A sporting event as classic as the Tour de France is not without drama and intrigue; the hallowed heights of the Galibier and tempestuous thundering weather of Ventoux tell great stories of cyclists desperate for victory. So when two practiced cyclists, one French and the other American, in a backdrop as big as the Tour de France meet with similar dreams of glory, there’s bound to be tension. This story, in time, became the controversial battle between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in Tour de France 1985.
To understand the scope of such an event, it takes an understanding of the players. And these were big players.
Hinault was the golden boy in France, with four Tour wins to his name already. In the 1985 edition of the Tour, he was on a mission to claim number five and tie celebrated Belgian Eddy Merckx. The public clamored over Hinault’s mystique; he was a fierce and unapproachable rider but – wow – he was good at cycling.
Hinault, often called the “boss of the peloton,” didn’t care about public opinion. It wasn’t his driving motivation. In the end, it was all about crossing the finish line. As he once famously quoted:
“I race to win, not to please people.”
Greg LeMond, one the other hand, was a young and determined American on a path destined for Tour de France glory. By 1985, he had completed the Tour just once. He was, however, gaining rank as a crucial member of La Vie Claire (the coveted team to beat in the early to mid-eighties). LeMond was the young gun while Hinault had the experience and race pedigree.
Challengers in spirit, these two racers were bound to compete against each other. But what makes this Franco-American battle even more interesting was that it was not between rivals of different teams but one between teammates.
And so the race was on.
Tour de France 1985 saw LeMond in a breakaway that was sure to escape the chasing peloton. This would have put LeMond in the yellow jersey. For most teams, this would be a perfect situation; having a rider in yellow came with the publicity, and tactically it would remove pressure from Hinault and his chase for tour win number five. The team would have better control of the race.
This, unfortunately for LeMond, was not to be. As some reports go, LeMond was not allowed to pursue the yellow jersey and instead was called back out of a stage to support Hinault; it was a crushing blow for the prospective champion.
Hinault went on to win the Tour that year but assured LeMond that he would return the favor the following year.
As LeMond grew as an athlete, he also gained the respect of La Vie Claire and its members. He was set to lead the team and have full support of Hinault and the team director.
But as race day inched closer, it became clear to LeMond that he was not going to be the sole leader on the team; race veteran Hinault now wanted to tack on a sixth Tour win to achieve the title of the most-decorated General Classification rider in history.
The strain in the team came to a head late in the race after it became clear that the team would only be able to support one leader. With a lack of leadership from the Team Director Koechli to choose one rider (as he had done the year before) the decision fell to LeMond and Hinault. As any champion athlete may explain, the propensity to win is innate and unrelenting. As a result, both athletes would battle it out for yellow as if they were on separate teams.
From the very beginning, the actions of the two “teammates” set the tone for the race; Hinault took to attacking LeMond repeatedly until LeMond attacked on a decent on stage 17. By the end of the stage, he had taken over three minutes on Hinault. Even though compromise looked unlikely after that decent, more obvious teamwork between the two riders was evident by the top of the Alpe d’Huez on the next day.
Had they come to terms? It wasn’t clear.
They would continue to battle on the final big mountain stage on the slopes of the Alpe. For most of that stage, LeMond wouldn’t budge. Hinault would make attempts at gaining, but LeMond would always emphasize his lead.
At the end of the stage, however, LeMond gave consolation. He had loosened his grip on the lead, and finished the stage at the same time as Hinault, even giving him the stage win.
Of course, Hinault was a contender, with dreams of becoming the most-awarded champion ever. So, it was not until the post-stage interview that Hinault gave his clear answer to the seemingly volatile teamwork: the Tour was not over yet and that it would all come down to the final time trial. He would continue to battle LeMond for the Yellow jersey all the way to Paris.
As fate would have it, however, LeMond would also seek the win. Within a few short days, he would officially best Hinault and claim his title: the first American winner of the Tour.
Both LeMond and Hinault would fight to make their mark on history: one to be the first American winner and the later to be the only six-time winner of the Tour. It is rare to see such a battle between teammates, especially in a race that depends so much on a united front.
Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault set the mantra of future racers to follow: when you train to win, it’s impossible to let go of that drive. These are the types of racers and stories that make the Tour de France so legendary.
For more on this legendary race, watch fan reactions from the controversy.