A celebration, that’s what the last stage of a Grand Tour ought to be.
A largely ceremonial procession through the streets of the capital for the survivors of three weeks of pain and suffering. The public rewarded by a sparkling circuit-based show and for the rider, if still feeling slightly fresh, there’ll be an opportunity to put themselves at the pointy end of the race, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes – just so friends, family and anyone else who knows their name has a chance to see them doing well.
There’s none of that if the organiser instead decides to have a time-trial on the last day. There’s no excitement, no intrigue and no tactics involved. The animals come past, one by one, and having been one of those animals, I can tell you all there is to look forward to is more pain and the loss of more brain cells. And it’s lonely knocking the crap out of yourself, by yourself, when you’ve been doing it for the previous three Sundays.
Everyone knows the TT specialists and a couple of the GC guys will ride flat out, but the stage result rarely changes anyone’s final overall position. It might if there’s an imbalance, like climber versus rouleur, but between guys closely matched, the status quo outcome is a given. Seems like a whole heap of bother for not much, if you ask me.
That’s how it looked for the 21st stage of the 1989 Tour de France. The outcome was decided, the 24.5km from Versailles to the Champs-Élysées a formality for Laurent Fignon. France would have another home victory.
The expectation was enormous but the reality was no one believed any different. The yellow jersey battle had been epic, moving from Fignon to Greg LeMond and back again on numerous occasions until finally the Frenchman had almost a minute lead after the mountains were done and everyone thought that was that. The journalists, the TV guys, the fans, everyone on the race, riders included, thought it was over. France was waiting to celebrate and Super U, Fignon’s team, had the after-Tour victory party booked.
All believed the podium places were set, all that is except LeMond. He hadn’t got the memo which said Tour success number three for the home town boy. A Parisian wearing the yellow jersey in Paris. What could be better for the city, the country, the Tour?
The only thing to add to that icing would be another French stage win. With that in mind, and to give Fignon some references, Super U had Thierry Marie ride the course like it was a prologue and the result was an average of over 54kph. All was looking good for another team stage win as the wind got up and challengers came and went.
Sitting in the top-15, I had the privilege of being in the select group that set off with two minute intervals between riders, though the reality was it was just drawing out the wait to see Fignon crowned champion.
I knew the roads from my amateur ACBB days so I had no excuses and I didn’t need them, as I felt crap from the moment I set off to the moment I finished. I could have said the wind was blowing harder, or it was bumpy on the cobbled climb to the Arc de Triomphe, but the level of motivation in my head was greater than the level of energy in my legs, so when I reached the finish, the three minute deficit I had to Marie was rather brutal. A minute every five miles in old money, and it was gently downhill with a tailwind until the Seine. The time-trial isn’t just lonely. It’s cruel too.
As I had started less than a quarter of an hour before the main event, I was still recovering and fending off questions from the mass of people in the finish area when the noise got considerably louder. LeMond had arrived way earlier than the 14 minutes which separated our respective start times and set the new benchmark of over 55kph.
Suddenly, the questions stopped. Everyone began to look at their watches and listen to the various radio and TV broadcasters on the whereabouts of the yellow jersey. Where is he? What’s happening? This might be close…
Nobody cared any longer for another French stage win. The time gaps being reported between Fignon and LeMond seemed to be widening with every update and still there was no sign of the pony-tailed Parisian. This was drastic, this wasn’t the script being followed, this wasn’t good – not just for Fignon but for the Tour, for France.
Then the yellow jersey appeared and just when you thought it couldn’t get any more anxious, it did. By a magnitude. I never knew such a collective of people could be so nervous and hold their breath for so long, but they did.
Then the screaming began. It was over, Greg LeMond had won the time-trial, the Tour and the three-week battle with Laurent Fignon. Paris was stunned, France was shocked. The headlines would have to be rewritten and the champagne put on hold.
I heard a small voice say: “What about the victory party? Will it be cancelled?”
I wasn’t sure if I felt happier for Greg or sadder for Laurent, but that seemed rather insignificant to the dazed look on most of the faces of people in the finish area. Some looked like they were going to cry.
The ride back to the hotel was an eerie affair, streets deserted, the air sucked out of the city.
Eight seconds was the difference. It must have felt like eight tonnes for Fignon.