1989 Greg LeMond v Laurent Fignon
This rivalry was sparked by two behemoths of the sport dueling it out, leaving any animosity on the road. Almost. The American LeMond and Fignon from France battled stage-after stage for the famous yellow jersey.
Fignon was in the best physical condition of his life and had an excellent team around him. LeMond wasn’t so fortunate in either respect, but did have two tricks up his skin-tight sleeve; tactical nous and a ground breaking bike.
At that point, organizers of le Tour only permitted riders to have 3 rest-points on their bike; the saddle, handlebars and pedals. LeMond, however, also had elbow rests on his bike, enabling him to achieve a more aerodynamic stance, giving him an advantage. Fignon and his team never lodged a formal complaint, and organisers seemed unmotivated to step in.
“Cue photographers harassing riders, TV crews being spat at, and even a fight”
The American also out-thought his opponent. When other riders attacked, he continued at his own pace, unfazed by the action around him. Through many of the stages, he stayed firmly on Fignon’s wheel, allowing his great rival to do all the work. Despite this, Fignon Slowly opened a lead up on his rival.
The on-road rivalry seeped out into the press, when Fignon suggested to a French newspaper that LeMond was being somewhat selfish, not sharing the workload, and questioning whether the Americans team were really up to the challenge if LeMond needed to rely on his rivals work rate.
LeMond, of course, replied, stating that Fignon shouldn’t be saying such things. This public spat, combined the prospect of a Frenchman winning le Tour for the first time in four years was enough to spark a media circus.
Cue scrums of photographers harassing the riders, TV crews being spat at, and even a fight that led to Fignon successfully defending himself in court against a photographer who brought an assault charge against him.
Back to the race, and Fignon had built a seemingly unassailable 50 second lead on LeMond, and with only a 24km stretch between Versailles and the Champs-Elysées left. By that point, Fignon was suffering with injury, but reasoned that it would be impossible for his rival to make up the 2 seconds a kilometre required to take the yellow jersey.
Fignon crossed the finish line and collapsed. After catching his breath, he simply asked “Well?”. No reply came. He asked again, and eventually somebody told him that LeMond had done the impossible, and taken 58 second of lead.
On the floor, and in pain, Fignon had learnt that his rival had beaten him to the Tour de France title by just 8 seconds. It remains the closest finish in the history of le Tour.