How a time trial bar opened the door to wind-cheating tech

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The 1989 Tour de France is inextricably linked with the first use of tri-bars in the peloton. Would Greg LeMond, who started the final time trial 50 seconds behind Laurent Fignon on GC, have triumphed by that famous eight-second margin without them?

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LeMond’s radical ‘aero bar’, designed by Boone Lennon, a former US national ski team coach who understood aerodynamics perhaps better than anybody in cycling at that time, was unveiled before the stage five time trial — 73km from Dinard to Rennes.

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The American’s directeur sportif, Jose De Cauwer, presented the bike fitted with the aero bar to the commissaires the day before: “I went early, so no one from any other team would see we were intending to use them,” De Cauwer told Cycling Weekly in 2009. “I said, ‘LeMond wants to use these bars.’

Photo: Graham Watson

Aerodynamics is less important when climbing. Photo: Graham Watson

“The chief judge said, ‘OK, you can use it, no problem.’ I carried on. ‘He has a problem with his back; this is more comfortable for him.’ The judge replied, ‘I said it’s OK, he can use them.’ Then I got out of there.”

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LeMond won by 24 seconds and took over the yellow jersey. It seemed like an impressive return to form following the hunting accident two years earlier that had nearly killed him.

Raising the bar

LeMond knew the difference the new bar had made. He had tested it with a team-mate, Jaanus Kuum, who was on a standard time trial bike with a bullhorn bar. He and Kuum had used heart rate to gauge whether there was an advantage to be had.

LeMond worked up to 175bpm on the tri-bars, while Kuum sat on his wheel. Even tucked in behind LeMond, Kuum found it hard to stay on.

Photo: Graham Watson

Modern TT bikes don’t look much like this, but LeMond led the way with aerodynamics. Photo: Graham Watson

Before the final time trial Fignon’s directeur sportif, the wily Cyrille Guimard, had complained to the referee about LeMond’s bars, to no avail. Now LeMond was ripping up and down the Champs-Elysées, arms stretched out in front like a downhill skier, eating into Fignon’s margin.

LeMond had asked not to be given time checks because he wanted to ride flat-out. Fignon, meanwhile, was riding disc wheels front and rear and was battling with his unstable bike. The bespectacled Frenchman sweated and grimaced all the way to the line, his ponytail flapping in the wind like a white flag.

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Those unforgettable scenes on the Champs-Elysées in 1989 heralded the beginning of cycling’s aero revolution. Although today’s super-slippery time trial bikes look nothing like LeMond’s red steel Bottecchia with its U-shaped bar, that was where it started.

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