Greg LeMond won the yellow jersey in the 1989 Tour de France – the closest and arguably most fiercely fought Tour in history – by a margin of just 8 seconds.
Often regarded as the greatest edition in the race’s history, the 1989 Tour de France winner was decided in its final moments in dramatic scenes never matched before or since.
LeMond – who had suffered a life-threatening injury just two years before – was not a favorite going into the race. During his recovery, it was unclear whether he would live, never mind ride, and it seemed almost certain that his professional riding career had ended.
But what happened in the 1989 Tour de France, and why is it considered one of the most monumental wins in the history of the race?
In this article, we’ll give you the whole story of Greg Lemond’s legendary 1989 Tour de France victory. We’ll be covering:
- Greg LeMond’s Early Career
- The Accident And Recovery
- 1989 Tour de France: As It Happened
Let’s get started!
Greg LeMond’s Early Career
During the early ’80s, Greg LeMond was considered to be one of the rising stars of the sport.
After a flurry of more minor victories, Greg LeMond entered his first Tour de France in 1984, at the age of 23. He was riding as a domestique to team leader Laurent Fignon, who went on to win the Tour, with LeMond’s support – who finished third himself.
For such a young rider, finishing third in his first Grand Tour was extremely impressive. But the next year, he was riding as a domestique to a legendary cyclist – five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault.
After Hinault suffered a crash during the mountain stages, it became clear that his domestique, the young Greg LeMond, was also an elite rider – potentially capable of winning the Tour in his own right.
However, such were the politics of the team, that LeMond was instructed to help Hinault and ensure that he didn’t lose much time, instead of attacking himself on a Stage that he clearly could have won.
Hinault won the Tour in ’85, with LeMond finishing second. At this point, it became clear that LeMond was a genuine contender for the following Tour, and that he would have an extremely successful career.
In 1986, he and Hinault went into the race as co-leaders. Hinault refused to offer support to LeMond, however, stating that whoever won the Stage 9 Time-Trial should be the team leader.
Unfortunately, LeMond had very bad luck on the time trial, with multiple mechanicals throughout the course, and Hinault won the stage that day. This only further justified his own stance of refusal to support LeMond.
Officially, the team still recognized them as co-leaders, with LeMond given permission to attempt to win any stage given the opportunity. On the other hand, Hinault continued to attack him at every possible opportunity, holding a five-minute lead by Stage 12.
In Stage 13, Hinault launched an early attack – as had become the norm in this edition of the Tour. However, this time, he was caught, and subsequently dropped, by his own teammate LeMond, who went on to win the stage.
Despite Hinault’s best efforts, LeMond went on to win his first Tour de France in 1986. He later commented on the situation with Hinault, stating:
“He’s attacked me from the beginning of the Tour De France. He’s never helped me once, and I don’t feel confident at all with him.”Greg LeMond, speaking at the 1986 Tour de France.
The accident and recovery
By 1987, LeMond was the defending Tour champion and recognized as one of – if not the – best cyclist in the world. However, this year would see him unable to defend his Tour de France victory.
After suffering a minor crash in the spring, LeMond went back to California to briefly recover before returning to Europe. While in California, he went out turkey hunting with his father, uncle, and brother-in-law.
The trio was somehow separated, and LeMond was accidentally shot from point-blank range through a bush, mistaken for a turkey by his brother-in-law.
It was a life-threatening injury and LeMond was rushed to the hospital in just 15 minutes by an ambulance helicopter.
He had 60 shotgun pellets lodged in his body, including the lining of his heart, his lungs, and his liver. Before being given emergency surgery, which eventually saved his life, LeMond had lost 65% of his blood volume and was likely only saved by his powerful heart and lungs.
After the emergency surgery, LeMond was told by doctors that he was just 20 minutes away from certain death. He began recovering after surgery, but later complications meant that he required a second surgery, which extended his recovery.
The accident, combined with tensions caused by LeMond’s discovery that members of the PDM team were doping, resulted in his getting fired by the Dutch team. He was almost immediately signed by Belgian outfit ADR for the 1988 season.
In 1988, LeMond, with 35 pellets remaining inside his body, attempted a stunning return to racing. Unfortunately, his season ended abruptly by overtraining, which meant that he had to spend another year recovering before he could once again compete.
1989 Tour De France: As It Happened
1989 Tour de France: Route and Pre-race favorites
The 1989 Tour de France began in Luxembourg and covered a total of 3285 km of distance.
Going into the race, there were a number of favorites to win. LeMond was not one of them, given the context surrounding his accident and recovery.
Spanish rider Pedro Delgado, the defending champion, was the runaway favorite to win the Tour. He had previously taken the red jersey in the Vuelta just a few weeks prior, demonstrating excellent form.
Laurent Fignon, LeMond’s former teammate, was also considered to be a candidate to win the competition. He had won the Tour twice a few years previously, and after some years of inconsistency, was said to be in excellent form once again.
LeMond had raced the Giro already that year and, by his standards, put in a poor performance.
