A lot can go right and wrong in a race that traverses thousands of miles.
Even the best athletes who compete in the Tour de France fall victim to mechanical errors, illness, crashes, or other weird hiccups. Any misfortune can easily shatter their hopes and leave them hopelessly out of reach of the coveted yellow jersey.
Usually, those factors stack up throughout the tour to create gaps of several minutes in the overall general classification time between the race’s winner and the chasers. Riders often cement their victories before they even arrive in Paris for the final stage of the race, barring a cataclysmic crash or mechanical issue.
In 1989, nothing could be further from the truth. After weeks of racing and an epic battle that saw the yellow jersey handed back and forth throughout the entire race, just seconds separated the winner from the second-place finisher.
An Epic Tour de France Battle Brews
Even before the Tour de France began in 1989, cyclists knew a showdown was fast approaching among three of the top riders in the world: American Greg LeMond, France’s Laurent Fignon, and Spaniard Pedro Delgado.
Delgado won the Tour de France the year before, so he was a key contender straight out of the gate.
Fignon won the Tour de France in 1983 and 1984 but had since fallen ill or suffered injuries that kept him out of the hunt for the yellow jersey. He’d recently proved he was on form to take a third title with a win at the 1989 Giro d’Italia just months before.
Greg LeMond found himself more of a question mark ahead of the race. LeMond took the yellow jersey at the Tour de France in 1986. He was the first American to do so and was on track to become a U.S. cycling superstar, the likes of which had never been seen.
However, in 1987, LeMond suffered a horrific hunting injury that nearly ended his career and life. LeMond was shot in the back with a shotgun, leaving him peppered with lead. He slowly built back his strength to enter competitive cycling again, but the impacts of his injuries were noticeable.
LeMond struggled in stages of the Giro d’Italia, and reportedly told confidants and relatives that he was all but ready to give up cycling.
Whether LeMond would be ready for the challenges of the Tour de France, if Delgado could repeat the success of the year before, and whether Fignon could claim a third yellow jersey all remained to be seen.
Flurries of speculation and conjecture erupted in the days leading up to the tour. But when it finally began, the picture rapidly sharpened.
1989 Tour de France Day One
The 1989 Tour de France began with a 5-mile prologue time trial in which riders set out alone to race for position against the clock.
Of the three men in the spotlight, LeMond hit the road first. He made a statement on the opening stage with a time of just more than 10 minutes, putting him in second place. At the end of LeMond’s run, he was behind only Erik Breukink, who edged him out by about 6 seconds.
However, Fignon also put down a scorcher of a time trial shortly after and bumped LeMond into third place by a fraction of a second. Ireland’s Sean Kelly also barely beat LeMond in a later run, pushing him to fourth place.
Still, at the end of the first day, it was clear that both LeMond and Fignon came to race. But the real drama encircled Delgado. Delgado had the final start time of the day as the previous tour winner. As his start time approached, however, he was nowhere to be found.
Whether racers begin at their assigned time or not, the clock starts ticking.
After missing his start time by 2 minutes and 42 seconds, Delgado finally took to the course. The error marked yet another dramatic episode for Delgado, who had battled allegations of doping in the 1988 Tour de France and bribing another rider in the Tour of Spain.
Still, Delgado, who asserted his innocence, ground out his run to finish in last place.
The Early Lead
With Fignon and LeMond opening their tours with solid performances, Delgado faced a tremendous challenge from the outset. Pulling back enough time would take multiple stages of the race, and nobody intended to just give it to him. He would have to stay on his game the entire race if he hoped to make a comeback.
He did himself no favors in the first several stages, including another individual time trial and a team time trial inside the first five stages, in which Delgado lost more time. By the beginning of Stage 5, Delgado was 10 minutes off the pace of the race leader Acacio Da Silva.
Meanwhile, both Fignon and LeMond continued to grind out efforts that kept them at the top of the standings.
