1989 Tour de France, Part I

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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.

Where to start? The prologue seems an obvious point but let’s go back a year to 1988. Pedro Delgado won that year but his victory was tarnished after he tested positive for a banned substance mid-race… it was banned by the IOC not yet by the UCI. Delgado escaped on this technicality and it was highly embarrassing for the race, once the race reached Paris there was a mix of relief and rage over the incident. “Farce” was a recurrent theme in the press but Delgado was also blasted for “only” targeting the Tour that year, as if this was a sin too. Indeed the passage of time soothed matters and in early 1989 when Delgado placed fourth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and won the Vuelta a España, then held in the spring, it seemed to wipe the slate clean. Perhaps not spotlessly so but that’s how it was reported. He’d get some big karma served up once the race started too.

The route: the 1989 course was unveiled in the autumn of 1988. It differs from today’s design with the length of the time trials like the Stage 3 TTT of 46km and the Stage 5 TT of 73km, astonishing today but normal then. Notice the concentration of mountain stages in the Alps with Stages 15 to 19 all decisive days, ideal of the general classification was close and they had some “ultra short” mountain stages, like the 91.5km Stage from Bourg d’Oisans to Villard de Lans in the Vercors mountains. The Alps and Pyrenees were seen as so hard that they might even allow a pure climber to win the race, something that was written up in a shocked tone.

There was a novelty at the presentation when the race announced directors, one was Jean-Marie Leblanc, an ex-pro who’d become a journalist and then moved across from L’Equipe to the Société du Tour, what we know as ASO today. Leblanc would handle the sporting side. The other name was Jean-Pierre Carenso, a senior advertising executive behind some big campaigns and behind slogans like “du pain, du vin, du Boursin” which live on today and he was appointed to run the commercial side. This was the Société du Tour going from a village fair to a multinational, not overnight but in a hurry. 1989 was a watershed and the race was cutting out a lot of sponsors to focus on a few who could or would pay beaucoup: halving from 50 sponsors in 1988 to 1989 and with the plan to reach just five for 1990. Take the example of the cars used in the Tour, back then the race had a contract with Peugeot for the official vehicles, including those used as team cars, for the duration of the race. The Société du Tour went to Peugeot and asked for the cars plus a payment of 500,000 francs (about €120,000 today). Peugeot boss Jean Todt thought it was a joke, a bluff that this rambling circus could ask for money on top but while he was chuckling to himself Italy’s Fiat offered six million francs and so the Tour swapped from French cars to Italian in 1989, le business as they say. Things even went as far as selling the naming rights to the start with Stage 20 going from Aix-les-Bains to “Hewlett-Packard-l’Isle-d’Abeau”, the US computer company branding the finish thanks to their offices there.

1789: It was a revolutionary Tour thanks to the 200th anniversary of France’s 1789 revolution. There are lots of anniversaries but this was a big deal and the route reflected it, especially with the final time trial from Versailles to Paris and with Bastille Day being July 14 it meant the Tour de France was happening during the height of festivities. This was France in a festive mood, boosted by a growing economy and for the first time in the decade, falling unemployment.

Mondialisation: the peloton was very European but this was changing. Cycling was international in 1989, with more Americans starting then than today. The 7-Eleven team were there and US channel ABC even had their own moto in the race convoy to film events, a luxury usually reserved for the home broadcaster and which Eurosport is deploying this year. The Americans weren’t just coming to France, the sport wanted to go to the USA as well, it’s portrayed as an emerging market and resources were being ploughed in. L’Equipe had an article about the Tour De Trump, a race on the US east coast being run by an exuberant “real estate promoter and organiser of boxing fights” called Donald Trump. He wasn’t of interest, the story is of the sport with dollar signs in its eyes as it tries to work out how to crack the US market. There were plenty of Colombians with the Café de Colombia and the Kelme team too, and the Dutch PDM team even had a Mexican in Raul Alcala and there were British, Australian and New Zealanders, albeit only just.

