This is the story of the epic 1989 Tour de France. 30 years have passed since these events took place. I thought I remembered them all but Nige Tassel’s fascinating memoir of the race proved me wrong. There were so many twists and turns I had forgotten and which this book allowed me to recall and relive.
I remember watching the highlights coverage of this race on TV first time around. Back then Phil Liggett was heading up the coverage on Channel 4 and the daily episodes were introduced by the iconic Tour De France theme tune penned by Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks fame (see below link). The exciting climax to the race is the reason why I still follow it every year even now. This book tells the story of the epic duel between Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon, but it also covers so much more of the forgotten history.
In the years since 1989, cycling has grown ever more popular as a sport in the U.K. Certainly us Brits took a bit more notice in the 1990s when Chris Boardman won a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics and then won a few stages of the Tour De France. Since then British cycling has seen unprecedented success both on the track and on the road. There was no British winner for the first 109 years of the Tour De France. Subsequently we have seen an embarrassment of riches, with wins from 3 different British riders starting with Bradley Wiggings in 2012, through 4 Chris Froome wins and a very popular Geraint Thomas win in 2018. Back in 1989 such success for British riders in the biggest bike race in the world was only a pipe dream. The French however were regular winners and they fully expected this to continue. Their journey has been equally surprising as they have failed to win their own famous race since 1985. This only heightens the importance of the events which took place in 1989.
For the uninitiated the headline is that Greg Lemond won the 1989 Tour De France by 8 seconds. As ever the devil is in the detail. This is a 3 week long grand tour cycle race covering 3,285 kilometres or 2,041 miles. There were 198 riders on the starting line, made up of 22 teams of 9 riders. In this context 8 seconds is a vanishingly small winning margin and indeed it remains the smallest by some distance.
Pedro Delgado was the pre race favourite as he was the defending champion. His must be one of the least successful title defences in the history of any major sporting event. He turned up almost 3 minutes late for his start time in the prologue individual time trial and rendered victory almost impossible on day 1. As for Lemond it was amazing that he even made the start line. Whilst he had won the Tour in 1986 he had missed the next 2 after being shot and almost killed in a hunting accident in 1987 and having to undergo 2 lots of surgery. He was not expected to climb back to the pinnacle of professional cycling. Laurent Fignon on the other hand was supremely confident of victory. Indeed it may well have been his over confidence that was ultimately his downfall. He was 50 seconds ahead of Lemond going into the final day individual time trial. As that stage was only 15.2 miles long, Lemond was not expected to make up the deficit. Lemond however was an early adopter of technological advancements including aerodynamic handlebars and carbon fibre frames. On the other hand all Fignon had to accompany him on his ride into tour history was a Gallic shrug and that famous pony tail. In the event Lemond completed the fastest individual time trial in tour history up to that point and even with the benefit of going out last Fignon was 58 seconds slower, costing him victory and allowing Lemond to win by the titular 8 seconds over 3 weeks of racing.
In the end it is difficult to sum up the key message of Tassell’s book any better than he does himself by borrowing from The Bard. The book quotes Henry V in stating “Tis best to weigh the enemy more mighty than he seems”. If the French are to turn round their now decades long decline in cycling performances they will do well to heed this advice. On the evidence of this book however, Nige Tassell has nothing to worry about, as his writing goes from strength to strength.