The 1989 World Cycling Championships

Kevin Couch

Writer’s comment: As a former elite level cyclist—holding a Category 1 amateur racing license from 1986 through 1992—I have always wanted to share the challenge of bicycle racing with those who cannot be out there in the pack. Exciting to watch as a spectator, cycling is infinitely more exciting and interesting if one can experience first-hand the many factors which affect the outcome and appreciate the sheer pain and suffering involved in a tough bicycle race. This essay attempts to convey the emotion, the pain, the ecstasy—in essence, the craft—of cycling, by accurately recreating the 1989 World Cycling Championships in Chamberey, France. One or two of the names may be wrong, and the author makes his apologies for any discrepancies. With all the elements of a great race—from the heroics of the hometown favorite and the strategies employed by the various teams to the absolute talent displayed by a seemingly out-of-it Lemond, rising from despair to deny his defeat and capture the rainbow jersey from opponents—it is, in my opinion, one of the epic races of all time.
—Kevin Couch

Instructor’s comment: Kevin Couch produced this superb reporting essay for English 101, a pre-professional writing course for advanced undergraduates from various fields. An award-winning cyclist himself, Kevin offers a lovingly detailed account of the 1989 World Cycling Championships which features all the suspense and passion of superior sports reporting. Even more impressively, Kevin so clearly and unobtrusively conveys background information about team strategy that even readers with no prior knowledge of world cycling competition can easily participate in the excitement he so vividly evokes. Indeed, on first reading “The 1989 World Cycling Championships,” I was too enthralled by Kevin’s thrilling reportage to realize just how much I was learning from it.
—Victor Squitieri, English Department

The dawn breaks cold and brisk after an overnight shower. The unusually cruel heat of the long summer remains a not-so-distant memory, yet the inhabitants in this rural farming region of France are talking about an early wet season. That’s not all they are talking about, of course. For this is September, and in Europe that means that the World Championships of cycling are approaching. Chamberey is usually a quiet town. But since being chosen to host this year’s event, the pubs and cafes here have been anything but quiet. And today they are packed with cycling’s faithful from the far flung reaches of the globe as the frenzy reaches its peak. Mixed with cigarette smoke and the aroma of red wine, the clamor of discussion and debate over who will challenge and who might win spills out into the narrow streets through open doorways. The World Championships have returned to France.
         Each year the powers that be in the sport of cycling bring the traveling circus they call the World Championships to a different country. The single-day event is just one of a dozen or so scattered throughout the racing season, all of which are collectively called “the Classics.” They are deemed Classics for their picturesque venues and epic scope; most of these races are over 200 kilometers. Many Europeans mark the changing of the seasons as much by the running of a particular race as by the turning of the leaves. The famous Paris-Roubaix is always held on the third Sunday in April, Milan-San Remo on the first weekend of March, and The Tour of Lombardy at the end of October. There are eleven Classics in all, and each claims a specific date which rarely changes from one year to the next. They are the most prestigious one-day road racing events in all of cycling. What sets “the Worlds” apart from the other Classics—besides the fact that it is held in a different location each year—is that its winner will don the coveted rainbow jersey, worn only by the world champion, and keep it until this time next year.
         There are those who believe that the world champion should be chosen by a system of races held throughout the year, similar to skiing’s World Cup. But cycling is a very traditional sport in Europe, and change does not come easily. And so each year the second Sunday in September is set aside for the professional cyclists of the world to come together and do battle on the tarmac. Will the winner be worthy of the honor of being crowned the best bike racer in the world? Or will he be merely a clever opportunist, riding in the shadow of greatness, only to steal victory by a trick of good timing and fate?
         Those questions linger in the dim recesses of the minds of fans and racers alike; for now, though, the cyclists must deal with more important matters. A typical racer’s day always begins early. But today’s pre-dawn ritual is special. As usual, he warms his slowly waking limbs and empty belly with a hot cup of coffee and a big bowl of mush. Filling water bottles and doing the quick once-over of his bike, however, generates a hint of anxiety this morning; there is a certain electricity in the air. The eight hours he will spend on the bike today would be considered torturous by most people, but he can’t expend precious energy contemplating the inevitable ordeal ahead. It’s better just to concentrate on the course—where to attack, where to recover. Or, perhaps, to consider the competition. Who’s been riding well? Who does the course favor and how will they try to press their advantage? These are the only matters he will allow himself to contemplate as he rolls out to warm up with his team. The gathering daylight warns that check-in time is only an hour away.
