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.