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Lemond and Hinault: Together Again

lemondhinault1986

This is what I get for letting the blog go to hell. For three weeks, I’ve wanted to write a post featuring a photo of Tour de France greats Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond finishing the ride up Alpe D’Huez together, 27 years after their famous ride in competition. And now I can’t find the photo. Well, I’ll follow through with the overdue post anyway.

I’ve told the story before. And others can tell it better. But, just to review, American Greg Lemond rode his first Tour in 1984. At that time, only two cyclists had won the tour five times: Jacques Anquetil in 1957 and then again consecutively in 1961 and 1964, and Eddy Merckx in 1969 to 1972 and 1974. Hinault arrived on the scene soon thereafter, winning in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1982. Fellow Frenchman Laurent Fignon won in 1983 and 1984, with Hinault not competing in 1983 and second in 1984. Lemond finished behind Fignon and Hinault in 1984 in his first Tour.

In 1985, the famous deal was struck: Lemond would ride as Hinault’s teammate and help him win his fifth. In return, Hinault would support Lemond the next year.

That’s when I arrived on the scene, not that anyone was paying attention. I won’t tell this story at length again. It’s somewhere in the Ron’s View archives. Suffice to say that Gail and I were on our honeymoon, visiting my sister in Paris, watching the Tour on her TV as it arrived in the city on the final day, coming down the Seine just a few hundred meters away. I suddenly realized I could be out there with them. Off we raced, across the Seine and up to the Champs-Elysées. We were eight deep, maybe ten, as the peloton whizzed by, doing its final laps. And there was Bernard Hinault in his yellow jersey, about to win his coveted fifth Tour, with Lemond at his side. A Tour devotee was created that day.

The next year was to be Lemond’s. But once the Tour started, it emerged that Hinault had other ideas. There’s a whole book about this Tour, Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France , by Richard Moore. I haven’t read it, but I have read Moore’s short account of the climactic day, when the Tour arrived at the famous climb of Alpe d’Huez (which, by the way, we climbed by car in October 2009, as I have written about elsewhere, during a visit to Grenoble to see Joel; we rented a car, drove out to Le Bourg-d’Oisans, and then up the famous switchbacks to the resort).

As the Tour entered its third and final week it seemed that their battle for the race’s yellow jersey would be decided on Alpe d’Huez. LeMond had ousted Hinault from the race leader’s yellow jersey the previous day, following which, according to team owner Bernard Tapie, the two riders were “at each other’s throats” until 4am.

On the day of the Alpe d’Huez stage, Hinault launched further attacks on the first climb, the Col du Galibier. But LeMond, realising the Tour was slipping away from him, chased and caught him, in the process blowing away the rest of the opposition.

And so the team-mates ride together to the base of the Alpe…

Entering the human corridor, Hinault leads, LeMond follows. “The crowd is massive,” Hinault will later write in his autobiography, “and they are chanting my name. Greg looks worried; I tell him to stay behind me, that it will be OK, that I know how to deal with the crowd.”

An estimated 300,000 people pack the slopes, creating an extraordinary natural amphitheatre, forming a “squalid, manic shambles”.

Hinault and LeMond proceed steadily through banks of braying fans, who have waited all day, perhaps several days, for their fleeting glimpse of the race. No wonder their excitement is at fever pitch; they’re seeing the national hero and the yellow jersey tearing the race – if not each other – to pieces. The fleeting nature of their exposure to the action only makes the experience more intense. In the circumstances, LeMond seems content to follow Hinault, rather than to set the pace himself, or, as payback for Hinault’s repeated attacks over the previous two weeks, to give him a taste of his own medicine by attacking him.

Yet there is no visible evidence of their enmity. On the contrary, LeMond and Hinault appear, for the first time in two weeks, united. For once Hinault is not snarling; his expression tells of the effort rather the anger that fuels him. The impression of unity is confirmed as they proceed up in tandem, riding through the throngs of supporters, the majority of whom are French and cheering their hero, Hinault, urging him to a record sixth Tour victory. It is as though they don’t even see LeMond. They spill into the road, clearing at the last second to leave only a narrow, handlebar-wide passage for the two riders.

All the time, Hinault leads and LeMond follows. It seems a truce has been called. For hairpin after hairpin, the order doesn’t alter. Neither does the steady pace; theirs is one of the slowest ‘winning’ ascents of Alpe d’Huez in Tour history. Hinault is at the front, pedalling like a metronome; LeMond just behind him, as though the American is hiding in the Frenchman’s shadow. Perhaps he is.

But fear also weighed on LeMond’s mind and influenced his thinking. “I was worried,” he says now. “I was thinking of Eddy Merckx, who was punched in his side. I was thinking there could be someone out there…there was such strong feeling out there. It was so frenzied. And I’m racing against France’s best-known athlete.”

“I kept telling him to stay behind,” says Hinault. “There was absolutely no need for him to go and wear himself out on the climb. We were six minutes ahead. I told him, ‘you stay calm, don’t panic, and we go to the finish together.’”

At the plateau, as the road levels, LeMond puts in the smallest of accelerations to emerge, for the first time since the valley, from Hinault’s shadow. He pulls alongside his team-mate while Hinault turns and looks at him almost indulgently. LeMond reaches out to touch his shoulder and then puts his arm around Hinault. LeMond smiles. Hinault smiles. They exchange a few words, chatting as though they are out for a leisurely ride. As one speaks the other nods; they smile, and nod again, and carry on riding side-by-side.

Then they join hands in joint celebration, before Hinault moves slightly ahead to cross the line first, for his twenty-sixth stage win, a haul that puts him behind only Merckx in the all-time list.

This year’s Tour was the hundredth, in honor of which historic sites were visited, Tour greats showed up, and astonishing stage routes were designed, none more so than stage 18 with its double climb to Alpe d’Huez. Up the riders went, only to descend the other side, circle around, and go up again to the finish. The day was as dramatic as anticipated, and crucial to Chris Froome’s ultimate overall victory.

But that’s not the story of this post. Rather, I want to highlight the ride that took place earlier in the day, one of many beautiful moments this year, as Hinault and Lemond relived their 1986 climb. Alas, I can’t find the photo I saw that day. Well, there’s this low resolution version, put side-by-side with the historic photo at the top. It will have to do.

lemondhinault2013

Oh, and there’s this official video, with English narration that blocks out some of the French being spoken by Lemond.

By the way, Lemond would probably have been the fourth to win five Tours if not for being shot in a hunting accident by his brother-in-law before the 1987 Tour. He won in 1989 (over Fignon in the great final-day time trial) and again in 1990. Come 1991, he had slipped, and Miguel Indurain began his reign, winning the first of five consecutive Tours. Speaking of which, here’s a photo of another wonderful moment from this year’s Tour, taken on the final day in Paris.

tourgreats

The Tour organizers had the three living five-time winners and Lemond ride into Paris together behind the competitors. That’s Merckx in the passenger seat and Indurain directly above him.

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