That’s how it looked to us, anyway. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was a watershed day in the history of the Tour de France. It had been our usual spur of the moment decision to go – book the Plymouth to Caen ferry; drive 500 miles to south west England; grab the boat; drive deep into Normandy; sleep in the Citroen; a quick wash and breakfast at a cafe in a sleepy village; buy L’Equipe and find our spot.
We arrived mid-morning, the woods were quiet and rather spooky, but by lunch time it was like being in a football crowd. Picnics were the order of the day as three generations sat down to cheese, pate, bread, wine and wine; always red or sometimes, cider – the local speciality. Every family had their ‘order du depart’ (start sheet) clipped-neatly from L’Equipe or the local paper. Grand-dad was usually in charge of this. Cloth cap pulled-down over his bronzed forehead, no fancy digital numbers for him; his old pocket watch would do just fine to chart the progress of the finest riders in the world as they battle for glory.
A 73 K time test is a hard day at the office for the domestiques; get round but watch that time cut, or even worse – the DS might want to go for the day’s team prize. Days like these remind you why the sport is great; whole families having a day out, no bad language, no thugs and perhaps best of all – the rider who is last on GC gets cheered to the echo. People have their favourites, sure, but even those lowly dometiques have the respect of the crowd.
Robert Millar was a severe hater of the chrono, but in the mountains, he was a climber par excellence.
The prologue and flat early stages mean that the first long time trial always sees a huge re-shuffle of the GC game board. The ‘alone and unpaced’ specialists with their big lungs, low pulse rates and slow-twitch muscles climb the ladder. The sprinters with their fast-twitch muscles and low boredom thresholds slide down the snakes, as do the skinny climbers. Power to weight is one thing but in your average rolling Tour TT there’s no substitute for sheer horse power. There was our frail fellow-Scot Robert Millar – now a team mate of three times Tour-winner, Greg Lemond at ‘Z’ – he was never a ‘chrono-man’, especially over 73 K and he appeared to be just going through the motions today for an eventual 105th place at 8-49. However, Millar’s ride had been carefully planned, after it he would say; ‘I calculated that the time limit would be about 22 minutes, so I had to finish in about 1-52 (the winning time was 1-35) to stay in the race. I rode within myself and was OK – I finished ahead of about 80 guys.’
Pedro Delgado’s last big chance was blown a couple of years before when he missed his Prologue start by a mile…after that, it was nigh time for a certain Miguel Indurain to arrive.
As the day progresses and the approach of the big stars is imminent there’s a buzz of anticipation; but sometimes the big surprises can slip past you un-noticed. Banesto finished an uninspired ninth in the stage two TTT, meaning that their joint-leader – with Pedro Delgado – the big Basque, Miguel Indurain wasn’t in the last 20 to start. The field is placed in reverse order of the overall standings, so last placed goes first and the yellow jersey goes last.
Lance Armstrong was an amazing time triallist, as was Ullrich, and so many others, but it might be reasonable to say that Indurain was the best there ever was.
Banesto’s uninspired TTT performance meant that the man from Pamplona had a lowly field placing that he would probably never have again in a Tour time trial. This was the day that Indurain’s awesome power against the watch was first demonstrated, but we didn’t even think to even put the watch on him; for us the big battle would be between America’s Greg Lemond and Breukink.
Greg Lemond was on the way out in ’91, but he didn’t go out without a good fight.
As the race entered it’s final phase the crowd had swollen to huge proportions and the motor cycle cops had to ‘sweep’ us back off the road in order to give the riders a clear path to ride as we spilled-out into the road to catch sight of our idols. Breukink was silky smooth and our watch showed him to be well-clear of Lemond.
The American never had the classic time trial specialists flowing-grace under pressure, but he was exciting to watch. Not at one with the machine, like a Moser or a Ritter, he fought the bike along the course, mouth open, teeth-bared, his squat body rocking with the effort of keeping those huge thighs pumping the big gear.
Last man on the road was French prologue-specialist Thierry Marie who had grabbed the yellow jersey with a solo breakaway over 222 kilometres on stage six. With legs still heavy from his epic, there was no way he would keep the jersey.
Breukink and his PDM team were the big favorites of the ’91 Tour, but they were all dispatched midway through the Tour due to ‘food poisoning.’ See below.
The real specialist race-watchers had brought portable televisions with them and crowds immediately formed around their cars after Marie had passed. The little tv was telling a new story though; Breukink had cracked and was losing time to the physical style of Lemond who was in the act of trying to tear his machine apart. All that effort wasn’t in vain and Lemond went back into yellow, but he didn’t take the stage – that went to Indurain. Lemond kept the jersey until stage 12, losing it to eccentric Frenchman Luc Leblanc; the next day would be even worse for the American. Unlucky stage 13 saw Lemond crack and drop to fifth at more than five minutes – the Lemond era was over. We didn’t realise it that day, but the five years of the Indurain era had just begun, we would never disregard him in a time trial again.
Starting with the ’91 Tour, it was Miguel Indurain’s time, and the time trials over this period were a stomping ground for Big Mig…this future winner was no match in ’94.
Note On PDM’s Fate:
What became of Erik Breukink and his PDM team? According to some research on the interweb, the apparent ‘food poisoning’ was an utter lie and it came out later that it was much more sinister than that, later becoming known as the Intralipid Affaire. From CyclingNews way back in 1997 (or you can look over to Cycling4Fans for more on the scandal…in German): “The image of the PDM riders shivering miserably after they had stopped riding and having to get support to get back to their hotel rooms, was shown the whole world over. The complete team of favourites, with 3 men leading the GC, had to retire home with influenza, feverish and in obvious pain. Everywhere there was bewilderment…The French doctor, Jean-Daniel Fleysakier said the riders would have been very ill with “high fever, a feeling like influenza, muscle pain and neck cramp, typical of of an overdose of EPO.”
There was no real proof though in 1991, it took about five years before the real truth came out…
“This week, the PDM manager of the day Manfred Krikke spoke, after he was confronted with the revelations, though reluctantly: “When we started PDM we decided that we would not be the most ethical team in the peloton. The one rule imposed from the PDM directors was that there was to be “no drug affairs” rather than “no drug taking. Within this direction, we experimented with products that were just within or over the edge of legality. Just like in other sports. We were not doing anything that the other teams were doing.””
There’s a ton more to the story, so it’s well worth reading about, but it seemed rather interesting…team managed doping in the 1990’s…somehow it seems almost pertinent right now.