There were few eastern Europeans yet beyond Jure Pavlič and Primož Čerin of Yugoslavia, today they’d ride for Slovenia. This was all about to change, there had been elections in Poland which tested the limits of the Warsaw Pact and in cycling the Soviet cycling team had begun to accept professionalisation. An agency called Sovintersport was created and brokered deals for Soviet athletes, for example charging $200,000 for Soviet boxers (whilst the boxer themselves were lucky to collect $900 a month). Similar deals saw ice hockey players sent to Canada and Switzerland. In cycling the Alfa Lum team cut a deal with Sovintersport where they paid Moscow an undisclosed sum in exchange for getting the cream of the Soviet riders. They wouldn’t ride the Tour but it signalled change was coming with Moscow’s urgent need for hard currency foreshadowed the USSR’s imminent collapse.

Tour Féminin: There was the women’s version of the Tour and saw a female peloton tackle part of the men’s course ahead of the men, 11 stages starting in Blagnac and finishing in Paris. It got decent coverage in the media, helped in part by Jeannie Longo winning which meant the French press had plenty to write about, with L’Equipe bemoaning the route in their preview as it would be too easy for Longo and then lavishing praise on her once underway, especially after she got trapped on Stage 4 after missing the break but then won the next four stages in a row.

Pre-race previews: This was an open tour. Reading newspaper and magazine articles ahead of the race there wasn’t a clear favourite. Delgado was an obvious pick, but not front and centre, the consensus was he had a very strong team. “Fignon the favorite, Delgado the danger” titled Velonews in John Wilcockson’s June preview but French cousins Vélo just seemed satisfied with Fignon’s Giro win after missing 1988 with injury, the poneytailed Parisian wasn’t a hot pick. Dutchman Eric Breukink was seen as a rising talent and possible winner, ditto Gianni Bugno. Charly Mottet’s talent was known but could the top ranked rider on the FICP-Perrier table manage three weeks without a jours sans? Colombian Fabio Parra was tipped for the podium, a brave call for a route with 190km of time trials but able to make the difference in the tough final week in the Alps. Canada’s Steve Bauer had finished fourth the previous year and maybe the route suited him better? The best American bet was seen as Andy Hampsten who’d won the Tour de Suisse in 1986 and 1987 and the Giro in 1988 making the Tour a logical progression. Gert-Jan Theunisse was the revelation of the 1988 Tour and combing back for more and to erase a positive test for testosterone that saw him – wait for it – get ten minute time penalty, dropping him from fifth overall to 11th. Like Fignon, 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche was another on the return from an injury and had looked healthy in Paris-Nice. The big injury comeback was Greg LeMond, you probably know he’d been shot by his brother-in-law in a hunting accident and almost written off. He’d gone from the PDM team to ADR over the winter, the equivalent of going from Ineos or Deceuninck to Wanty, only worse. ADR, as in All Drive Rental, were launched with great pomp as a superteam of 40 riders in 1987 and won Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders in 1988 but by 1989 were down to a rump of 20 riders and struggling to pay the remaining slender wage bill. “If I finish in the top-20 I’ll be happy” declared LeMond after a tough Giro, but one where he’d finished with a very strong time trial.

Eight seconds? That’s just the end, the conclusion of it all. The 1989 Tour was a vintage edition and this is a chance to skim through the year leading up to the start. There was a lot going on, both in the sport and the world around it were changing. The Tour itself was becoming a multinational, the 1988 presentation saw the race declare it wanted to become the world’s third sporting event after the football World Cup and the Olympics and there was a business plan in place to get there, the results of which we can see today as the race dominates cycling. For all the changes in the sport since, 1989 still feels modern. Perhaps it’s the fluo kits but the Tour Féminin and keen interest from the US media feels ahead of its time. Even on the eve of the race it looks like a mouthwatering prospect thanks to a lively route backloaded in the Alps and an open contest with no obvious favourite.

Soon we’ll look at the race itself.

44 thoughts on “1989 Tour de France, Part I”

  1. This was the race that hooked me, too. I was in Montpellier, taking a French language immersion class, and saw the Tour come through on Bastille Day. I thought “huh, this seems like a pretty big deal….”

