Even after three weeks of racing and a few thousand kilometers in the legs, sprinkled with some of the most vertiginous climbs known to man, the Tour de France can be settled by just a handful of seconds.
With the Tour de France 2023 just coming into view, let’s take a look at the 5 most dramatic finishes in Tour de France history:
- 1989: LeMond Snatches Yellow in Paris
- 2020: The Slovenian Slogfest
- 2019: In-House Rivalry at Ineos
- 2003: Armstrong’s “Drive For Five”
- 1987: Roche Doubles Up
A quick note about this list: we’ve focussed on the modern era of the race where the drama is beamed across the world for all cycling fans to see.
Earlier, pre-televised races were no less epic, but their magic lived largely in the newspaper columns of the time and in the memories of those who witnessed them.
1989 Tour de France: LeMond Snatches Yellow in Paris
The 1989 Tour de France regularly tops pundits’ roundups as the greatest Tour of all time.
Breaking from the traditional Champagne-soaked jolly into Paris, the last stage of the 1989 Tour de France featured a 24 km time trial from Versailles to the iconic Champs-Elysees, where Tour de France champions are crowned.
Going into the last stage, only fifty seconds separated Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond – with few pundits giving LeMond a chance of making up that time across the short course.
Fignon’s victory seemed written in the stars. The Parisian stood to claim the Tour de France in his hometown, on a route that paid homage to the storming of the Bastille 200 years before.
By the end of the day, LeMond was on the top step in the maillot jaune. After 3,285 km of racing, only eight seconds separated the two men, leaving frantic journalists in a rush to change their copy before their deadlines.
LeMond’s daring raid marked the point when teams started to take aerodynamics much more seriously. LeMond’s innovative time trial handlebars would have looked alien at the time but they played a vital part in hunting down Fignon.
LeMond’s victory – not just the most astonishing comeback in the Tour but one of the greatest sporting comebacks full stop – is even more remarkable when you consider that two years before he barely survived a hunting accident.
If a shotgun couldn’t keep him down, he would hardly worry about a mere fifty seconds.
- “The Greatest Tour Of Them All”: The Agony And Ecstasy of Greg Lemond’s Legendary 1989 Tour de France Victory
2020 Tour de France: The Slovenian Slogfest
The main story of the 2020 Tour de France, taking place against the backdrop of Covid-19, looked to be the handing of the baton from Team Ineos to Jumbo-Visma.
Jumbo-Visma had taken the peloton-smashing, somewhat robotic tactics of Team Ineos and added a touch of Dutch total football. They looked unstoppable as they marauded through France protecting their leader, the Slovenian Primož Roglič.
Throughout the race, his young compatriot Tadej Pogačar probed and prodded at Roglič, taking a couple of stage wins in the process, but without penetrating Jumbo-Visma’s vice-like grip on the race lead.
That was until the penultimate stage, a hilly 36.2 km time trial. Roglič held a commanding fifty-seven-second lead. Comfortable, especially for a time trial specialist like Roglič, but not out of sight.
Against the clock, it is every man for themselves. Just your legs and your bike with no team coming to your rescue.
After 144 other riders had gone down the start ramp, all eyes were on the two Slovenians.
Pogačar rolled down the ramp and set a blistering pace from the off. In those long two minutes, as Roglič waited for the pips, he perhaps knew that this would be his last day in yellow.
At the first checkpoint Pogačar was already thirteen seconds up on Roglič. Whilst Pogačar was tearing up the tarmac, Roglič was rolling and looking nothing like the defending Olympic champion.
Pogačar chewed his way through the time gaps and was thirty seconds ahead of Roglič at the end of the flat section. Roglič still had twenty-one seconds in the GC bank, but things went from bad to worse on the steep slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles.
This wasn’t the same man who methodically soared across the Alps and the Pyrenees. With every pedal stroke, he lost time to Pogačar.
By the time he crossed the line, he was down almost two minutes on Pogačar and more importantly down one yellow jersey that he had held since Stage 9.
Even if you had not seen the stage, the figure of Roglič as he hobbled across the line – helmet pushed up and to the side, desperation etched across his face – told the whole grim story.
How good was Pogačar’s time trial? The nearest rider was a full minute and twenty-one seconds back. That was none other than Tom Dumoulin, one of the finest time trialists of his generation.
2019 Tour de France: In-House Rivalry at Ineos
Only one man can don the famous maillot jaune in Paris, but it takes a whole team of riders to get him there.
The Tour de France is unpredictable. Anything can happen across three long weeks, and it is common for teams with General Classification ambitions to have a backup GC contender, an understudy ready to take over should the main star fade or crash.
This sounds like a sensible approach on paper, but it can prove challenging in the heat of battle.
For a cyclist, the maillot jaune is everything. Win it and you are immortal, your name engraved alongside the greats of the sport, part of a select club that will never have to pay for a Belgian beer again.
But being so close to the yellow jersey can bring out the egos and wreak havoc on team dynamics.
By the time the 2019 Tour de France rolled around Team Ineos (and in their previous incarnation Team Sky) were veterans in the field of ego management.
The lessons of the Wiggins-Froome rivalry in 2012 were well understood and applied carefully to former Tour winner Geraint Thomas and the young pretender Egan Bernal.
The race unfolded with home-favorite Julian Alaphillippe defiantly holding onto the famous yellow jersey. Despite his heroics, even he knew that the main GC favorites were letting him dangle out in front and keeping their powder dry until the race entered the high mountains.
