You don’t want to see the green Irish national jersey of Sean Kelly in your rear view mirror when you are sprinting for the line in the World Championships. Greg Lemond led out this sprint extremely early as he was afraid if Kelly took off he would never catch him. Lemond barely gets an arm up in victory salute it’s so hard and fast. It’s a long, long power sprint from the front and he only knew he had earned his second rainbow jersey when he crossed the line.
Greg Lemond truly earned what must have been his greatest one day victory. His first World Championship title was monumental, it sent a shock wave reverberating around the world, and was the opening salvo for American cyclists racing and actually beating the best. And this victory was after he had been shot with a shotgun! He had to chase down Laurent Fignon, face the tactical disadvantage of Fignon having Claveyrolat as a teammate in the final and having to beat Sean Kelly in a sprint! It is testament to Lemond being a complete cyclist; the brains, the power and the heart.
Back when it took place only weeks after the Tour de France, the World Championship road race was the most prestigious one-day race of the year. It sat squarely in the middle of the racing season. There was no hiding from it. Everyone who raced in the Tour was praying their form who hold, or if they rode badly in the Tour they could claim to be peaking in a few weeks (instead of two months). If riders were not selected for the Tour they would kill themselves to do well enough in other June and July races to be selected for the Worlds.
The 1989 Worlds road race course was too many laps of an exhausting circuit in Chambery, France. Lemond had won the Tour de France weeks before, overcoming the insurmountable lead of Laurent Fignon on the dramatic final TT stage in Paris. Greg was not feeling fit and had to be talked into riding at Chambery. Each lap he wanted to pull off at the pit area and end the suffering, but he didn’t. Only a true professional would say he started to feel better (or “unblocked”, as Lemond put it) in the last third of a race this gruelling. With each hilly lap raced Greg was feeling better, and despite the rain and the climbs, he kept finding a reason not to abandon. This is the fact that stays with me; Greg was ready to drop out of the race as he felt weak (why race if you couldn’t win?) yet he stayed at it, one lap at a time and to his surprise he started to feel better. Better? Amazing to think that struggling to stay in the elite main field, on an extremely hilly circuit course like Chambery, that an athlete would start to feel stronger 200 km into it.
By the bell lap the small break (Steven Rooks: NDL, Dmtri Konyshev: USSR and Thierry Claveyrolat: FRA) was staying away and the decimated field was not going to catch them. The French team captain Fignon ripped off the front of the field, quickly bridging up towards a countryman in the break. He must have taken note of Lemond suffering throughout the day. This was Fignon’s revenge.
As Fignon was closing in on the break he turned and to his horror saw the once-struggling Lemond next to him. If Laurent had dared to even dream of a victory that day, a victory that would help to redeem his crushing loss in the Tour, this was the last man he wanted to see bridge up and join him in the break. But once they joined the break Laurent had a teammate and the tactical advantage went his way. The video tells the rest of the story.