Stage 3: The Sculptor, Joel Pelier, 1989

Etape by Richard Moore Tour de France stage 1989 The Sculptor Joel Pelier

This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!

Friday, July 07, 1989

Rennes to Futuroscope

259 km/161 mi flat

Etape by Richard Moore Tour de France stage 1989 The Sculptor Joel Pelier In the morning of the first road stage of the 1989 Tour de France, Joël Pelier told his team director, Javier Mínguez, “I would like to attack today.”
“Joël, you know why you’re paid,” Mínguez replied. “To protect Cubino.”

“I was an équipier,” Pelier explains, “so I worked for my team leader.” Laudelino Cubino was a typical Spanish climber. “Forty kilograms soaking wet, and he couldn’t ride at 60 kph on the flat. I was his guardian angel.”

“When you’re an équipier,” Pelier continues, “you don’t have any pos- sibilities for yourself.” But five days later, during stage 6, Mínguez had a change of heart. “I don’t know why,” Pelier says, “but he gave me carte blanche. During the stage, I went back to the car to get a rain jacket and bidons [water bottles]. There were about 180 km left”—about 110 miles— “and he asked me why I didn’t attack. It was like he was challenging me. He told me he didn’t think I had the balls to attack because there were too many kilometers left. He was laughing, but it was like a bet, or a challenge.”

It was the longest stage of the 1989 Tour: a gray, dreary slog south from Rennes, the capital of Brittany, down to Futuroscope, the futuristic but still unfinished theme park on the outskirts of Poitiers in western France. It was overcast and the stage, a bit like the theme park, promised little in the way of excitement. An unseasonably chilly wind blew directly into the faces of the riders, and they huddled together for shelter. The conditions did not suit a breakaway, the headwind favoring a large pack of riders over any small group. It was a day when there was strength in numbers.

After 31 km, Søren Lilholt won an intermediate sprint. Sean Kelly won the second at 58 km. John Talen took a third after 75 km. Still the peloton was all together. In the lull that followed the third sprint, Pelier dropped back to the team car for his rain jacket and some bottles.

And Mínguez joked, “Why don’t you attack?”

Pelier rode back up to the peloton, gave the bottles to his teammates, the rain cape to Cubino, and made his way to the front. Then he proved to Mínguez that he did have balls. He attacked. “I thought there were others following me, but the peloton seemed surprised. So I used the surprise to go on my own. And I built a minute’s lead really quickly. But there were 180 km left. On your own, that’s suicidal. You know that, because it’s such a long way, a breakaway is going to be destined for failure.”

Only one rider had ever stayed out in front on his own for longer in a Tour stage. Albert Bourlon, in 1947, was away for the best part of 253 km, or nearly 160 miles, after attacking near the start of the 14th stage in Carcassonne. Nobody else had gone close.

For Pelier, there were two choices. To sit up and go back to the peloton, tail between his legs, and face some gentle mocking from Mínguez, who would be unlikely to give him carte blanche to leave Cubino’s side again. Or carry on.

He carried on, bending his back and elbows to get low over his handlebars and cut into the wind.

There was something Pelier did not realize as he began his lonely effort. Waiting at the finish in Futuroscope were his parents. That was noteworthy because Pelier’s brother was severely handicapped and required 24-hour care. Consequently, although his father had been able to attend a handful of events in Pelier’s four and a half years as a professional, his mother had never seen him race. They hadn’t planned to travel the 700 km from their home in eastern France. But Joël’s brother was in a residential center for a few days. On the spur of the moment, they decided to drive the six hours from one side of the country to the other, to see their 27-year-old son in the Tour de France. They didn’t say anything. They wanted to surprise him.

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