RE­LIVE EPIC BAT­TLES ON SU­PERBAG­NÈRES

This road to nowhere in the Pyre­nees is sel­dom used by the Tour de France. Which is a shame, as its ap­pear­ances al­ways make for mem­o­rable rac­ing

Cyclist - - Contents - Words EL­LIS BA­CON Pho­tog­ra­phy GE­ORGE MAR­SHALL

Surely it’s no co­in­ci­dence that what are widely con­sid­ered the two best Tours de France in liv­ing mem­ory – the 1986 and 1989 edi­tions – both fea­tured the climb of Su­perbag­nères. And if it is a co­in­ci­dence? Well, then the climb can be con­sid­ered a good luck charm for the or­gan­is­ers, and in­clud­ing it again might re­ally spice things up. As we head rapidly to­wards 30 years since the Pyre­nean climb last fea­tured on the route of the world’s big­gest bike race, it’s surely high time that the Tour con­sid­ered go­ing back.

What’s the hold-up? Weak road bridges on the climb’s lower slopes mean that the Tour isn’t pre­pared to risk catas­tro­phe to get the race’s heavy in­fra­struc­ture to the top. One so­lu­tion would be to sta­tion the weighty team buses, podium and VIP grand­stands down in the town of Bag­nères-de-lu­chon and have only the es­sen­tial fin­ish line para­pher­na­lia at the sum­mit, with team cars fer­ry­ing the rid­ers back down again at the con­clu­sion of the stage. Ei­ther way, one can only hope that an an­swer is found to bring­ing Su­perbag­nères back into the fold.

More than just num­bers

A ski sta­tion dur­ing snowy months, in sum­mer Su­perbag­nères is a pop­u­lar fea­ture in Pyre­nean cycling trips pass­ing through the town of Bag­nères-de-lu­chon at its base.

But what is it that makes a climb that has only fea­tured six times at the Tour so spe­cial any­way? Af­ter all, at 18.5km in length and with an av­er­age gra­di­ent of just over 6%, Su­perbag­nères is not an es­pe­cially tough climb on pa­per.

First, there’s the fact that in its six Tour ap­pear­ances – two of which were as a moun­tain time-trial, and an­other one as a short and sharp 20km massed start road race – it has only ever acted as a stage fin­ish. As a sin­gle road climb

(so, not a pass), Su­perbag­nères is essen­tially a cul-de-sac: when you reach the top there’s nowhere to go but back down the way you came.

What re­ally makes it a ‘must-do’ moun­tain, how­ever, is the list of il­lus­tri­ous names that have stood vic­to­ri­ous at its sum­mit, a list that in­cludes Greg Le­mond, Bernard Hin­ault, Fed­erico Ba­ha­montes and Robert Mil­lar.

And don’t let that 6.3% av­er­age fool you: con­stant changes in gra­di­ent make this a climb that’s hard to find your rhythm on, with sec­tions over 10% en route to its 1,800m sum­mit. Add the fact that when the pros have tack­led it they’ve been go­ing full pelt as a re­sult of it be­ing the de­cid­ing act of the day, and you’ve got a bona fide clas­sic climb on your hands.

Great­ness thrust upon it

Su­perbag­nères made its first ap­pear­ance at the Tour de France in 1961, when Ital­ian Ime­rio Massig­nan took the stage vic­tory. It re­turned the fol­low­ing year, this time as a moun­tain time­trial, and while Massig­nan would go on to win a sec­ond suc­ces­sive King of the Moun­tains ti­tle, it was Spain’s Fed­erico Ba­ha­montes who was vic­to­ri­ous on Su­perbag­nères.

Its next in­clu­sion came in 1971, and it was an al­to­gether more cu­ri­ous af­fair – an ex­per­i­men­tal 19.6km road stage start­ing in Lu­chon and fin­ish­ing at the top of the climb. The win­ner this time was an­other fêted Span­ish climber, José Manuel Fuente, who crossed the line al­most half a minute clear of Bel­gian climb­ing spe­cial­ist Lu­cien Van Impe.

In 1979 Su­perbag­nères was in­cluded on the route once again as a slightly more con­ven­tional moun­tain TT, won by France’s Bernard Hin­ault on the way to the sec­ond of his five Tour ti­tles.

As for those clas­sic 1986 and 1989 vis­its, they bring back mem­o­ries of bike rac­ing at its best, when more un­pre­dictable rac­ing – in­clud­ing huge at­tacks and spec­tac­u­lar strug­gles – ruled the roost, in con­trast to to­day’s far more cal­cu­lated ride-to-power pro­ces­sions.

