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IT'S A WEEK AFTER BASTILLE DAY.

 

Few cities change face quite like Paris when summer arrives. Every spare square metre of public space becomes a picnic blanket. Tourists and Parisians sit uncorking bottles in the parks and along the ponts while solitary left bankers hang off the quais pretending to read Baudelaire. The city is gradually preparing for its mass August exodus to the Cote d’Azur. There’s a lingering stench of rosé and gauloises in the air and the familiar sight of rillette and camembert being spread across crusty baguettes.

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AND THE TOUR WAS IN TOWN.

Paris has long held a lukewarm, almost disinterested relationship with sport. Its major football team, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), wasn’t founded until 1970 and was largely irrelevant until the mid-1980s. As a comparison, London has more than 10 professional clubs. Stade Français, its leading rugby side, went most of the 20th century without winning a title. To an extent times have changed, although the Tour remains one of few sporting events to captivate the city.

 

From its foundation, the Tour has always finished in the Paris area albeit until 1975 it regularly concluded in a velodrome or at the Parc de Princes (home of the aforementioned PSG) in the outskirts of the city. It was in 1975 that it became a true city event and handed its prestigious Champs-Élysées finish.

 

In terms of overall classification, the last day in the Tour is now effectively a dead rubber. It’s champagne cycling for the leaders, and a chance for one last burst of thigh busting glory for the sprinters. There have been few occasions when the final day really mattered. 1989 was one of them. To Laurent Fignon’s huge cost.

 

Fignon had won the Tour in 1983 and 1984. Only one French rider, Bernard Hinault in 1985, has won since. Even excluding the events of 21 July 1989, Fignon may have won more titles had it not been for a knee injury sustained in 1985.

 

On that historic day in July, he lay 50 seconds ahead of nearest rival, Greg LeMond. The title was practically sealed despite the caliber of Fignon’s pursuer – LeMond had become the first American rider to win the Tour in 1986. Make that first and last. Like Fignon, he was battling back from a setback. In Le Mond’s case, it was a life-threatening injury sustained turkey hunting in 1987. He was 20 minutes from bleeding to death after being hit by over 60 pellets. The recovery was long, slow and arduous. A bit like the three-week Tour.

 

The stench of rosé may have permeated Paris, but champagne definitely wasn’t on the menu. There was still work to be done. Despite this, Fignon may have been thought victory was a fait accompli, reportedly congratulating LeMond on second place before the final day time trial. What is true is that the French newspapers had already crowned their champion.

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After 3,260 kms of cycling, Fignon led by 50 seconds. A 24.5km time trial was all that remained. Fignon’s confidence was natural.

Today Grand Tour cycling is defined by tactics and ‘marginal gains’. Watching the footage from 1989 offers a fresh breeze of individuality, freedom and perhaps an endearing dose of naivety. Starting the time trial, the two athletes didn’t look like they were competing in the same sport never mind race. LeMond has the look and build of today’s climbers. Lean, angular, kitted in classic 1980s hi-vis, sitting in his aerodynamic position, on his then ‘weird aero bars’, in his aero helmet and sleek sunglasses. He has come to ride a time trial. And win it. 

 

Aerobars in 1989 were reserved for ‘strange’ triathlete types. And while Tour rules at the time only allowed a cyclist to adopt three resting positions (handlebars, pedals and saddle), LeMond’s elbow resting pads and aerobars were uncontested. Perhaps another sign of the spirit of the era. 

 

On the other hand, Fignon – a great time trialist in his own right – may have been offering the last glimpse of the yesteryear look. A slightly receding ponytail and round, studious glasses made him look, even then, like somebody who had signed up for Sunday Gran Fondo. He opted not to wear a helmet, for bullhorn handlebars and disc wheels, the front slightly smaller. 

 

LeMond’s nod to technology was probably seen as quirky, faddish. Marginal gains and sport science still lightyears away. All these tweaks seemed unlikely to help the American overturn 50 seconds. Even LeMond’s wife Kathy only gave him 1% chance of success. 

 

As was protocol, LeMond as second overall, was the penultimate starter from Versailles. He elected not to receive updates from the course. No distractions, man against the clock. As yellow jersey holder, hometown hero Fignon commenced last, a few minutes later.

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Fignon crossed the line stretching every sinew of muscle, collapsing to the ground and dumping his bike as if he’d had one last, fatal argument with it. His pursuit had been brave. But futile.

On route to Paris, LeMond passed all of the check points in first place. The fastest of the 136 riders on the course at that stage. He averaged 34 mph (57 km/h), setting the pace for the fastest ever Tour time trial. A marker had been laid. He looked focused, rarely out of position, and glided through the tunnels along the side of the Seine, passed the Eiffel Tower towards the Place de la Concorde and the mythical finish. 

 

Fignon’s pace was decent but he looked to be using all his reserves, perhaps distracted by the regular race updates and folly from the crowd. As the race grew he was frequently caught out of his saddle, and pedaling less elegantly than the American. Fatigue was setting in. Going into the race, Fignon felt he had worked harder during the Tour than LeMond, who he believed had hung back and saved his energy. It was a bone of contention. 

 

LeMond crossed in 26 minutes, 57 seconds. It left Fignon, ponytail flapping in the wind, needing to finish in 27 minutes, 47 seconds to retain yellow. Like aerodynamics, course data and communication wasn’t what it is now. Finishing, LeMond knew he was fast, but not sure if fast enough. 

 

Fignon crossed the line stretching every sinew of muscle, collapsing to the ground and dumping his bike as if he’d had one last, fatal argument with it. He reportedly asked if his time was enough but the sensation is he knew already. His pursuit had been brave. But futile. 

 

LeMond triumphed by eight seconds. Fignon, his yellow jersey blooded from that fall, had to be scraped from the pavement. A great cyclist, a true character who had won the race twice, would now become ‘the man who lost by eight seconds’. 

 

Studies since the race suggest even LeMond’s use of aerobars alone could have been worth an extra minute. Small margins, the ultimate gain. 

 

Fignon died from cancer in 2010. LeMond’s tribute was warm. “We were teammates, competitors, but also friends. He was a great person, one of the few that I find was really true to himself. He didn’t have an ego. He really knew himself.”