The touch paper was well and truly lit on Stage 19 featuring the Col d’Iseran and Montee de Tignes. There was barely anything between the two Ineos teammates, the leash was let off and it was to come down to who had the legs on the day, team orders be damned.
Thomas blinked first and reeled in Allaphillippe on the steep slopes of the Iseran. Bernal clung onto the wheels of Allaphillippe and then launched his own blistering attack on the group.
As the chasers tried to organize, the young Colombian swiftly caught up with the breakaway further up the road. Not content to let them set the pace to the summit, he kept pushing until he was out on his own.
As he went over the top he was a minute up on the group containing Thomas. As he risked it all on the descent it looked like he would finish the day with arms aloft.
The weather had other plans as a freak July storm battered the area. Almost without warning, there were hailstones and ice covering the road in Tignes just before the final climb. The organizers had no choice but to abandon the finish and shorten the stage.
As the dust settled, amongst all the confusion, one thing was clear. Bernal was in yellow and was now the undoubted leader of Team Ineos.
With the help of Thomas, Bernal comfortably held onto the yellow jersey across the penultimate mountain stage and carried the joy of every Colombian across the famous cobbles of the Champs Elysees.
The cycling-mad country had produced some amazing talent down the years, but now they had a Tour de France champion.
2003 Tour de France: Amrstrong’s “Drive For Five”
I was a spectator at the 2003 Tour de France. I saw it happen right in front of me.
I saw David Millar unwisely ride without a front derailleur in the prologue. I saw Lance Armstrong take a detour across a field to avoid a crash on the road into Gap, and I then saw the Texan gun down Jan Ullrich on the Tourmalet, the final summit finish to decide the race.
The record books have (rightly) scrubbed Lance Armstrong from existence after he finally admitted to doping on an industrial scale throughout his dominant career – but that doesn’t mean that the drama at the end of the centenary Tour didn’t happen.
From the very start of that year’s Tour, it was clear that Armstrong wasn’t riding at 100%.
His personal life was complicated, and the recent invasion of Iraq had cooled French-US relationships to such an extent that Armstrong became a political punchbag on the roads of France.
Add all of that to the pressure of winning a fifth Tour de France and joining that illustrious group meant that Armstrong spent much of the race on the backfoot just trying to stay within touching distance, hoping that luck and form would improve.
And so it was that as the peloton made its way up the Tourmalet on Stage 15, his luck did turn. A low mist had settled over the mountain and Armstrong managed to hold on after Ullrich attacked him with 30 km to go.
The Texan kept Ullrich at arms-length, never allowing the invisible elastic between them to snap as they went up and over the Tourmalet.
A collision with a spectator on a tight corner on the way up the final ascent to Luz Ardiden put Armstrong on the floor. Ullrich stayed true to the unwritten rules of the peloton and waited for his rival to get back on his bike.
Never a man to let morals stand in his way, the US Postal rider instantly attacked having caught up with the big German. Ullrich didn’t respond. He couldn’t. He didn’t even try to get out of the saddle. He had nothing left in the tank.
The rage of the crash seemed to power Armstrong’s legs to the summit, and he took a commanding forty seconds lead over Ullrich, his nearest GC rival, into the penultimate and deciding stage.
Any hopes Ullrich had of staging a famous comeback during the subsequent time trial quickly evaporated when he slid off the rain-drenched road and into a barrier.
This was a tough-fought victory for Armstrong. A fitting tribute (if we forget the EPO for a second) for the centenary tour.
1987 Tour de France: Roche Doubles Up
Irishman Stephen Roche came into the 1987 Tour de France on the back of winning the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia.
With the defending champion LeMond injured but remarkably alive after his recent hunting accident and five-time champion Bernard Hinault having retired, the field was wide open for someone to grab the yellow jersey.
The race ambled on towards the final showdown in the Pyrenees with the main GC contenders keeping their cards close to their chests, no one willing to put their head above the parapet and become a target for the chasers.
With two mountain stages to conquer plus the final time trial, the field had thinned, with only twenty-five seconds between Roche and the aggressive Spanish climber Pedro Delgado.
It was up to Roche to try to put Delgado in trouble and he launched a devastating attack, putting Delgado on the back foot for fifty kilometers.
Delgado didn’t panic and kept his composure, banging out the consistent watts needed to reel Roche back in. Having caught up, the Irishman could only sit and watch Delgado pass and open up a one-minute gap on the final climb to La Plagne.
Even with two stages left, Roche knew he was watching his shot at the Tour ride away.
Somehow, Roche had enough left in the tank to dig in and made up all but five seconds on Delgado by the time they reached the line, where he collapsed in a heap surrounded by paramedics.
Just like he recovered from Delgado’s attack, he somehow recovered enough to do it all again in the mountains the next day where he even gained a handful of valuable seconds on his rival.
Delgado knew that Roche was superior against the clock and even conceded the race to him on the descent on Morzine on this last mountain stage.
Roche might have had the form but you can never take anything for granted in the unpredictable Tour. He still had to line up at the top of the ramp and put Delgado to the sword across the short 38 km time trial before the yellow jersey would safely be his.
Like all great champions, Roche wanted to win on his own terms and smashed the technical sections of the course. In the end, he had an unassailable forty seconds in the bank over the magnanimous Delgado to see him safely into Paris and onto the top step.