The closest Tour de France victories, from Roche beating Delgado by 40 seconds to LeMond’s eight-second win over Fignon…
After weeks of intensive cycling through France; along the longest flattest drags; up the biggest, steepest mountains; in the bunch, as part of a team and alone, you would think an obvious strongest rider would stake a definite claim to the yellow jersey. Yet, since 1964, there have been eight occasions where the eventual Tour de France winner has seized victory by less than a minute. With the 2017 edition of the world’s most popular cycle race about to start, cycling journalist Matt Lamy recalls the closest Tour de France finishes of all time.
Although we’ll look at the five narrowest Tour winning margins individually in a moment, it’s worth mentioning the other three instances where the difference between first and second was less than a minute. In 2008 Spain’s Carlos Sastre beat Australia’s Cadel Evans by just 58 seconds — Evans features as runner-up again in the second-closest Tour finish in our list below. In 1964, five-time Tour champion beat the original ‘Eternal Second’ Raymond Poulidor by 55 seconds — that was the nearest Poulidor would ever get to yellow despite finishing second overall three times and coming third on five occasions. And in 1977 France’s Bernard Thévenet beat Dutchman Hennie Kuiper by just 48 seconds — again, Kuiper was runner-up once more in 1980. But now to the top five…
1987 — Stephen Roche beat Pedro Delgado by 40 seconds
The Eighties were a fantastic decade for Tour de France excitement but few memories sit more prominently in the memories of British and Irish cycling fans than one particular stage at the 1987 Tour de France. All Tours that finish with less than a minute between leader and runner-up go down to the wire — anything can happen on that final day to cause an upset — but the truly crucial drama of the 1987 Tour actually came four days earlier on the slopes up to La Plagne.
With a final time trial still to take place, and second-placed rider Stephen Roche very talented against the clock, race leader Pedro Delgado knew he had to try to irk out an even greater advantage on the mountain stages. On stage 21 to La Plagne, Delgado looked like he had stolen a minute on Roche but little did he — or British commentator Phil Liggett — know that Roche had fought back on the slopes to regain ground and managed to finish just seconds behind Delgado. “That looks like Roche. That looks like Stephen Roche! It’s Stephen Roche!” Liggett famously cried out in a moment of unadulterated excitement.
Roche collapsed at the line and needed oxygen, but he did beat Delgado in the time trial three days later by a big enough gap to secure a rare triple crown in 1987: the world championship, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.
1968 — Jan Janssen beat Herman Van Springel by 38 seconds
In something of a foreshadowing of the drama that was to come in 1989, the 1968 Tour de France was won by a noted time triallist — Jan Janssen — putting his talent against the clock to good use on the very final stage into Paris.
The last day was actually split into two stages, first an 85-mile road stage, then a 34-mile time trial. Going into that last test, Germany’s Herman Van Springel was ahead of Spain’s Gregorio San Miguel by 12 seconds and the Netherland’s Janssen at 16 seconds. Although Van Springel finished second in that final time trial, Janssen won it by a large enough margin to secure the yellow jersey. (Fun fact: the 1968 Tour de France was the last edition where riders participated as national teams — from 1969 on, commercial teams were used.)
2006 — Oscar Pereiro beat Andreas Klöden by 32 seconds
The 2006 Tour de France was one of the many casualties of doping scandals of the late 1990s and new millennium. In fact, never was so close a Tour de France so very depressing.
The reason for that was because nobody watching the 2006 Tour realised that the battle for second place was actually the crucial battle for the race lead. As far as race fans were concerned at the time, American Floyd Landis had pulled off the most incredible comeback ride in Tour history, powering away from the peloton alone on stage 17 at barely believable speeds. Landis had lost the race lead just the day before when he looked to have essentially had a complete meltdown, but after his supreme attack he held onto the yellow jersey all the way until Paris.
However, then the rumours started flying. Just days after the Tour finished it was announced that a rider had failed a drugs test taken on stage 17. Surely Landis hadn’t pulled out the most remarkable ride in recent Tour history while having doped? Yes — he had. Landis put up a legal fight to retain his Tour victory but by the time the 2007 Tour came around Oscar Pereiro was retrospectively awarded the previous year’s yellow jersey. In a messy decade for pro cycling, it still stands out as being on of the very lowest points.
2007 — Alberto Contador beat Cadel Evans by 23 seconds
After the farrago of 2006 it would have been hard for the 2007 edition race to have been any worse, but it was a close call. Race leader Michael Rasmussen was removed from the race by his team on stage 16 after lying about missed drugs tests earlier in the season; the entire Cofidis and Astana squads were withdrawn from the race due to each having a team member who failed a drugs tests; and more than five years later, third-placed rider overall Levi Leipheimer was stripped of all his results from that period after confessing to doping.
Leipheimer actually finished the Tour only 31 seconds behind his team-mate and race winner Contador, with Cadel Evans just 23 seconds behind the Spaniard. So for race fans it was an intriguing final time trial as we watched to see if Evans could overturn the deficit to Contador. He couldn’t quite.
Contador went on to have his own doping controversies in following years, but plucky Evans finally put to rest the idea that his was the new millennium’s own ‘Eternal Second’ and took a very warmly-received overall Tour victory in 2011.
1989 — Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by eight seconds
And now to the greatest Tour de France finish of them all. Imagine an edition of the biggest race in the world where an American hero is returning after a shooting accident two years previously and wins the overall classification by putting in one of the most amazing time trial performances — around the streets of Paris and using cutting-edge technology — on the very final day of the race. If ever Hollywood wanted to make a positive cycling movie, highlighting the drama of the sport, the 1989 Tour de France would be the standout choice.
Greg LeMond had established himself as one of the great young riders of the early 1980s and had even secured his — and America’s — first Tour de France overall victory in 1986. But after being involved in a hunting accident which saw him shot in the back, he was forced to miss the 1987 and 1988 editions of the race. So 1989 was his comeback year and together he and double-Tour winner Laurent Fignon dominated the race. Neither man could dominate the other, though, and they were never separated by more than 53 seconds. Going into the final day’s time trial in Paris, Fignon led by 50 seconds.
LeMond was the penultimate rider to take to the course and using aerobars and a sleek aero helmet set a blistering time. In contrast, Fignon’s ponytail flapped in the wind as he fought his bike all the way down the final straight but it was no use. He had lost 58 seconds to LeMond who, crowded by media and his team, jumped for joy at the finish. LeMond would go on to win the Tour the following year as well, but Fignon never managed to regain those heights. In fact, when asked “Aren’t you the guy who lost the Tour by eight seconds?” Fignon would reply: “No monsieur, I am the man who won it twice.”