Shortly after 16:30 PM on Sunday, July 20 1986, the stage from Gap to Serre Chevalier is won by Eduardo Chozas. A Spanish rider of the Reynolds team and teammate of Pedro Delgado. When he leaves the podium with his flowers and a big smile another rider is set to receive the yellow jersey. It’s not Bernard Hinault but Greg LeMond this time, who just left the Badger behind for more than 3 minutes in that stage. Photographers shoot close ups of the man with his yellow Ryobi cap, sponsor of the best team competition, and his beautiful yellow jersey. French newspaper L’Equipe is headlining “LeMond vire en jaune”. “LeMond turns yellow”. But it is not the first time Greg gets a yellow jersey.
Let’s go back for 4 years. We’re in 1982. Greg is racing for the Renault team. It’s his 2nd full season with the professionals. He’s 21 and ready to show the world he’s ambitious. A stage victory in Tirreno- Adriatico and a 2nd place at the Worlds in Goodwood (GBR) are his most remarkable results of the season. One week after the Worlds he starts in the Tour de l’Avenir, the tour of the future. A French stage race similar to the Tour de France but smaller.
It’s an open race for amateurs, semi- professionals and young riders. The young riders have a major chance to show their bicycling skills to the world.
The race also attracts a lot of teams from the old Soviet Union and East Germany who have no professional riders to enter the big races in Europe. In those years these countries didn’t allow their riders to be professionals. One of the teams taking part of the race is Renault Gitane with Greg LeMond as their leader. His most important competitors are Robert Millar and the Colombians with Lucho Herrera, all good climbers.
The Tour de l’Avenir takes place in the Alps region visiting some famous places like Morzine where the Tour de France frequently passes by. A prologue and 12 stages, including 2 individual time trials and 1 team time trial, have to decide after 2 weeks and 1400 km who would be the successor of Pascal Simon.
– Divonne-les-Bains – Divonne-les-Bains: 4.2 km
The East German amateurs are dominating the race during the first days. They grab the first 5 places in the brief prologue where Greg finishes 12th conceeding 13 seconds. One day later Andreas Petermann wins the bunch sprint in the stage to Bourg-en-Bresse. And finally in the team time trial they make a hat trick winning it before the French Renault team of Greg LeMond who now is 8th in the G.C. at 28 seconds.
But once the flat roads morph into climbs, the East Germans are dropped fast. Only Olaf Ludwig seems to do better than his compatriots and takes the yellow jersey in stage 3 leading LeMond with 2’11 in the G.C.
LeMond who’s suffering from a small problem with his stomach is waiting for the next day to make his move. Stage 4 is the first real confrontation with the hilly roads of the Chartreuse. The riders have to finish an individual time trial of 21 km with an elevation change of 750m during the last 10 km to the finish in La Ruchère, a ski station. The first part is flat compared to the final and LeMond just achieves the best split time. Robert Millar takes some time back on the final climb but reaches the top 25 seconds behind Greg who wins the stage. Colombian Lopez, who won the previous stage, takes the yellow jersey with LeMond only 15 seconds behind him.Only 130 km, but a total of 3500 metres climbing makes stage 5 a four hour race. The Col de Porte, Col du Cucheron, Col de la Cluse, Côte de St-Pierre, Côte de Miribel les Echelles and Le Planolet are waiting for the peloton. It is September and the weather is still very good. The sun is shining and the temperatures are going high. The Colombians try to open the race and little Acevedo takes the lead in a very nervous race. This is the moment Greg is waiting for and he chases after the Colombian. Meanwhile Millar is dropped which is one concern less for LeMond. On the Col de la Cluse Greg steps up the pace and joins Acevedo. Both riders seem to work well together but in the descent of the Col de la Cluse the Colombian, who tries to keep up with the fast descending LeMond, crashes. He’s able to get back on his bike, but he’s caught by the Millar group. With still 60 km to go Greg decides to continue his way and tries to enlarge the gap … successfully.
“L’avenir appartient à LeMond” is the headliner of French newspaper L’Equipe. “The future belongs to LeMond”. A second stage win for Greg, but how. He manages to degrade his competitors to followers. Winning the stage with a gap of 5m25 is a real demonstration of the American. As a result of this victorious effort Greg gets the yellow leaders jersey. His first ever. At the time the Tour de l’Avenir yellow jersey was similar to the Tour de France yellow jersey. It even contained the logo of the Tour de France and its sponsors “Le Parisien” and “Miko”. There was really no difference between this jersey and the one Greg’s teammate Bernard Hinault won that year in the Tour de France. A nice souvenir for an ambitious young rider such as Greg LeMond.
In the G.C. it seems the race is over. The Colombians try but fail, the Soviets’ leader is annihilated and the East Germans are far behind. And then there’s Robert Millar, 2nd overall, who’s already 7m15 behind before half distance of the race. But the race isn’t over and there are still 6 difficult stages to go. So the race continues after the rest day and Olaf Ludwig wins a bunch sprint in stage 7, but in stage 8 Greg confirms his superiority by winning the flat individual time trial of 45,5 km finishing at the headquarters of Mavic, the famous cycle equipment manufacturer. Again the headline of L’Equipe’s front page is the main news of the day. “LeMond insatiable: il sait aussi rouler”. “LeMond is insatiable: he also knows how to finish a time trial”.
Stage 9 is won by a French rider of the Coop Mercier team. The final 2 stages are in the climbers’ favorite terrain, in the Alps. The Colombians take the lead in the stage to Morzine. One of them is Lucho Herrera, a Colombian climbing goat, who would be one of Hinault’s main opponents in the Tour de France a few years later. Greg consolidates his lead in the G.C. and finishes 3rd in the stage as he outsprints Boden to show he’s the best. The final stage in Morzine doesn’t change the overall positions. The stage comprises a big circuit of 105 km over the Col de Gets back to Morzine ending with 3 laps of 7,5 km. A small criterium just like the final stage on the Champs-Elysées in the Tour de France. When LeMond crosses the line 2 hours and 20 minutes later in Morzine he knows he just earned his first big stage victory leading the G.C. for more than 10 minutes on 2nd place, Robert Millar.
Greg climbs on the podium to receive his yellow jersey. He’s not alone. His wife Kathy joins her man proudly on the podium. She’s like a Miss wearing a banner from the sponsor, Miko. Greg gives her a kiss and smiles to the photographers showing his braces. Four years later he does it again, without the braces and in the 1986 Tour de France where he receives his first real yellow jersey.