Greg LeMond’s first day in the yellow jersey was not an easy one. Stage 18 almost immediately ascended the Col du Lautaret then the Col du Galibier en route to a summit finish on Alpe d’Huez.
The famous Alpe is cycling’s “Fenway Park, its Wimbledon, its stadium of reference . . . [its] modern temple,” according to the French writer Jean-Paul Vespini in his book The Tour Is Won on the Alpe. But Hinault would not wait for the Alpe to commence his attacks.
Hinault featured prominently all the way up the Galibier, trying a few tentative jabs with brief accelerations, testing the others’ legs. LeMond paid close attention to him, never allowing Hinault to stray too far. Urs Zimmermann, the #2 rider on GC between LeMond and Hinault, spent much of the climb marking LeMond. Zimmermann, it appeared, was glued to LeMond’s wheel.
“Hinault started attacking on the Galibier,” said LeMond. “He was saying, ‘We’ve got to secure second place.’ At one point on the climb, he got away, but I went after him myself. Then he attacks on the descent, and people counterattack, and he keeps going, while Zimmermann’s just staying on my wheel. All of a sudden there are three guys together [Hinault, Bauer, and Cabestany]. I stopped pedaling to see what Zimmermann would do, if he would jump after them. But he stayed behind me. I thought, Holy shit. I was given strict instructions not to work with Zimmermann, so I was stuck.”
Again Hinault seized the initiative to take advantage of LeMond’s position. With Hinault up the road, LeMond was in a bind. Hinault was again in a position to win the Tour.
LeMond dropped back a few yards to the team car for a brief discussion with team director Paul Kochli. On French television, it seemed that he asked a question.
A minute later he attacked Zimmerman, dropping him after an inspired descent. With the Swiss left behind, LeMond nailed it, eventually making contact with Hinault’s group.
With LeMond caught back on, La Vie Claire teammate Steve Bauer drove the break through the valley to the Croix de Fer like a time trial, building a 3-minute lead on Zimmerman for his team captains.
Hinault absolutely bombed down the backside of the Croix de Fer. Félix Lévitan, the Tour’s director, in the car behind the leading pair, could not believe what he saw. “In all my years on the Tour de France, I have never seen such a descent,” Lévitan says on race radio. “No word describes this. . . . Hinault is doing 90 kilometers per hour, and LeMond is with him.” But there was another shock in store for Lévitan: Midway down, Hinault slowed marginally, sat up, pulled at his shorts, and leaned over to the side of the road for a high-speed nature break.
At the end of the descent, their advantage on Zimmerman had grown to nearly 5 minutes. The Alpe loomed ahead.
Hinault said the crowds were massive on the Alpe d’Huez and they were chanting his name. “I told Greg to stay behind me, that it will be OK, that I know how to deal with the crowd.”
For hairpin after hairpin, the order remained the same: Hinault led, LeMond followed as they proceeded through banks of braying fans.
They proceeded up the mountain at a steady pace, taking 48 minutes from bottom to top. French TV was beside itself, believing it was witnessing the most extraordinary reconciliation between rivals.
Yet a scriptwriter couldn’t have come up with a more fitting, or more moving, denouement. Hinault, fulfilling the promise he made to LeMond, performing the role he said he’d perform as though he has finally come to terms with it. His shepherding of LeMond up the mountain was almost paternal. It seems to signify that the old warrior, in what he says will be his final Tour, having given his all, has conceded defeat.
There is a nobility, even heroism, to what Hinault appeared to be do today, particularly given the implied threat to LeMond from the roadside fans, virtually all Hinault supporters.
The fans spilled in unruly fashion onto the road, and Hinault cleaved through them, clearing the way for LeMond, who followed in the protective cocoon between his teammate’s rear wheel and the TV motorbike that followed just behind him. They rode in silence. Even LeMond looked relaxed. “They look as though they’re out on a club run,” said tv commentator Phil Liggett as they entered the ski resort at the summit.
At the plateau, LeMond put in the smallest of accelerations to emerge, for the first time since the valley, from Hinault’s shadow. He pulled alongside his teammate, reached out to touch his shoulder blade, and then put his arm around Hinault’s shoulder. They both smiled. They exchanged a few words, chatting as though they are indeed out for a leisurely ride.
What did Greg say to Hinault? We may never know.
In a post-stage interview at the summit, Hinault said, “I thought Greg learned a lot again today. “I only hope the strongest man wins this Tour.”
“You are going to fight one another?” asks a surprised Chancel, who, like everyone else, believed the hand-in-hand finish signaled a truce.
“The Tour is not finished,” Hinault replies.
Today’s race coverage was adapted from Richard Moore’s new book Slaying the Badger, an incomparably detailed and highly revealing tale of cycling’s most extraordinary rivalry and the greatest ever Tour de France. Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online in print and as an e-book:
- Amazon.com: Slaying the Badger
- BarnesandNoble.com: Slaying the Badger
- VeloGear.com: Slaying the Badger
- Chapters/Indigo: Slaying the Badger
- From your local independent bookseller
Join us tomorrow for Stage 19, a hilly stage from Villard-de-Lans to Saint-Étienne.
Phil Liggett offers commentary on this video recap of today’s stage.