Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Overlooked 20th Anniversary of One of the Greatest Sporting Events of My Lifetime

This past Thursday was the twentieth anniversary of the conclusion of the 1989 Tour de France, one of the greatest sporting events I've witnessed. (And by "witnessed," I mean "watched on ABC's Wide World of Sports.") It was the first Tour I followed and remains the most exciting. The 89 Tour was unique in that the final stage was an individual time trial. (The Tour hasn't ended with a time trial since.) Going into the race's final leg American Greg LeMond (the 1986 winner) trailed two-time champion Laurent Fignon by 50 seconds. Making up 50 seconds on a rider like Fignon on a flat, 25 kilometer time trial seemed impossible. But LeMond did it, edging out Fignon by a mere 8 seconds, the slimmest margin of victory in Tour history. (At the time, LeMond's Tour-winning time trial was the race's fastest ever single-stage ride.)

LeMond missed the 1987 and 1988 Tours, having been severely wounded in a hunting accident, and he rode the 1989 race with a few dozen shotgun pellets still in his body. His unlikely victory in Paris earned him the honor of being Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.

The 1989 Tour featured an inspired performance by 1988 champ Pedro Delgado. Delgado missed his start time, losing 2 minutes and 40 seconds before beginning the prologue time trial, but battled back to finish third. 1989 was also the debut of Miguel Indurain, who won the ninth stage and finished 17th overall. Indurain would win five Tours de France between 1991 and 1995.

Sadly, the sports media overlooked the anniversary of the 1989 Tour. (At least I didn't hear, see, or read anything about it; I may have missed something.) Greg LeMond's incredible final-stage victory has been lost to sports history. LeMond, the first American to win the Tour, would win again in 1990. But by the end of the 1990s Lance Armstrong's come-back-from-cancer-to-win-the-Tour story would trump LeMond's come-back-from-hunting-accident-to-win-the-Tour story. By the time Armstrong was winning his fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh Tours, the American sports fan had largely forgotten Greg LeMond.

If you have a minute, do yourself and Greg LeMond a favor and read up on the 1989 Tour de France. It truly was one of the great competitions in recent sports history and deserves to be remembered as such.


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