At Stage 5, another time trial, LeMond appeared at the start of the race using aero bars that had never been seen at the tour before. Now ubiquitous, the bars were controversial at the time. Judges, however, ruled that they were allowed. In the aerodynamic position the bars allowed, LeMond pushed to the front to win the stage and the yellow jersey for the first time. It would not be the last.
Stages 7 and 8 pushed the riders through heavy rain, followed by a dash through the hilly Armagnac at the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Stage 9 marked a serious test for LeMond. He had excelled in time trials and held fast to the yellow jersey since stage five. However, how he would perform in the mountains remained unknown. Delgado, a renowned climber, planned to use mountainous stages as the key venues where he could creep back toward the front of the pack from his last-place position at the prologue.
Delgado powered through the day’s climbs to finish second, but LeMond also showcased a solid performance that allowed him to keep the yellow jersey for the fourth consecutive stage of the race.
Stage 10, another romp through the mountains, proved to be hectic. Fignon struggled, while Delgado appeared to remain on form to clinch another second-place stage finish. LeMond, who had 5 seconds on Fignon, also seemed to be in difficulty but hung with Fignon for most of the stage,
Near the end of the stage, Fignon attacked and dropped LeMond, finding the 5 seconds he needed to close the gap and then some. Fignon took the yellow jersey for the first time in the race.
By the Stage 15 mountain time trial, Delgado pulled back to just 2 minutes and 53 seconds behind the yellow jersey. It proved he’d made good use of his time in the mountains. LeMond found himself 7 seconds behind Fignon ahead of the stage. On top of his aerodynamic bike, he put down another impressive time trial performance in which he beat Fignon by 47 seconds. LeMond once again snagged the yellow jersey.
LeMond extended his overall lead to 53 seconds over Fignon during Stage 16, while Delgado still struggled to find the nearly 3 minutes he needed to close the gap between himself and the race leaders.
But LeMond couldn’t hold Fignon off forever. Fignon staged an attack in the closing miles of Stage 17 that sent him across the finish line third.
LeMond, however, finished in fifth place at nearly a minute and a half behind Fignon. The gap yet again saw the yellow jersey change hands to Fignon. At the end of the stage, Fignon had a 26-second lead on LeMond in the general classification.
He had no intention of letting it go.
The Battle to the Bitter End of the 1989 Tour de France
Fignon attacked again on Stage 18. He showed confidence and power deep into the 3-week race. He won the stage and pulled another 24 seconds ahead, leaving him with a total cumulative time of 50 seconds over LeMond.
The day led almost everyone to count LeMond out. The large deficit was not impossible to overcome, but with only three stages left, it would take something just shy of a miracle.
LeMond won Stage 19, but Fignon was right behind, leading to no change in the time gap. After a flat course built for sprinters for the penultimate day of racing, Fignon and LeMond squared up in Versailles for the final time-trial dash to Paris for Stage 21.
The final time trial was just over 15 miles long, leaving an extremely short distance for LeMond to close the gap to Fignon. The odds were not at all in his favor. He needed to be perfect to beat Fignon, who was confident in the lead he had built before the final day.
At this point, Delgado had worked his way back to third place. Still down by more than 2 minutes, he had no hope of winning but showed that despite his early deficit, he was still as strong as ever.
As Fignon held the yellow jersey, LeMond left the start gates toward Paris. Fignon followed 2 minutes later. LeMond had to find more than 50 seconds to claim the yellow jersey. Fignon had only to hold on.
Once again gripping his unique aero bars, LeMond flew through the course. He hit record-breaking speeds that sometimes reached up to 40 mph. LeMond nearly caught Delgado, who started 2 minutes ahead. When he crossed the finish line at 26 minutes and 57 seconds, all he could do was look back and wait for the silhouette of Fignon to appear.
Fignon hammered the pedals, pouring everything he had into the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées, but it wasn’t enough.
Fignon crossed the line at 27 minutes and 55 seconds, losing his lead in the general classification to LeMond by just 8 seconds. It was the smallest margin for victory the tour had ever seen.
Fignon collapsed to the ground in despair after the finish line, and LeMond celebrated one of the greatest comebacks in the history of cycling.