Hin­ault may have won on Su­perbag­nères in 1979, but his 1986 ex­pe­ri­ence was some­what dif­fer­ent, in that it was sim­ply one climb too far for him on a gru­elling Stage 13.

The pre­vi­ous day – Stage 12 be­tween Bay­onne and Pau – had seen Hin­ault at his at­tack­ing best, putting more than four-and-a-half min­utes into his young La Vie Claire team­mate Greg Le­mond,

As for those clas­sic 1986 and 1989 vis­its, they bring back mem­o­ries of bike rac­ing at its un­pre­dictable best

who he’d promised to help win the 1986 Tour af­ter Le­mond had un­selfishly helped the French­man win his fifth and, as it turned out, fi­nal Tour the year be­fore.

It meant that, go­ing into the Su­perbag­nères stage, Hin­ault led Le­mond over­all by 5 min­utes 25 sec­onds, hav­ing al­ready beaten the Amer­i­can by 44 sec­onds on Stage 9’s time-trial in Nantes.

It was hard to see how any of this was help­ing Le­mond, es­pe­cially when Hin­ault be­gan Stage 13 by at­tack­ing again, this time on the de­scent of the Col du Tour­malet early on, with the Col d’as­pin, the Col du Peyre­sourde and Su­perbag­nères it­self still to come.

It was a cu­ri­ous move given that Hin­ault was al­ready in the leader’s yel­low jer­sey. The French­man would later claim he at­tacked os­ten­si­bly to put Le­mond’s ri­vals un­der pres­sure, and to be fair the move did in­deed force Urs Zim­mer­mann, Robert Mil­lar and

Luis Her­rera to chase, al­low­ing Le­mond to sit on their wheels while they did the work.

Hav­ing rid­den hard over the As­pin and Peyre­sourde, Hin­ault blew up at the bot­tom of Su­perbag­nères. Two days of rac­ing from the front had proved too much even for The Badger.

Le­mond was then helped by a brave at­tack from a third La Vie Claire rider, fel­low Amer­i­can Andy Hamp­sten, which put Mil­lar and Zim­mer­mann un­der fur­ther pres­sure, un­til fi­nally he went on the at­tack him­self.

Hamp­sten had won the Tour of Switzer­land just ahead of the 1986 Tour, and so could have le­git­i­mately staked a claim for ad­di­tional leader sta­tus that year – de­spite it be­ing his first Tour – giv­ing La Vie Claire a three-pronged at­tack. In­stead, he rode all-out for Le­mond.

‘I was able to help Greg that day by at­tack­ing the small lead group he was in af­ter I was dragged back up to it by Robert Mil­lar,’ Hamp­sten re­mem­bers, talk­ing to Cy­clist from Tus­cany, where he runs his Cinghiale Cycling Tours com­pany.

‘That at­tack forced Zim­mer­mann and the other con­tenders to chase, which was good be­cause Le­mond liked to at­tack when he knew his op­po­nents were toasted. Af­ter he bridged over to me, I worked pulling him for nearly two kilo­me­tres un­til I’d run com­pletely out of en­ergy.

‘I re­mem­ber the gra­di­ent go­ing into Su­perbag­nères in 1986 was grad­ual be­fore a steep fi­nal slope that started about 8km or 10km from the sum­mit. That steep bit

Hin­ault would later claim he at­tacked os­ten­si­bly to put Le­mond’s ri­vals un­der pres­sure

hap­pened to be where I was able to re­gain con­tact with Le­mond’s lead group, so I at­tacked as soon as we joined them to sur­prise the com­pe­ti­tion. It wasn’t planned by the La Vie Claire team. We were used to keep­ing the rac­ing ag­gres­sive, so I just did what I could.’

Le­mond won the stage alone, a minute and 12 sec­onds ahead of Mil­lar, with Zim­mer­mann third. Her­rera was an­other half a minute be­hind, while Hamp­sten was fifth at 2min 20sec.

Hamp­sten’s ef­forts saw him claim the white jer­sey as best young rider, too, a clas­si­fi­ca­tion he would lead from there into Paris, where he fin­ished fourth over­all. Not a bad Tour de­but…

As for Hin­ault, he would lose 4min 39sec to Le­mond, which left him still wear­ing the yel­low jer­sey but now just 40 sec­onds ahead of his Amer­i­can team­mate.