  2. Thankyou for this, I look forward to part 2….the 1989 Tour was also the spark that lit my interest in road racing, Fignon vs Lemond, the ponytail vs the handlebars, Paul and Phil on Channel 4 with Pete Shelley’s music…..I watched Lemond win the 73km TT on my 15th birthday while i gorged on strawberries and cream, then went out for a ride in the Chilterns on my dads Bob Jackson with Campag 1020 rear derailleur…good times!

  3. This defeat was a crushing blow to both Fignon and French cycling. One which they don’t appear to have fully recovered from.
    I think it was the first time I heard someone describe someone snatching defeat from the jaws of the victory, is ultimately very hard on Laurent.

      • It was used in the nineteenth century on more than one occasion in a sporting context, and as famously, though falsely, credited to Abraham Lincoln when describing the inept General Burnside. That’s probably where McIlvanney picked it up, as an American author first put the phrase in Lincoln’s mouth in a 1971 work.

  4. Fascinating look back.
    1989 was also the first year that Sky Television began broadcasting as the first satellite tv service in Britain.

  5. Thanks for this. I must have watched my highlights tape 100 times. So many great moments – Rudy Dhaenens rolling his tyre, Joel Pelier, Lemond in the rain in Rennes, Thierry Marie playing the trumpet on Bastille day, and then – my god! – the finish -‘the clock is counting down and so are the metres to the line…’ Phil and Paul at their best. I was twelve then, little did I imagine the capacity of professional cycling to disappoint!

  6. I raved about the Tour and watched the final stage in a smoke-filled bar on holiday in the Auvergne. Since then I’ve met the guy who signed Lemonde’s sponsor cheques as a family friend (yes, Agrigel as sponsor had nowhere near enough stock in cold store to meet the increased demand for their product) and wished Fignon could have fulfilled his promise as an expert commentator. This was the Tour that brought worldwide attention and made pro cycling hit the road it’s reached now (*discuss). But the real thing was how the bikes started to look fit for purpose and the media came to interpret the sport in a way the public could really understand and actually see on TV. Lemonde with his tribars was obviously the way forwards, but the sheer class of Fignon was something to lament.

  7. I’ve probably watched this 50 times, on the trainer. I remember it as a kid, following The NY Times story each day, and Sports Illustrated having a huge article on LeMond. I’m so glad you’re doing this.

  8. I was 18 and as a high school graduation gift my parents got me a trip and to follow the tour for a week. My group had some connections and had arranged to have a post stage meeting with Lemond, probably arranged before the race began and before anyone knew he’d be competitive. Our meetup came right after he lost yellow in the Pyrenees and he was very gracious.

    The ‘88 tour was when I was hooked. Bauer’s resilience and ultimate cracking was pure drama to me and I loved Stephen Rooks for some reason.

    • 1989 was my second trip to Le Grand Boucle as a tour-guide/driver/mechanic for an American tour group. 3 decades ago!!! Wow. I cherish the memories of those daze and could easily bore the hell out of everyone with plenty of stories – but here’s just one: We scored interviews with LeMond but showed up too late for our final one near Aix Les Bains. Greg suggested our group meet him in Versailles right before the final time trial. Perhaps he didn’t yet know he was setting something up right before the most important race of his life? We couldn’t make it work but a few of us went out there anyway to congratulate him on a valiant second place and Fignon on a well-earned victory. Little did we know….or dream! 🙂

  9. Really interesting article, thanks for writing it. (One possible correction: wasn’t LeMond shot by his brother-in-law?)
    Love the red and white jerseys – team kits today leave a lot to be desired.
    The route looks pretty good, although there were some mightily dull stages in my (hazy) recollection and although today the TdF seems to have gone a bit too far the other way, that amount of TT km is definitely over-doing it.

