It’s the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tour de France, a vintage edition of the race. It’s famous for the eight second gap between the winner Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon, the narrowest margin of victory in the history of the race. Yet this was only the final moment of the race, the three weeks before this and even the months and years leading up to the race made it great. In the second part of a series looking at the 1989 Tour, here’s a look at the opening phase of the race and what made it stand out.
If the 1989 Tour is famous for the eight second ending, the start is special. The prologue was in Luxembourg and for a long time Frenchman Joël Pelier led the standings until upcoming Erik Breukink set the fastest time. As defending champion from 1988, Pedro Delgado was the last to start. He left the Hotel Pullman for a warm-up in the backstreets of Luxembourg and lost track of time. In the start hut – a modest converted caravan – the clock counted down and he wasn’t there. He showed up at the start ramp 2m40s late and there was no adjustment meaning he ended up last GC on the opening day. After the farce over his doping test the previous year – positive for substance on the IOC’s banned list, but the UCI hadn’t got around to adding it – this was karma served up ice cold. Only it wasn’t the end of Delgado’s woes. The next day saw a split stage with a team time trial in the afternoon and Delgado’s Reynolds team – Movistar today – had a meltdown with Delgado starting too hard, presumably trying overcompensate. Only he lost his mind, lost his legs and was close to losing the wheel of his team mates and Reynolds lost 2m48 to the winners, Super-U of Laurent Fignon meaning an even greater setback for Delgado. Back then politicians liked to visit the Tour a lot and Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission, dropped by to comment on the race, telling Antenne 2’s TV show “if this had been drafted as a drama it’d be hard to beat” and he had a point.
The two early road stages took the race to Belgium with hilly stages and a feelgood win on Stage 2 for Acacio da Silva, Portuguese but an expatriate who’d grown up in Luxembourg so almost a home win before Mexico’s Raúl Alcalá won Stage 3 in Spa.
Stage 4 looked like a sprint stage on paper. It did use some of the Paris-Roubaix cobbles but they were milder sectors, although this was the Tour looking for le sport spectacle. The show came in the finish with a stage win for Jelle Nijdam who jumped the peloton with a kilometre to go. Nijdam was one of several riders who excelled at prologues and late kilomètre attacks. This meant routes we look at today as nailed-on sprint finishes were never as certain.
Stage 5 was a time trial from Dinard to Rennes. Normal to have a TT stage but it was 73km long, a marathon in today’s era. Greg LeMond won with Delgado second and Fignon third. Delgado started early because of his dire GC classification and was helped by good weather while it poured for the main GC contenders. LeMond deployed “tri bars”, the arm-rest and extensions we see today on every TT bike. But LeMond wasn’t the first to use them in the Tour, Sean Yates of the 7-Eleven team had them and they were also used in the Tour de Trump earlier in the season so the precedent was set. But the bars weren’t the headline, the press reports from the time mentioned a “double handlebar” in passing, or as a curiosity, LeMond’s comeback was the big news. He’d finished the Giro well but to win a stage in the Tour de France was a big deal and here he was in the yellow jersey and declaring he felt stronger than he did in 1986. This was a long journey, he’d had the hunting accident but also appendicitis in 1987 and surgery for tendonitis in 1988. He’d come back.
Stage 6 was won by Joël Pelier. Pelier’s parents normally had to stay with another son who required round-the-clock care but his parents placed him into residential care and drove to see Joël racing and there’s the touch of a fairy tale with the son winning in front of his parents but it wasn’t so miraculous, Pelier’s parents had planned to follow the race from Luxembourg to Pau in a campervan and Pelier was strong, remember he was leading the prologue for a long time, he was a rouleur in form. He did 180km solo and this still rates as one of the longest successful lone attacks in the history of the race.
Stage 7 was another nailed-on spring stage won by sprinter Etienne De Wilde… only he attacked with Steve Bauer, Patrick Tolhoek (father of Antwan, the Jumbo-Visma climber) and another sprinter Jean-Claude Colotti with 3km to go, using a bridge over a river as an attack point. Again the kind of move that looks doomed today but watching the 1989 race these things happened although this late move was helped by a nervous stage described as a spring classic thanks to rain and crosswinds and the race had split into pieces.
Stage 8 went to Pau and saw a stage win for Martin Earley winning from the breakaway. This was Irish cycling’s glory days with Sean Kelly in the green jersey, Stephen Roche as a GC contender and now Earley taking the win… while Paul Kimmage was also riding and if he didn’t deliver a result, he provided a seminal book in Rough Ride, a book almost 30 years old but still fresh and rewarding to read.
Stage 9 went into the Pyrenees with the first summit finish at Cauterets, 147km route labelled as “ultra short” by local newspaper Sud-Ouest and reminder that today’s short mountain stages in the Tour aren’t new. A winner of Paris-Nice earlier in the year Miguel Indurain had missed the early breakaway and set off in pursuit and watching the video it’s like watching a moto commissaire riding past riders, he nonchalantly blasts past Adri van der Poel. He wins the stage and it’s a taste of what is to come with his five Tour de France wins. Meanwhile among the GC contenders Pedro Delgado starts to make up for lost time.
Stage 10 was even shorter at 136km. Swiss rider Pascal Richard took off solo but it didn’t work for him, he was swamped by a chase move from which Charly Mottet, Robert Millar took off to lead over the Tourmalet. They were joined on the Col d’Aspin by Pedro Delgado while behind Fignon was struggling. Mottet was virtual yellow jersey but on the final climb Fignon got his mojo back and first chased to take back time on Mottet only for Mottet to blow leaving Millar and Delgado to contest the stage win with the Scot winning. Lower down the mountain Fignon attacked, LeMond followed but Fignon jumped again and got rid of LeMond and rode into the jersey.
Ten stages and only the opening phase. Let’s not oversell this part of the race, the best is yet to come but look at the variety, surprise and innovation. Delgado’s late start was both karma and dramatic device, he lost time in the prologue and then doubled down in the team time trial but he started to rise back in the time trial stage, then nobody could match him on the first two summit finishes. Ten stages in and not one bunch sprint because long range attacks worked and when they didn’t a late attack did. LeMond was back, the time trial win was solid – and the tri bars weren’t a big deal back then, there would be 360 articles online today – he didn’t look as good in the mountains while Fignon finished this phase of the race in yellow. Writing in Le Monde, veteran Journalist Jacques Augendre saw Fignon and LeMond as “direct rivals” who both had to “keep Delgado at bay” while “Hampsten has conceded too much time for his liking. Breukink’s chances look murky and those of Mottet’s are on a razor’s edge”.