By Aiden McLaughlin
Overnight, I watched one of the most dramatic stages of the Tour de France ever. Believe me, that’s not a description I throw out lightly after watching the race for the last 35 years, but Tadej Pogacar’s overhauling of Primoz Roglic on the final competitive stage before the procession into Paris tomorrow, was an hour of the finest sporting drama you’ll see this year. Individual time trials during any bike race can be mundane to watch, but when all the pieces fall into place, they are anything but. Pogacar entered the stage in second place, 57 seconds behind Roglic. It was the only time trial of the race, a 36.2km course, with the final 6.2km a 8.5km challenging climb to the top of the Planche des Belles Filles. Pogacar, just 21 years old, entered the stage holding both the polka-dot jersey (for the leading climber) and white jersey (for the leader rider under the age of 26) but as he gradually pulled back the deficit to end up with a 59 second overall lead, he took possession of the jersey that really matters, the yellow one for leading the race. Tomorrow, he will ride into Paris unchallenged, the top step of the podium awaiting him.
Just over 31 years ago, the Tour had its most dramatic finale. The home favourite, two time winner Laurent Fignon, was locked in a battle for three weeks with the 1986 Tour winner, American Greg LeMond. After his victory three years earlier, LeMond went on a turkey hunt on his uncle’s California ranch. A companion mistook him for game and shot him. LeMond lost a third of his blood and nearly died. Amazingly he returned to competitive racing just months later, but the results, understandably, just weren’t there. Although he showed some form before the 1989 Tour at the Giro d’Italia, he wasn’t considered a serious contender for the sport’s Blue Riband event. For the next fortnight, the lead switched back and forth between LeMond and Fignon. After the penultimate stage, Fignon led the American by 50 seconds.
As luck would have it for the fans, the final stage into Paris was not the usual procession where the leader is unchallenged and instead spends his time posing for photos with a glass of celebratory champagne and his teammates, before the sprinters do battle on the Champs-Élysées. Instead, it was a 25 km individual time trial. Starting two minutes apart, LeMond and Fignon were the last two to get underway. On a short, flat course, it seemed impossible that LeMond could make up the time and snatch victory. LeMond posted the leading time on the stage, 26 mins 57 seconds and then waited.
Fignon, riding without a helmet, his blond ponytail flapping from side to side, fought all the way. It was close, very close. As commentator Phil Liggett said, he was ‘bouncing off the barriers’
as he approached the finishing line but it was no avail. LeMond had snatched victory by the barest of margins – just 8 seconds. 8 seconds after 3,285 kms of racing over 3 weeks. It was the smallest margin of victory in the history of the race, and remains so.
Last night was up there for drama, but 1989 will surely never be beaten.
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