         When the commissaire calls the racers to the starting line, we get a first-hand look at the peloton, which is what the racing pack is called in cycling lingo. Here are the best bicycle racers in the world. Greg Lemond, who in July won his fourth Tour de France, is smiling and joking with his stars-and-stripes outfitted teammates. He is a favorite today, despite the relative weakness of the Americans as a team. The French, in their red, white, and blue, are a much stronger team. They have the great Laurent Fignon as their leader, along with his capable lieutenants Charly Mottet and Luc LeBlanc. The Italians have brought Gianni Bugno and Francesco Chiapucci, as well as the ace sprinter Mario Cippolini. The stellar Classics rider Sean Kelly of Ireland is also in the group, along with his countryman Stephen Roche—1988’s World Champion. These are a few of the stars, but altogether the peloton is nearly two hundred strong. Typically, less than half of them will finish. Most are “domestiques,” expendable fodder whose sole purpose is to protect their team’s leader by seeing that the race enters its final kilometers with him in position to win. They will keep the pace of this 240 kilometer race brutally torrid in an attempt to squelch any early breakaway efforts.
         After the gun sounds and the race is on, nothing unexpected happens for the first few circuits of the seventeen-kilometer course. As the road winds out of town through the vineyards and sunflower fields, it undulates gently. Then it reaches the lakeshore where the middle third of each lap will be spent. Here, what wind there is will become a factor, and the racers will have to form protective echelons to find shelter from it. After the lake, the course turns back towards town, but not before a series of three climbs and a sharp and twisting descent back to the start/finish. It is on this descent near the end of the third lap that LeBlanc tries his luck with a daring attack. This is his hometown, as it turns out, so this move was anticipated by the peloton. He passes the start/finish and the crowd roars its approval. France loves a hero, even a foolish one. By the lakeshore, his advantage is up to fifty-two seconds over the unconcerned pack. But this is only the fourth of fourteen laps. LeBlanc knows that he will need a small miracle to stay ahead for the whole race.
         As the morning passes into afternoon, the fans sip French wines and dine on fresh cheeses and breads. The sun has begun to warm things up nicely as the race progresses, and some of the spectators bask in bathing suits and sunglasses. While waiting for the group to pass by again, many keep tabs on the race with a transistor radio or Watchman-type television. Apparently, Lemond is suffering near the rear of the pack. He has been forced to change a wheel and his teammates have expended much energy to bring him back to the bunch. And now, the radio commentator is saying that Lemond has nearly come off the back on the last and longest climb before town. But when the pack whirrs past as they begin the ninth lap, there is the American champion smack in the middle again, although he is not smiling now. In fact, he looks rather haggard and nervous. Only two of his nine teammates remain, but they struggle to his side and attempt to find a path through the pack to get their man back to the front.
         Interestingly enough, the surprising Luc LeBlanc is still off the front. He has been joined by several others over the intervening laps since his escape: a Dutchman, two Danes, a Spaniard, and a Russian. The six have worked well together, and at one point had their advantage up to six and a half minutes. But the Italians had become impatient and were not happy being underrepresented in the breakaway. As a result, they got to the front of the peloton as the tenth lap began and, despite the best efforts of the French and the Danes to disrupt them, stepped up the pace and started to reel in the break.
         When the peloton passes the stands at start/finish to begin the eleventh lap, the six breakaways hold only a twenty-one second advantage. Things have begun to unravel for them, but LeBlanc still looks amazingly fresh and is keeping the group together with his steady, long pulls at the front. At the top of the short second climb, however, only ten seconds separate the break and the pack, which has itself been reduced to about fifty riders. The warm sunshine has given way to gathering clouds, which now in the late afternoon threaten to open up and douse participants and spectators alike. Halfway up their eleventh ascent of the third and longest climb, the end is near for the break. They begin to look over their shoulders and sit up when suddenly LeBlanc attacks strongly from the front. The hometown hero has a seemingly inexhaustible source of energy. The remaining breakaways are swept up into the pack. But at the top, LeBlanc has reclaimed a thirty second advantage.
