With Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon battling each other all the way to Paris, this dramatic edition of the race which was decided by seconds on the Champs-Élysées.
Calling anything or anyone the greatest is like Pooh Bear setting the Heffalump trap: you may not be aware of it, but you run the risk of coming a cropper. The epithet has to be put out there with care, arguments marshalled for when the pedants come to call. It's 30 years now since the greatest Tour de France ever. There are cases for others - 1986, 1979, 1998, 1964, 1971 - but all of us stake our claim somewhere. Mine is 1989.
The 1989 Tour de France proved that real life is richer than fiction: no one could have dreamed up the blend of scenarios that marked that race. Greg LeMond's win, the greatest comeback the sport has known. His battle with Laurent Fignon, the most suspenseful finish ever. The most intense three-way contest the race has witnessed, culminating in that finale between two greats of the sport, both of whom still have untarnished legacies. This was a battle of unflinching physical effort, with the two protagonists racing each other to a standstill at times. Neither was in the form of his greatest years, but their moments of weakness, ironically enough, would define the race. No Tour has ever offered the same range of plotlines. In 11 stages of the 21 something vital happened. It was a race of maximum intensity.
The 1989 Tour is remembered as a two-way battle between Fignon and Lemond, but their fight was enabled by one of the most outlandish incidents in the history of the race. At the prologue time trial in Luxembourg, the defending champion Pedro Delgado turned up late for his start and immediately dropped 2:40, then another 14 seconds out on the course. It was surreal, and the Spaniard never came up with an adequate explanation. He spent the following night fretting over his poor timekeeping and endured a nightmare in the next day's team time trial: by the time that was done, he was seven minutes off the pace. He would spend the rest of the Tour trying to make up that lost time - relatively successfully, as he ended up on the podium, 3:34 behind.
Delgado had more right than LeMond or Fignon to be considered the favourite. LeMond had not shown form of note in a grand tour since winning yellow in 1986 and there was no guarantee he would ever come back to his best after the hunting accident which almost cost him his life in 1987. He struggled through the Giro d'ltalia, coming close to abandoning before a series of iron injections cured a bout of anaemia. He had just ridden well in the Giro's final time trial, but a one-off like that was not the same as performing over three weeks. Fignon, on the other hand, won the Giro, taking revenge for the 1984 race when he considered he had been robbed by the organisers. He had, however, shown little in the way of consistency, finishing only 17th in the key mountain time trial up Monte Generoso, and struggling in rain and cold in the Dolomites. He had also been afflicted with the fallout from an old shoulder injury. He clung on to win from the Italian Flavio Giupponi, but was lightyears away from the dominant individual who had taken five stages en route to victory in the 1984 Tour. He spent three years fighting against inconsistent form since an operation for tendinitis at the start of 1985.
With Delgado out of the equation, the prologue time trial pointed to the future pattern of the race: Fignon and LeMond tied in second place behind Erik Breukink of the Netherlands. The second day underlined that Fignon's Super U team was far stronger than LeMond's ADR cycling team. The Belgian team was nicknamed Al de Restjes, roughly translated as the left-overs - in other words, the riders that no other team wanted. Their deal with LeMond had only been finalised around New Year 1989, by then, the 1986 Tour winner was ranked all of 345th in the world.
In the team time trial Super U were flying, with their leader enjoying a rare day when he felt like his 1984 self. He later wrote: "I could feel the power inside me, the power that was there on my best days. It was almost ecstasy, knowing that I had come back to the level of the very best like this." They gained 51 seconds on ADR.
After a couple of flattish stages and a long transfer west, round three suggested what LeMond might offer. He and Delgado both started the 73km stage 5 time trial - how marathon that seems now- an hour earlier than Fignon, and benefitted from drier, calmer conditions. LeMond put 56 seconds into Fignon while Delgado began his fightback by gaining 32 seconds on the Frenchman.
Here the big talking point of the race emerged: LeMond's use of handlebar extensions popularised by triathletes earlier in the 1980s. They weren't much cop for bike handling, but they offered substantial aerodynamic gains. LeMond had ridden poorly in the Tour de Trump, but he had seen the handlebars and wanted some; he hired their inventor, Boone Lennon of the Scott company (who was inspired by downhill skiers in the tuck position), to come to the Tour to set up his bike.
