Greg LeMond was only twenty-three years old in 1984, when he rode his first Tour. Riding for French teams, he competed very successfully thereafter. In 1985 he might have won it, except that his team leadership instructed him to ride in support of the French star Bernard “The Badger” Hinault. With LeMond’s help, Hinault won his fifth Tour, the third rider in Tour history to do so. The next year, 1986, Hinault promised to support LeMond to victory. He betrayed that pledge, and only his blowing up on a tough Pyrenean stage allowed LeMond to regain control of the race. Their famed hand-in-hand finish at L’Alpe d’Huez was pure show. LeMond never trusted The Badger but beat him on sheer talent and will. In 1989 Laurent Fignon was LeMond’s French rival. Fignon had won the race in 1983 and 1984, but had been dogged by various knee problems and other injuries. He was back in form in ’89, but so was LeMond, recovering from his own physical problems. This neck-and-neck tussle was settled only on the final day, as LeMond took back 58 seconds in a Versailles-Paris time trial to win by 8 seconds! He then again nipped Fignon and a couple of others at the World Championships two months later.
So Greg LeMond personally presided over the demise of the last two French Tour champions. In the last quarter-century no Frenchman has seriously contended for overall victory in what is supposed to be the French national race. There have been some fine French riders, albeit somewhat flawed, notably Richard Virenque, twice on the podium and seven-time Mountains champion at the Tour, but also at the core of the 1998 Festina team drug scandal; Laurent Jalabert, great all-rounder, twice Tour Sprint champion and twice Mountains champ; Christophe Moreau, a solid rider but winner only of smaller races; and even Thomas Voeckler, French Road Race champion in 2004 and 2010. That’s not much to cheer about for a nation who gave the Tour heroic winners from Maurice Garin (1903) through Henri Pelissier (1923), Antonin Magni (1934), Jean Robic (1947), Louison Bobet (1953), Jacques Anquetil, and many, many others, the most in the Tour.
So Sylvain Chavanel’s win today in the first mountain stage of 2010 may give the French some hope. He’s ridden solidly in the race since 2005, won a stage in 2008, and this is his second stage win this year. At 31, though, he doesn’t have much time left to lift his skill level to the level of overall contention for victory. Still, this was a fine day for him, and an interesting outing while we wait for the major contenders to find steeper climbs to differentiate themselves from the pack. That may happen on the last climb tomorrow. Or it may wait until a week from tomorrow at Ax-3-Domaines, the second most challenging mountain stage of the Tour.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.