The Greatest Tour

It is somehow fitting that the greatest and most exciting Tour de France of all stands alone as a stepping-stone between the era of a myth-heavy sport laden with tradition, to a bright, vibrant future.

Twenty years on, the 1989 Tour is defined by the battle between its two key protagonists, and particularly the decisive time trial on the Champs-Elysees.

Think of Greg LeMond in what seemed then achingly modern and cool fluorescent yellow with matching Oakley shades, as he used innovative technology – triathlon-style handlebars, to clinch the narrowest victory in Tour history.

Then consider Laurent Fignon, the proud Parisian who attacked throughout the race only to be undone on the final day. The sight of Fignon slumped exhausted, defeated, on the cobbles is equally enduring as those of LeMond yelling in delight.

There was more to the 1989 Tour than Lemond’s eight second victory. It was the greatest Tour not just because the lead swung from one to another, but because Fignon attacked and faltered, while LeMond ducked and dived. It was like watching a three-week boxing match. It was fire versus ice. It was also the only Tour in history where the other two riders on the podium – Fignon and Delgado – had won the Giro and Vuelta in the same year.

LeMond had been shot in a hunting accident in early 1987. He joined PDM in 1988 but his comeback was problematic. When it came to getting a contract for 1989 there weren’t many takers, certainly not at LeMond’s old prices.

The Belgian ADR team, sponsored by a haulage firm, stepped in. Their manager was Jose De Cauwer. “Greg was on the market. I won’t say it was without risk, but we got him for a small price. The boss of ADR offered him six million Belgian francs [around €150,000] as a salary. Then there was a bonus system.”

LeMond would get another six million if he rose to number one in the world. “He was down in 400th place, or something like that,” says De Cauwer. “So, no chance.”

LeMond would get six million for winning the World Championships. “Possible, but not probable.”

And he’d get six million for winning the Tour. “No way. Not because he wasn’t a classy rider, but not this year.”

“He ended up doing two out of three,” says De Cauwer with a laugh.

To read the rest of the 20-page special feature on the 1989 Tour, buy the new edition of Cycle Sport, in all good newsagents now