics their teardrop-shaped helmets. Système U looks fast. La Vie Claire—which had been the first team to use the low-profile bikes in individual time trials and the first to use Tapie’s beloved clipless Look pedals—doesn’t.
Such impressions aside, there are two versions of what happens to La Vie Claire.
One—Hinault’s—is that Hinault does a masterful job of keeping the team together, looking after Niki Rüttimann, who was still recovering from a crash at the Tour of Switzerland, and Guido Winterberg, who had crashed in the morning stage and ensuring they finish as a complete team. The other version—LeMond’s—is that it is Hinault, not the Swiss pair, who struggles.
Hinault admits of the stage that “I am not at my best” but adds, “We want to finish as a complete team, so I decide to slow the team when the Swiss riders Rüttimann and Winterberg are weaker. LeMond is unhappy, but we need to react quickly while riding, and I’m the boss.”
“Hinault was holding back?” asks LeMond, incredulous. “He was holding back?” he adds, his eyes almost popping out.
Well, I explain, he doesn’t exactly say that he was holding back—but he does imply that he could have gone harder; that it was the two Swiss who were struggling and at risk of elimination if they were dropped (as 12 riders from other teams were).
“He was getting dropped,” LeMond explains. “He was gasping; he was screaming at me because he couldn’t keep up. Oh, no, no. Who’d he blame? Steve Bauer and I did about 60 percent of the work. I mean, it’s OK,” adds LeMond more calmly. “It was one day—you can have an off day. But that was the first time I ever saw Hinault in trouble in a team time trial…”
It was, in contrast, a very good day for Fignon and Système U. According to Velo-news, the team won the stage, which put team member Thierry Marie back in yellow and put seven Systeme U riders in the top 10 overall. Fignon now sits in fourth overall.
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This coverage of the 1986 Tour de France was adapted from Richard Moore’s new book Slaying the Badger. For 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.
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