         Meanwhile, the Italians have worked hard to reel in the break, and the effort shows on their faces. But Bugno is still fresh, and that is all that matters now. Cippolini detonated a couple of laps previously, leaving the team without any real sprint power. So Bugno knows it is up to him to choose a good place to launch an attack and try to claim the race in solo fashion. However, his situation does not go unobserved by the other riders. Coming into the race, everyone knew Bugno was on good form and that he would likely show his strength late in the race. Fignon knew it; Kelly knew it, too. Bugno would no doubt up the pace on the shorter climbs, then drop the hammer on the long climb before the descent—probably on the next to last lap—and try to hold on to the finish.
         So when the peloton made its appearance to begin the twelfth lap, the crowded grandstand at the start/finish line pulsated with the throng of cheering French who were still on their feet. A minute before they had leapt up and screamed encouragement for their stone-faced hero: the indefatigable LeBlanc. All the contenders left in the bunch cautiously eyed one another while keeping a measured but slowly increasing pace. Now that the Italians had effectively blown themselves up, the team with the commanding strength appeared to be the French, who, having a man off the front, were quite content to let others force the pace. And so LeBlanc’s lead climbed again to ninety seconds by the time he began the descent back toward town and the start of the final lap. This was indeed the miracle he had been hoping for come to life!
         But then the predictable—and, sadly, the often inevitable—thing happens. From the bottom of the long climb, Canadian Steve Bauer launches a brutally powerful attack and by the summit has a twenty-second advantage on the field. A light rain is falling when LeBlanc crosses the start/finish line to the sound of the bell signifying one lap to go. The crowd by now is absolutely hysterical. Then a hushed silence falls as they wait for the pack to show. But instead, it is a lone rider who rounds the bend a kilometer before town and just fifteen seconds down on LeBlanc. It is Bauer! The rain has seemingly made him bolder on the descent as he fearlessly slides around the tight and narrow corners, taking his very life in his hands. He is now dramatically closing the gap to the lone Frenchman. His ovation at the bell is much more subdued than was LeBlanc’s, although the small Canadian contingent make their voices heard, to be sure. Bauer is a proven race winner. He was a road sprinter and time-trialist, and a medalist in the 1984 Olympics as well in previous World Championships. This does not bode well for LeBlanc or for France.
         Bauer catches LeBlanc just after leaving town and immediately attacks him. But Luc gallantly stays glued to the Canadian’s wheel. Bauer settles in to a steady, intense time-trial pace in an attempt to grind out the last of the Frenchman’s stamina. On the short climbs, Bauer again goes on the attack. LeBlanc battles to hold on, but the day’s effort is at last beginning to take its toll.
         Back in the pack, word has come to the French team that LeBlanc is fading fast and that Bauer will win if something isn’t done soon. Fignon drops back to the French team’s support car and has a word with his team director, then returns effortlessly to his place near the front. The remnants of the peloton now contain only the favorites and a few of their strongest supporting teammates. Bugno is conspicuous in the front row and is alternately setting the pace with American Andy Hampsten, the noted climber from Colorado. They are now just settling in for the final ascent of the long climb. Bugno had elected not to go with two laps left after all—a decision he will later regret.
         Suddenly Fignon explodes up the left-hand shoulder of the road. He has completely surprised the group, who were eyeing the climbers Bugno and Hampsten. Fignon looks strong and fierce as he opens an impressive gap on the field. His pedal-strokes are powerful and determined; his face shows an angry grimace as he flies up the mountainside. The crowds lining the road near the top scream encouragement. LeBlanc is swept aside before the summit. Bauer is now just twelve seconds ahead of Fignon.
         Less than a kilometer from the top of the final climb, Steve Bauer feels a growing sense of anxiety. The cheers of the crowd behind him are growing louder, coming closer. He dares not look back to see what—make that who—he knows is there. The cheers are all around him now. Then it happens: Fignon flashes powerfully and arrogantly by. In typical fashion, he doesn’t even acknowledge Bauer. He only presses a little harder, if that’s possible.