    • Brother-in-law, yes, and a point worth making given LeMond’s famously close relationship with his wife.
      For me the mention of the North Americans takes me back to the beginning of my cycling consciousness, the Olympic road race in Los Angeles where Steve Bauer got silver. Raul Alcala had been with 7-ELEVEn before joining PDM where his time largely coincided with Sean Kelly’s.
      Regarding eastern bloc riders, they boycotted LA ’84 but Viacheslav Ekimov rode the ’89 Tour de Trump as an amateur and would ride the Tour de France in 1990 with Panasonic, with 14 more TdF finishes after that.
      Until recently I would have said that this was the golden era of women’s racing, but today the sport is (finally) advancing–on it own terms– beyond what was seen in those days.
      Regarding the equipment of the era, I’d say the bikes were largely unimproved from what Merckx rode. Clipless pedals and index shifting were quite new and appreciated, but maybe Larry T can explain what Campagnolo Delta brakes were all about. In retrospect the jerseys (and ponytails) were flapping too much.

      • I’ve read elsewhere that Fignon’s flapping ponytail, as you put it, or at least the lack of an aero helmet, cost Fignon 10” or more in the final TT.

  10. Chapeau inrng! This is wonderful stuff. The race is well before my interest in cycling truly took off so all the marginalia is fascinating. It seems a little sad that the tour feminin didn’t take off from there – it’s hard not to infer some malign influence seeking to suppress it, but perhaps that’s just paranoia.

    I look forward to the next chapter.

  11. This is great! Most of my bikes are 1980s steel. I love that you can pick up high quality racing bikes from this era for a song. It’s like collecting classic sports cars, except the bikes work as well and go about as fast as modern ones. Looking forward to the rest of this series.

    • I did think about a section in the bikes above but hard to explain too much, they were typically 8 speed (52/42 or 53/39 and 12-23/24, and steel frames although there were some carbon and alu frames at times, LeMond notably on a TVT carbon frame with Bottechia decals. We’ll get to the the tri bars soon as well, that will feature.

        • It’s crazy to remember what gears people used in those days , you couldn’t really get smaller gears unless you used a triple ring and that was strictly for touring bikes .

          • Unless your name was Giovanni Battaglin – http://www.battaglinroadbikes.com/
            Perhaps instead of finding ever steeper climbs (and skipping 1/2 of France in the process) the authorities might set a minimum gearing? Kind of the reverse of junior gear restrictions? 39 X 26 was enough for BigMig to get over the Mortirolo, perhaps that’s a good place to start? After all these are not the old folks or tourists that Henri Desgrange said should be OK with derailleur gears, they’re RACERS!

      • I would love a post or two about the bikes and equipment ridden by leading TdF riders from back in the day, esp. from the 1970s and 1980s. I know my early ’80s Tommasini with it’s original Campagnolo 6-speed drive train and Simplex retrofriction shifters and Wolber Aspin tubular wheels is pretty much on par with what was ridden in the TdF around ’82-’83. I know that this info is hard to find, since most of these bikes were custom built by top Italian builders for the top riders, and then painted/branded as whatever bike company sponsored the team. That mystery aspect just adds to the allure of this period in cycling racing.

        • “That mystery aspect just adds to the allure of this period in cycling racing.” This still goes on but just like back then, the people who build them pretty much keep quiet about it as per agreements with their customers, be they the individual pro, the team or the brand whose name is on the downtube.
          Rarely does anyone in the public find out who rode what made by whom until many years have gone past. There’s plenty of stuff on the web about bikes from the good old days. Steel Vintage bikes’ site is interesting as is Classic Rendevous’. If you can understand Italian, German or Japanese the choices are vast – I ran into a Korean guy a few weeks ago here in Italy who knew more about the bike I was riding (a GIOS borrowed from a friend) than I did!

          • Does it still go on? My understanding is that all equipment used in pro races has to be available to the general public (even if sometimes prototypes and “soon to be” available), and besides, no one races at the World Tour level on handmade bikes anymore. I think that era ended with aluminum and CF frames.

            And indeed I’ve spent many hours on the CR mailing list, and at the C&V forum on Bikeforums, reading and learning. Still, I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and many of the great builders, like Guiseppe Pela, passed away without having left any documentation. The informal networks and agreements decades ago in Italy between famous bike “makers” like De Rosa and Masi and Colnago and the many, many largely unknown master craftsmen led to much work being farmed out and subcontracted, with subcontractors sometimes hiring another layer of subcontractors. One is dealing in the land of lore and tales repeated and repeated again, often by people with conflicted agendas. And, sadly, so many of these bikes, after the races were won, became training bikes or were given to friends and ridden into the ground, and have been lost to history.