They were an American thing: the 7-Eleven team had trialled them in the Tour de Trump and on the morning of the TT, their management met the commissaires to get clearance for their use. They took a key advocate along - bike sponsor Eddy Merckx.
That was the New World approach. Fignon and his manager Cyrille Guimard thought differently: they weren't going to bring in new kit in the middle of the most important race of the season. It was, wrote Fignon, an "inviolable principle" of theirs. Sound thinking under normal circumstances, but on this occasion disastrous.
The Rennes time trial left LeMond in yellow, Fignon five seconds back, and that was how it lasted as far as the Pyrenees. Here, it was Delgado's Reynolds squad who were the aggressors. In a classic tactical move on the first stage to Cauterets, Reynolds sent a hulking young Navarran domestique called Miguel Indurain up the road on the Aubisque to act as a springboard for his leader. Indurain led the race by over six minutes at one point, but behind, Delgado barely profited, making a late attack to gain a few seconds. LeMond and Fignon finished together. Round four was another draw.
Laurent Fignon and Greg Lemond battle their way up the 1,800m to Superbagneres at the end of Stage 10. Photo: John Pierce. PhotoSport International.
Round five the next day to Superbagneres was where Delgado showed that, had it not been for his lapse on day one, he would probably have won the Tour. He bridged to an early escape featuring Charly Mottet and eventual stage winner Robert Millar, and gained over three minutes. Behind, Fignon was getting increasingly upset at LeMond's refusal to work with him in pursuit of the trio. Fignon was still not climbing at his best, but fired by anger, he made a last-ditch attack in the final kilometre to take yellow from LeMond by all of seven seconds.
That gave him round five, slenderly. The next morning LeMond confronted Fignon in the village depart. That, however, was the only aggressive move either of the pair made for four days as the race crossed the south of France to the foot of the Alps. Fignon ' s team-mate Vincent Barteau won the stage to Marseille, the 14 July stage run to the home of the French national anthem to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the revolution. With a Frenchman in yellow as well. Vive le Tour! Vive la France!
There were six days in the Alps, and the intensity ratcheted up notch by notch. First came the stage 15 mountain time trial, which was a repeat of Rennes: over the 39km, Fignon dropped 47 seconds to LeMond. Round six to LeMond, now in yellow by 40 seconds.
Two days later, after a rest day, the race headed over the Col d'Izoard to Briançon. Fignon was dropped by LeMond - the only time in the race that the American dislodged him on a climb, after fighting his way back several times to an elite lead group where Delgado was desperately trying to regain more lost time. That gave round seven to the American, who extended his lead to 53 seconds.
Next, Alpe d'Huez via the Galibier and Croix de Fer, where Fignon and Guimard decided on an all-or-nothing attack on the final climb. "To set the fires of hell ablaze", as Fignon put it. On the first hairpin, he attacked, once, twice, three times. "Bent over his bike, LeMond ripped himself to bits to get back to me. Then it was his turn to attack. I went again; a few seconds later he was at my side. It was a draw. We were unable to take another breath or put any weight on the pedals."
Six kilometres from the top of the Alpe, Guimard came alongside Fignon to tell him that LeMond was struggling. Fignon was still recovering but made his move two kilometres later. Guimard had been right: his leader put 20 seconds a kilometre into LeMond to the finish. "If I'd gone when Guimard had told me to, the Tour would have been won." Round eight to Fignon, who was back in the lead by 26 seconds. Yet he knew it would not be enough to guarantee victory in Paris. Hence the following day, Fignon went on the attack again, on the penultimate climb before the finish at Villard-de-Lans. He gained almost a minute before hitting a headwind on the final ascent. Even so, he won the stage by 24 seconds. "That evening, there was euphoria. I was sure I had won the Tour", he said. Round nine to Fignon.