Le­mond would do fur­ther dam­age in the Alps, lead­ing to that fa­mous mo­ment on the stage to Alpe d’huez when the two team­mates would cross the fin­ish line hav­ing linked hands, with Hin­ault fi­nally con­ced­ing de­feat.

Mil­lar time

From hav­ing dom­i­nated on the slopes of Su­perbag­nères to set up his first Tour win in 1986, Le­mond would lose his yel­low jer­sey there in 1989 – team­mate-less and ex­posed.

At the front of the race on Stage 10, de­fend­ing Tour cham­pion Pe­dro Del­gado, hav­ing lost 2min 40sec be­fore the race had even be­gun by miss­ing his start time in the pro­logue time-trial, clearly had some­thing to prove. As the race moved onto the slopes of Su­perbag­nères for the fi­nale of the stage, the Spa­niard moved for­ward to link up with ear­lier break­away rid­ers Charly Mot­tet and Mil­lar. Del­gado’s con­stant pres­sure would soon put French­man Mot­tet in trou­ble, and only Mil­lar could fol­low his wheel.

With 100m to go, Mil­lar at­tacked, and Del­gado had no an­swer. The Scots­man won the stage, his third at the Tour fol­low­ing vic­to­ries in 1983 and 1984, and more than mak­ing up for the dis­ap­point­ment of miss­ing out to Le­mond on Su­perbag­nères three years be­fore.

In terms of the Tour’s gen­eral clas­si­fi­ca­tion, though, the real ac­tion was hap­pen­ing back down the climb. France’s Lau­rent Fignon, sens­ing that Le­mond in the yel­low jer­sey might be strug­gling, started to turn the screws, then launched an at­tack in­side the fi­nal kilo­me­tre. At first the Amer­i­can man­aged to claw his way back up to the French­man, but the ef­fort put him deep into the red, and when Fignon pushed on his ri­val had no an­swer.

Le­mond, de­feated, vir­tu­ally slumped over his bike, his nose just inches from his flu­oro yel­low bike com­puter (ev­ery­thing was flu­o­res­cent yel­low in the late 80s, from Le­mond’s reg­u­lar ADR team kit, to his sun­glasses, to his podium cap, to his now sweat-cov­ered bike com­puter). It may have been only 12 sec­onds that Fignon gained from the Amer­i­can on the line, but

It may have been only 12 sec­onds that Fignon gained from Le­mond on the line, but he had started the day just five sec­onds down

hav­ing started the day just five sec­onds down, it was enough to put him in yel­low. And in this Tour more than any other in his­tory, sec­onds were vi­tally im­por­tant. By the end of the fi­nal time-trial in Paris 12 days later, Fignon would have lost the race to Le­mond by just eight of them.

Friends re­united

While the likes of Hin­ault and Le­mond have ex­pe­ri­enced both ends of the spec­trum of cycling emo­tions on Su­perbag­nères, Hamp­sten would en­joy con­sis­tently good rides in both 1986 and 1989, first as Le­mond’s team­mate and then as a leader in his own right at 7-Eleven.

Hamp­sten’s at­tack on Su­perbag­nères had been in­stru­men­tal in team­mate Le­mond’s 1986 Tour vic­tory, and in 1989 he would again be there al­most by Le­mond’s side – although on a ri­val team – even­tu­ally beat­ing his stricken former team leader to the line by three sec­onds.

That left Hamp­sten in fifth place over­all, but his form would fall away in the Alps and he would even­tu­ally ar­rive in Paris out­side the top 20.

The climb of Su­perbag­nères surely has plenty more Tour sto­ries like th­ese yet to tell. So while the proud old Grand Ho­tel high on its sum­mit, with stun­ning views out onto the Pyre­nees, awaits its next batch of win­ter ski guests, here’s hop­ing a way will be found for it to once again be pressed into ac­tion in wel­com­ing a sim­i­lar in­flux of colour­fully clad char­ac­ters around the mid­dle of July.

Su­perbag­nères isn’t one of the high­est sum­mits to fea­ture in the Tour de France, but it has played host to some epic bat­tles, no­tably be­tween Greg Le­mond and Lau­rent Fignon in 1989

You don’t re­ally have to study the map or ask the cow for direc­tions – the only way is up (and then back down)

Su­perbag­nères might only have an av­er­age gra­di­ent of 6.3% but it varies greatly over the course of the climb, al­low­ing for the sort of at­tacks that make any stage ex­cit­ing

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