         But wait. . . . What is this? A shadow has appeared in the background, rounding the curve as this drama between the two leaders plays out. It is Greg Lemond. Out of the rear of the decimated peloton he has found new life and flies towards the summit like a smiling apparition on wheels. The American is thrashing his bike in an inhumanly huge gear and comes up on Fignon and by him in an instant. The Frenchman is at first too stunned to respond, then he counters madly as Bauer hangs on for dear life. Well, now we have a race!
         Lemond crests the climb with no one between him and his second World Championship title. It is his turn to defy death on the descent and try to hold onto his meager gains. Fignon is only seconds behind, Bauer seconds behind him. Then Kelly and Dutchman Stephen Rooks—both ace sprinters—then Bugno and a handful of lesser stars. At the bottom of the soggy descent, Fignon has caught Lemond. Greg is angrily gesturing at Fignon; he is frustrated and wants the Frenchman to pull through. But Fignon is having none of it and sits glued to the American’s wheel.
         Meanwhile, Kelly is powering the bridge group of seven towards the leaders. The foot of the descent is four kilometers from the finish; this is all-or-nothing time. Kelly peddles flat-out to catch the two breakaways who, due to their bickering, are easy prey. Head-down behind Kelly are Rooks, Bauer, Bugno, the Russian rookie sensation Dimitr Konishev, the Spaniard Pedro Delgado, and the Belgian Claude Crues. At this point they are only ten seconds down on Lemond, but closing fast. Things seem to be shaping up well for Kelly—and also for Rooks.
         Lemond soon realizes the futility of his tactical maneuvering with Fignon and turns his thoughts toward the finish line. He is a better sprinter than Fignon, this he knows. He will just have to beat the Frenchman from the front. Suddenly, the American team car pulls up and yells that Kelly and company are in hot pursuit, and then speeds off for the finish line. Lemond and Fignon look back to see the charging green jersey of the Irishman and have just enough time to step up their pace and catch the train as it flies by them. Two kilometers to go.
         Kelly slackens his pace now and looks at Rooks, who stares back at him. Then the brash Russian Konishev explodes up the outside, taking Bugno and Fignon with him. Kelly and Rooks respond to quell the attack. Then Fignon immediately counter-attacks and gets away clear. There is a moment’s hesitation as Kelly again looks to Rooks. Then the irrepressible Lemond unleashes a furious attack. Head down, rain-soaked thighs pounding mercilessly down on the pedals, he barely notices Fignon as he flies by the Frenchman for the last time. Fignon flails helplessly as Lemond streams by—then Kelly, Bauer, Konishev and Rooks as well.
         Lemond is flat out but can’t hold off Kelly with a kilometer to go. So he eases up just a bit and the Irishman settles in on his wheel. Rooks isn’t looking so good as Kelly sizes up the competition. Lemond starts his wind-up for the sprint with about 600 meters to go, a very long way out. But he has little chance against Kelly in a head-up sprint and so elects to try to go early in hopes of blunting the Irishman’s finishing fury. Then the unexpected happens—Konishev goes on the attack again. What a gift for Lemond! Thanking the naïve Russian for an early Christmas present, Lemond pounces on Konishev’s wheel as the sprint heats up in earnest. Kelly remains solidly linked to Lemond. Two hundred meters. This is it! Rooks bursts to the right, out of the saddle, for all he’s worth. Kelly moves to counter him when Lemond surges out and around Konishev, digging deep for reserves that only he can claim. Lemond is hell-bent for the line now, with just a half-wheel on Kelly. The American digs and digs . . . and then it is over. Just meters before the line, Kelly’s shoulders slump as he concedes defeat to the American. For yet another time, he has finished second at the Worlds. Rooks makes the fatal mistake of sitting up while still a bike length behind Kelly, and the ever-persistent Konishev robs him of third place and the last spot on the podium.
         But this is Lemond’s day; he punches triumphantly at the sky as he breezes past the finish line and into the swarming throng. Hoards of press, trainers, and security swirl into a melange of jubilant insanity with Lemond at its center. The melee of the World Championships will soon be complete. The three winners will climb the podium and soak each other with champagne as the beaten opponents withdraw to ponder their fate and plan for the next battle. And slowly the circus will wind down. When it finally closes for another year, this little French city can return to a more normal form of existence. But Chamberey will forever remain a part of cycling history. Its roads have helped to shape a new champion.