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Tour de France: final day time-trials and the legacy of Greg LeMond

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Compared to years gone by, today’s time-trials are few in number and short in length. But that doesn’t mean they are any less crucial for a successful challenge for the Tour

Photographs: Offside/L'Equipe

The 2017 Tour de France riders face just 36.5km against the clock, continuing the modern trend of keeping time-trials short and sweet.

 

Contrast this with the 1984 edition, won by Laurent Fignon: 196km split over five stages, of which the Frenchman won two individually, his super-strong Renault team also taking the team test into Valenciennes.

 

Should one of the current crop of promising homegrown talent emerge as a great time-triallist, it’s easy to imagine Christian Prudhomme reversing the process to increase the likelihood of a first French Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in ’85, but don’t hold your breath.

 

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What this year’s route does contain, however, is a delicately 22.5km placed time-trial stage on the very last day before the roll on towards the Champs-Élysées. It’s a stage that will surely prove decisive in the overall GC contest: if a TT specialist can stay within touching distance of the pure climbers until Marseille, then they could well seize the Tour.

 

Prudhomme and his route planners no doubt had just such an upset in mind when designing the 2013 edition, placing a decidedly lumpy 32km test from Embrun to Chorges in the final week to set up a battle royale between those remaining in contention.

 

Chris Froome, Tour de France 2013 – Stage 17, Time Trial (Embrun to Chorges)

On the day, it merely served to underline Chris Froome’s dominance, as he took the stage and dealt yet another psychological blow to his nearest challengers, Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger. The twin-pronged Tinkoff-Saxo attack crumbled from there on, to be replaced by Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez on the podium in Paris. The mountain time-trial was an unheralded yet important strand of Froome’s comprehensive victory that year. He would not be broken. The rest were scrapping for his leftovers.

 

But the ultimate psychological blow in Tour history remains Greg LeMond’s turnover of Fignon’s 50-second lead in the Paris time-trial to win the 1989 Tour with the narrowest margin ever – a scant eight seconds. It was a blow from which Fignon would never fully recover, despite the passage of time.

 

“I remember seeing Fignon in Briançon in 2007,” LeMond remembers, “and he said ‘this is where I lost 13 seconds; this is where I lost the Tour. And I said: ‘Well, you didn’t use TT bars – that’s where you lost it.’”

1989 Tour de France – Greg LeMond celebrates, Laurent Fignon commiserates. 

It was a dramatic three weeks from beginning to end, opening with defending champion Pedro Delgado missing his start time in the prologue, losing more than two and a half minutes before he’d even crossed the line.

 

Fignon’s powerful Super U team put 51 seconds into LeMond’s ADR squad in the team time trial the following day. The American waited until stage 5, a 73km test from Dinard to Rennes, to unleash his secret weapon – clip-on bars. The equipment commissaires passed them as fit for purpose, despite protests from Super U’s team boss – and LeMond’s former employer – Cyrille Guimard. The aerodynamic pioneer turned a 51-second deficit into a slim five-second advantage.

 

Fignon would retake the lead six stages later and held yellow by a still-tantalisingly narrow margin of seven seconds. And then, the mountain time-trial to Orcières Merlette turned everything on its head.

 

LeMond had done his homework on the stage and chose his equipment accordingly. “If it was a 70km time-trial, it wasn’t always easy, but we would always try and do a recon. Sometimes we would drive it.

1989 Tour de France – Laurent Fignon on the final stretch of the time-trial.

“There was a fairly flat section on that stage and the bars weighed next to nothing. Even if it’s a couple of seconds, it all helps.”

 

LeMond ended the day with more than a couple of seconds. He may not have won the stage – that went to Dutchman Steven Rooks – but his efforts on the climb to Orcières gave him a 50 second advantage over Fignon. The table had turned yet again.

 

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Fignon, so dominant in 1984’s time-trials in taking the second of his Tour victories, was no lesser force five years on, yet was comprehensively beaten by the American every time they raced against the clock. Did it really all come down to a set of clip-on bars?

 

Yes. And no. LeMond’s questioning and analytical mind challenged the conventional thinking so deeply ingrained in professional cycling. The scientific approach widely adopted by the modern peloton was rarely considered in the ’80s. Team Sky didn’t invent marginal gains. Greg LeMond did.

1989 Tour de France – LeMond approaches the Champs-Élysées.

Tradition dictated how riders approached time-trials, as their directeur sportifs handed down the (often incorrect) nuggets of wisdom gleaned from their own years in the saddle. “In the long time-trials, a lot of riders didn’t drink, but I did,” says LeMond.

 

And he held nothing back for that 39km time-trial, despite the daunting nature of the parcours. “When you start going over an hour and a half, you can’t sustain your max threshold – that takes a little more pacing – but usually you are trying to go straight away into close to what you can sustain for the whole race. When you’re in really great shape at the Tour, you should be pretty close to your Vo2 max ceiling without producing a lot of lactate. If you are fatigued from the race, there is more pain to it, but I never had that at the Tour.

 

“But aerodynamics is the most important thing, and I still see a lot riders getting it wrong. You’ve got to be able to apply force through the pedal. The position is critical.”

 

And so it proved back in 1989. LeMond’s aero helmet and clip-on bars, blazing down the finish straight in the Champs-Élysées, will long be remembered as the defining image of that year’s extraordinary race – a Tour where its two main protagonists were never separated by more than 53 seconds for the entire three weeks.

 

But the foundations for that narrowest of winning margins were laid on the road to Orcières Merlette. Dare we dream that the 22.5km through the streets of Marseille could produce such drama?