Skip to main content
Original Issue


The Tour de France began with high drama and low comedy

Last week as the Tour de France got under way, it found itself in a state of some discombobulation. After rolling over 949 miles, through parts of two countries and over one dog, the 74th edition of the world's greatest bicycle race was nearly half completed, yet somehow incomplete, too.

Without the two men who had battled each other so dramatically last summer—America's Greg LeMond, the defending champion, was convalescing from gunshot wounds suffered in a turkey hunting mishap, and his erstwhile teammate and nemesis, France's Bernard Hinault, was newly retired—no one could oblige the Gallic clamor for a front-runner, DESPERATELY SEEKING FAVORITE, the headline in L'Équipe, France's sports daily, implored as the Tour began in West Berlin on July 2. With none to be found, the French seemed thrown for a loop, as if a clock in one of their provincial church towers had just struck 13.

If pressed, most of the Tour's 200-odd engagès would probably predict that Ireland's Stephen Roche will emerge from their ranks as the race wends its way through the Pyrenees and the Alps over the next two weeks, and that he will eventually take the lead from France's Martial Gayant, the wearer, as of Sunday, of the coveted yellow jersey.

Roche, the winner of the Giro d'Italia in June, leapfrogged to sixth in the overall Tour standings on Friday with an emphatic win in the 87.5-kilometer Saumur-to-Futuroscope time trial. But the Irishman has a history of falling short in the Tour as well as a distaste for heat and height, both of which the forthcoming stages have in abundance. Says 7-Eleven team leader Andy Hampsten, who stood 50th on Sunday, "There's no boss since Hinault is not here, so everyone's looking at Roche. And Roche is wishing they'd look elsewhere."

Look elsewhere and you can find successors to LeMond and Hinault, only they're not heirs, but heiresses. In the fourth women's Tour de France, which began late last week in Sablè-sur-Sarthe, Italy's Maria Canins, winner of the past two Tours, is again battling to fend off France's own Jeannie Longo, the current world champion and winner of virtually every title in women's cycling—except a Tour de France.

Their rivalry has elements of Chris and Martina—which is to say it's fierce but friendly—with a dash of Mary Decker and Zola Budd thrown in. During the cycling road race at the L.A. Olympics, Longo appeared to be a clear winner with 500 meters to go. At that point, Canins's wheel hit Longo's derailleur, damaging it so severely that Longo had to finish on foot. "[Rebecca] Twigg was immediately in front of me, and I decided to stay there," says Canins, who came in fifth. "Longo tried to cut in between us. Usually I back off when that happens, but I thought, I can't let this opportunity go,' and I didn't budge. Longo's pedal got into my front wheel. Her misfortune was not my fault." Longo remembers the incident differently but says, "I like Maria. She would never hurt me and I wouldn't hurt her."

Canins and Longo come from similar backgrounds, if starkly different circumstances. Each competed originally as a skier—Canins is married to a ski instructor, Longo to a ski coach—and each took up cycling at first primarily to keep in shape. But Longo, who grew up comfortably in Grenoble, has a college education and plays the piano. Canins is the daughter of a street sweeper in La Villa, a simple town in the Dolomites. She left school at 14 to apprentice as a cook at a local hotel. Stop by La Villa, where Canins still lives, with her husband Bruno Bonaldi and their nine-year-old daughter, Concetta, and you might find her specialty, Lasagna Diana.

Longo is forceful and something of a rebel, whether using her influence to effect coaching changes on the French national team or writing occasionally on cycling for L'Humanitè, the French Communist Party daily. "I'm not the conventional type," she says. "I never run with the majority."

But all of France shares her obsession to win the Tour. A former Alpine and slalom skier, Longo is a superior sprint cyclist. Canins, by contrast, won the past two Tours on her climbing ability, honed by years of cross-country skiing. "For this year I increased my climbing training," says Longo, who can usually take advantage of Canins's still-crude tactical sense, even though, at 38, Canins is nearly 10 years her senior. "I'm much better now, but I don't know whether it'll be enough to win. I did the mountain passes even in winter. Patrice [her husband] would wait at the top with the car in the snow to drive me down."

After four of the women's 15 stages, Canins and Longo stood second and third—41 and 53 seconds, respectively behind Roberta Bonanomi, Canins's Italian teammate. The women race according to amateur rules, which limit their daily distances to 95 kilometers, or a little less than half the length of a typical men's stage. This year, perhaps to help one of their own win the race, the Sociètè du Tour de France has chosen an even shorter and less mountainous route. About that, Canins is philosophical. "If Longo wins this year, it would be better for women's cycling," she says. "I personally find it more interesting when Lendl doesn't win at Wimbledon."

It may take a win by Longo for France, which earlier this year awarded her the Legion of Honor, to accept the women as full partners in the country's grande boucle. When she races in her native land, Longo says, "The spectators bring me bottles of fine wine. I have quite a wine collection now, and no time to drink it."

As the high drama of the women began, the men seemed content with low comedy. Consider:

•Luis Herrera, Colombian climber and winner of the Tour of Spain, suffered a sleepless night last Wednesday when police chased a thief into his hotel in Orlèans. On Friday he finished the Futuroscope in a glacial 2:07, leaving him almost 16 minutes behind the leader.

•Before the Tour began, France's Ronan Pensec, an outside threat to win, became concerned that a leaky garage roof was causing damage to his collection of antique cars. He fell while retiling the roof, breaking an ankle.

•7-Eleven's Raul Alcala, the 23-year-old Mexican whom Hinault picked to win the race, was on his way to a fine clocking in the time trial when he took an S-turn too recklessly just three kilometers from the finish. His back wheel shimmied into a hay bale, and Alcala did a somersault over the handlebars. He got up and finished, bloodied but O.K., with several extra blotches adorning the red polka-dot jersey he was wearing as the Tour's best climber.

•Règis Clère of France—who won a copy of de Gaulle's memoirs by taking a sprint in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, where the general is buried—ran over a dog while sailing through a village. Clère survived. The dog did not.

By the time the men's Tour negotiates the Pyrenees, where there will be six climbs in two days, and the Alps, where three days of nine daunting ascents await, such slapstick should have abated and a favorite come to the fore. If he can muddle into Paris in first place on July 26, Canins will bring the lasagna and Longo will bring the wine.



Alcala's spill added extra color to the polka-dot jersey he wore as the Tour's top climber.



Between Berlin and the border, the men toured little Loffenau.



Like LeMond in '86, Canins of Italy (front) is playing the foreign rival to a local favorite.