            All that said, I’d be very interested in what information Mr. Inring’s has.

          • KevinK – I know about a few “builders of trust” that still exist today. Of course they now work with carbon fiber and can make a bike that looks just like the team issue but has characteristics that suit the rider better. But that trust keeps this out of the public eye – just as it always has. Keeping your mouth shut keeps you in business.
            To my knowledge there has never been any sort of challenge to the claim the equipment has to be standard stuff available to the public or approved by the UCI. I don’t believe the stickers are controlled or numbered, certainly not the ones stuck on the bikes at your LBS.
            Didn’t British Cycling brush the consumer availability issue off with some stratospheric price quote awhile back? Nobody would put up the cash to order one so they never had to bother producing any and the issue seems to have simply faded away.
            Regarding Pela, that’s who built the GIOS bike I was riding. I had no idea, though it turned out the owner had been informed of this before he purchased the bike from GIOS. The Korean guy clued me in on the distinctive touches on the bikes made by the great master though his own name never appeared on a single one. As you noted Pela didn’t leave a lot of documentation like Pinella De Grandi did about the bikes of Fausto Coppi 🙂

        • By chance I met a US rider while back and after talking about his time racing, he explained he started to top up his prize money taking a frame or two back with him each time and soon was shipping crates of Italian frames for sale at premium prices in the US and Canada, he explained a lot of how the system worked with different builders each making each others frames, they’d often make their own top of the range team issue frames but the other ones in the range could be made by a third party and then painted (and chromed) to match the company in question. I think this was during the early 80s and it sounded chaotic and where contacts and handshakes counted for more than contracts.

          As for the 1989 Tour it seems likely plenty of riders were on bikes badged as something but made by a local artisan. LeMond had his TVT Carbon frame, made by a French company, and Fignon was on a factory Raleigh but an article I read said this was made by a specialist in a particular division.

          Today it’s different but the same, a lot of the frames are made in Asia but the likes of Specialized, Pinarelo, Scott or Cervélo are not manufacturers, they do the design, branding and marketing but manufacture is by others. Trek makes some in the US but they also have frames made in Taiwan by third parties. So when it’s, say a Scott, it is a Scott frame but they didn’t actually make it.

          I’ve looked at it before in two posts here http://inrng.com/2012/02/who-made-your-bike/ and more recently http://inrng.com/2017/02/trek-canyon-quest-factory-oem/

          • Based on what I’ve been told I think it’s a lot more like the ’80’s than you think but probably less prevalent. As I wrote above, blabbing about making Rider X’s special bike that was painted up as team-issue will ruin your business pretty quickly, just as it would back then. Only when it no longer matters does anyone speak up “on-the-record” about things like this.
            Years ago in the USA John Slawta (Landshark) was the builder of trust for the only US winner of La Corsa Rosa. I knew nothing about it until I came back with some photos and a sharp-eyed sales rep in the shop pointed out the telltale elements that convinced us the bike was not team-issue. I was given the task of contacting the builder of the team-issue bikes and breaking the news. It was no secret that although the team bike “sponsor” was HUFFY the bikes were actually made by Ben Serotta (they even had his sticker on the chainstay) but this was an issue of the “builder of trust” being replaced by a “builder of even more trust.”

          • Thanks for the reply, Inring. Yes, I’ve read the linked articles and know that for the last good long while virtually all bike manufacture has been outsourced to Asia, with the exception of small specialty builders like Allied in Arkansas (and of course well-known artisans of steel and titanium, who no longer build for racers, but for wealthy bike aficionados).