Given his very recent life-threatening accident and his perceived poor form, “Greg LeMond’s name was never mentioned among the pre-race favorites” according to Sports Illustrated.
1989 Tour de France: Stage-by-stage
During the first few stages, Acácio da Silva became the first-ever Portuguese rider to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. However, by Stage 3, Laurent Fignon was coming close behind in third place – still 51 seconds ahead of Greg LeMond.
In Stage 5, an individual time trial, LeMond experimented with the use of aerodynamic elbow rests on his bike – commonly seen on triathlon bikes.
This clearly worked in his favor, with LeMond winning the stage 24 seconds ahead of pre-race favorite Delgado, taking the yellow jersey.
Stage 6, though not necessarily relevant to LeMond’s story, produced one of the most heartwarming moments of the Tour.
French rider Joël Pelier attacked with over 180 km of the stage remaining, spurred on by his manager. The attack was incredibly fruitful, with Pelier commanding a lead of over 25 minutes at one point during the race.
Unbeknownst to him, his mother, who had never been able to spectate during his races due to being a full-time carer for his disabled brother, was waiting at the finish line for him.
Pelier won the stage by around 90 seconds and was overcome with joy at the sight of his mother at the finish line.
The next few stages in the Pyrenees saw LeMond ride defensively, staying on the wheels of Fignon and Delgado to retain the yellow jersey.
However, on the final Pyrenean stage, Fignon attacked LeMond with a kilometer to go, taking twelve seconds out of him. Fignon now donned the yellow jersey but was just seven seconds ahead of second-placed LeMond.
At this point in the race, Fignon was the favorite to win. He retained a strong team supporting him, held the yellow jersey, and had clawed back time against a very defensive LeMond.
LeMond, in contrast, seemed as if he were weakening somewhat, with such defensive riding. Perhaps most significantly though, half of his team had dropped out, and his best-placed teammate was around 100th in the GC.
The next few stages would take place on some of the most brutal climbs the Tour had to offer, in the French Alps.
The very first Alpine stage saw an impressive and unexpected attack from LeMond, who, although he didn’t win the stage, regained yellow from Fignon, with a GC lead of 40 seconds.
Stage 17, however, was a turning point for Fignon, who started the day 53 seconds behind LeMond.
At the foot of Alpe D’Huez, the Tour’s strongest riders – LeMond, Fignon, and Delgado – were unseparated. Fignon launched an early attack on the very first hairpin, but LeMond was able to stay on his wheel.
Nonetheless, LeMond was clearly struggling. Fignon was ordered by his team car to attack again with 4 km of the climb to go. Fignon dropped LeMond, and he and Delgado reached the summit finish together, taking 1m 19s out of LeMond.
Fignon once again took the yellow jersey from LeMond, but this time with a relatively significant 26-second lead over the American.
The next day, Fignon once again attacked, taking a further 24 seconds out of LeMond, extending his GC lead to 50 seconds.
Stage 19 saw all of the strongest riders except Delgado suffer a minor crash at a roundabout. Delgado showed excellent sportsmanship, waiting for the crashed riders to catch him to continue.
LeMond, Delgado, and Fignon entered into a sprint finish at the end of the stage, with LeMond taking the win. The gap between him and Fignon, however, remained at 50 seconds.
LeMond now had only the final time trial to attempt to close the gap, which seemed almost impossible given its magnitude.
The Finale: Greg LeMond Time Trial Win
Going into the time trial, LeMond had a mountain to climb if he wanted to win his second Tour de France, with 50 seconds separating him and Fignon.
The time trial was 24.5 km through Paris, finishing on the Champs-Élysées. By the halfway point of the time trial, LeMond had taken 21 seconds out of Fignon’s lead, but given that this was well below half the necessary time gap, Fignon remained unphased.
LeMond, however, launched an unbelievable increase in speed for the second half of the TT. He finished in 26m 57s, making it the fastest-ever time trial ridden at the Tour, at 54.545 km/h.
While LeMond was collapsed on the ground, recovering from the intense effort that he had just put in, Fignon finished the course.
Fignon finished the course with his fastest ever TT – but with a time of 27m 55s, he was 58 seconds slower than LeMond.
LeMond had done it! Taking the yellow jersey and the Tour de France win, on the very last stage, with a slender lead of just eight seconds.
This is the smallest margin of victory ever recorded in the competition. It was incredibly hard fought, with the yellow jersey being regularly exchanged between former teammates LeMond and Fignon.
Even when it seemed impossible for LeMond to win, he managed to edge it out with one of the most impressive time trial performances of all time.
All of this, when he had only just recovered from a life-threatening accident that saw him 20 minutes from death.
This Tour de France was arguably the most exciting of all time and one of the highest-regarded victories in the competition, due to the context of the accident and the strength of LeMond’s competition.
The 1989 Tour de France – and Greg LeMond – will forever be remembered because of the late drama, the exposition, and the intense rivalry between two exceedingly strong riders.