The Super U leader's unpredictable form was on the up, but he then made a fatal decision. Over the smaller sub Alpine ascents en route to Aix-les-Bains on stage 19, he was flying, with "wings on his feet" he recalled. "On the Col de Porte, each time I led around a hairpin, I gained 10 metres." At one point, he attacked without realising it, and opened a gap, then sat up. There were 70km to the finish; the old Fignon would have gone for it. Merckx or Hinault would have gone for it. But this was the post-op Fignon, no longer young and carefree. He opted to play for safety. In Aix-les-Bains, the five strongest riders fought out the stage win: LeMond won, but gained no time. Let's call round 10 a draw.
Which left the immortal final stage into Paris. Fignon, weakened by a sore on his groin which left him barely able to sit - not just on the saddle of his bike, but on anything versus LeMond, who believed he could still win and had the help of those triathlon bars. Fignon was convinced he could not lose; he reckoned it would take the American 50km to gain the minute he needed to win. LeMond had 24.5km from Versailles to the Champs-Élysées to do it.
They started two minutes apart. Five kilometres in, Guimard told Fignon he had lost six seconds. He stopped pedalling and looked, incredulously, at the team car. After that, Guimard gave him no further information. LeMond received no time checks at all. But the maths made it clear to onlookers that it was going the American's way. Gradually the seconds mounted up until, 4.5km from the finish, LeMond was 45 seconds ahead. He finished first and was followed by Fignon: he was 58 seconds behind LeMond and was going to lose by next to nothing.
Greg Lemond starts the famous ITT, in the closest tour in history, Lemond rode an average speed of 54.55 km/h (34.52 mph) on maximum gear of 55 x 12 gear. Lemond still owns this Bottecchia TT bike from this historic stage. Photo: John Pierce PhotoSport International.
In a televisual moment worthy of Alan Partridge, the French broadcaster gave LeMond headphones and tried to interview him in the critical final moments. He could not hear the questions because of the din from the delirious crowd. As veteran American writer Sam Abt wrote: "As it became clear that Fignon would not finish in time, LeMond began punching the air with his fists, one uppercut after another."
LeMond's face creased in ecstasy, his hand crushing a bottle of mineral water: it is one of Tour history's defining images. The greatest Tour ever had ended: round 11 to LeMond; game, set and match. LeMond followed up his Tour win with victory in the 1989 World Championships a few weeks later, repeating his duel with Fignon on the Cote de la Montagnole, high above Chambery.
A monstrously large contract with the Z-Peugeot team, cycling's first seven-figure deal, was his reward.
What of his fallen rival? Fignon was never the same again, but don't believe those stories that he never went back to the Champs-Élysées. Together with photographer Graham Watson, I took him there after his retirement in 1993. I will never forget the hunch in his back as he posed in his garish tartan coat. He didn't look happy. And who can blame him? That afternoon turned him from the man who won two Tours into the man who lost the Tour by eight seconds. Fignon retired in 1993. in the late 90s and early 2000s who took over the organisation of Paris-Nice.
He died tragically young, in August 2010, at 50.
I have an enduring (and not at all bitter) grudge against the 1989 Tour. I began reporting on the Tour in 1990, the year after the epic, with the 2017 race my last.
There were various reasons I kept going. One was that I hoped that I might witness and of Tour history's report on three weeks that would be on a par with the 1989 Epic. Sorry, lndurain, Chiappucci, Ullrich, Armstrong, Wiggins and Froome: you never cut it.
My sentiments are small beer. Imagine how it felt for Jean-Marie Leblanc, who took the helm at the Tour organisers in 1989 and then faced the impossible task of creating the race every year in the shadow of the ultimate duel. He never staged another time trial on the Champs-Élysées.
Nothing could ever come close to 1989, and nothing probably ever will.
Subscription offer: If you enjoyed reading this fantastic piece of writing by William Fotheringham, why not subscribe to Procycling magazine?
During April 2020, you can grab five issues of Europe's number one professional cycling magazine for just £5, $5 or €5 by following this link.
The La Vie Claire retro jersey was our best-selling cycling jersey of an unforgettable 2020. For the first time ever, the Mondrian inspired jersey came out ahead of the three-time winner the San Pellegrino jersey with the consistent Molteni Arcore jersey in third.