            Larry, I’m skeptical that there are current day pro road riders eschewing their $10-12k Specialized, Trek, and Pinarello bikes for hand-made CF frames that look exactly the same but have “special” properties. If it’s a star rider, the company designs the frame to suit them, and then charges the world a premium to have what a Sagan or a Froome is riding. With steel and titanium, the builder’s skill and knowledge will virtually always yield a better frame than that off a factory line. With CG, the manufacture process is such that one-offs are nearly as realistic, and at the end of the day if the bike looks exactly like the team bike, it will have the same geometry and essentially the same properties. Back in the day the best frame makers could make a stiff bike that was as light as possible (and still weighed 9-10 kg when built up). Now bikes have to have weight added sometimes to not be below the UCI limit, and it’s unlikely an individual builder is going to make a hand-made bike that is more areo, or stiffer. What else is there for a secret custom bike to offer? Plus, of course, we see how teams go through bikes.

            The story about Huffy and Serotta was one of the worst kept secrets at the time it was happening, and no one on the scene then believed a serious team was racing with Huffy bikes. As you said, that was years ago, in the age of exotic steel tubing, where the difference between what you could buy off the shelf, and what a great builder like Serotta could do, was vast. I don’t think that is the case today.

          • Thinks like Huffy and Serotta worked because the general public saw Huffy and insiders or nerds noticed Serotta. With today’s media it’d be harder to pull off.

            When reading up about Pierre Tosi (http://inrng.com/2019/04/pierre-tosi-obituary/) he was earning a very modest salary and had to dedicate some of this to buying his own frame as the team issue kit was not up to the job, like a worker having to buy his own tools.

            It’s possible some riders today have custom carbon frames but we’re talking extra layers of carbon places on the standard model, it can make it stiffer but that’s rare.

          • KevinK – obviously everyone can believe whatever they like, including the bike used to win the 2008 World’s was made by the Asian producer of bikes for the brand/sponsor of the man’s trade team. I think the details on how it was actually produced by Sarto have even been published somewhere, but if that’s your business you obviously don’t want to advertise the fact unless (like Dario Pegoretti) you want to move into a different segment of the frame-making biz.
            I have on what I consider pretty sound authority that Italy’s current top rider sought out a “builder of trust” during the final season of his contract with his previous team rather than ride the team issue machine. Perhaps he was no longer a big enough star for the bike sponsor to make something he felt fit perfectly? The industry has spent millions on convincing the punters t-shirt sizes are good enough, but when you look at some of the setups of the pros not famous enough to merit special molds from the Bigs, you can see that’s far from the truth. Not too long ago I saw a photo of a “special, custom bike” that was custom in paint-job only – it fit the rider so well he had the seatpost turned around backwards!

  12. Thank you very much for the article. It is very interesting a brings a lot of details that I didn’t know. This is a great work in collecting info and writing the piece in a meaningfull way.

  13. Truly a freewheel down memory lane.

    Still have my Gios Torino in cobalt blue / Campy SR in the attic
    Although the best riding bike I ever owned was a Colnago Super.

  14. Thank you so much for this series! It’s so well written. The 1989 Tour was a big reason why I biked around France and saw the Tour in 1990. This wasn’t too many years before it was Dario Pegoretti who was the go-to builder for Indurain and others.

  15. Though I got my start on good old celeste Bianchis, I nursed a powerful lust for the Colnagos of the day, with their elegant lugs and incredibly complex paint schemes. Sadly, they did not fit my long torso (stems and bars and posts not being of the structural integrity they are today). A mutual acquaintance led to Ben Serotta making two frames for me, meticulously fitted in every detail. They were simply extraordinary bikes. Thank you for the stroll down memory lane. 1989 would have been the 4th TdF I followed, though I did not get there in person until years later. I still have a framed Giro promotional poster in my garage of Lemond TT’ing under the Arc.

  16. It’s always great to read about things that have happened in the past. You realize that nothing has really changed. Commercialization and sponsorship seemed important issues as the time, with ASO’s main criticism now being that it is mainly a money making machine. There was even the issue of naming rights. It might not be as big an issue in cycling at the moment but it is in other sports, especially football in Europe. So you realise that nothing has really changed, the same things are being done, maybe just differently or better.

    This is a great post, thanks inrng!!

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