La Vie Claire and the rivalry that brought cycling to modernity

Watch the new GCN+ documentary on the trials, tribulations and intrigue around La Vie Claire and 1980s cycling

Clock22:17, Wednesday 26th July 2023

In modern day cycling, it seems commonplace for a team with a big sponsor and an even bigger CEO to come into the peloton and use money to dominate proceedings. Most recently, those teams are Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates, but through the years it has also been Team Sky, US Postal and ONCE. Nevertheless, before all of these teams there was one that started it all: La Vie Claire.

In the 1980s, cycling was different. It was smaller – a true niche with small teams and small budgets, where even the best riders rode on meagre salaries. While it had already started to change with talents arriving from Colombia, Australia, the UK and North America, cycling was still very much an enterprise built around a select few Western European nations.

Despite La Vie Claire being a French team with a French owner, it worked within that Western European framework to incorporate the new foreign energy in cycling into a new venture and cycling’s first cosmopolitan super team.

In this most recent GCN+ documentary, Dan Lloyd is joined by Philippa York and William Fotheringham, two figures who have an intimate understanding of the story of La Vie Claire and who were able to be our guide to learning more about one of cycling’s most fascinating chapters.

York, who rode under the name Robert Miller when she was a Scottish climber and a rival to La Vie Claire in the 1980s, is a cycling journalist. Fotheringham is an author and journalist who has interviewed many of the La Vie Claire riders after the fact. In the documentary, York and Fotheringham are just two of a handful of voices who help share the story of La Vie Claire.

Next year will mark 40 years since La Vie Claire entered pro cycling. Yet the team remains in the consciousness of cycling in ways that other, equally successful teams before and after have not matched. While the documentary touches upon some of these elements, it is impossible to undersell the importance of the rivalry to modern cycling.

Before Greg LeMond, the idea of an American winning the Tour seemed far-fetched. In fact,any rider outside of Europe seemed like a bit of a pipe dream, with France, Italy, Spain and Belgium dominating cycling in the early 1980s. LeMond, however, burst onto the scene in 1982 with a win at the Tour de l'Avenir and second place at the World Championships.

LeMond came across to Europe under the impetus of the patron of the peloton and the most traditional of European professionals, Bernard Hinault, a gruff farmer's son from Brittany with a strong character. Hinault was the talisman of the Renault team that was managed by the famous French director Cyrille Guimard.

The legend goes that the pair went to see Greg LeMond in Nevada to convince him to come across to Europe, as they attempted to bring international power to the Renault squad. They succeeded in gaining LeMond’s signature before they secured Laurent Fignon’s the next season. After Fignon’s victory in the 1983 Tour de France, Hinault, who was sidelined with a knee injury that year, had to jump ship to the newly-formed La Vie Claire team to avoid confronting the young talented Frenchman on his own team.

Nonetheless, Fignon was a formidable opponent for Hinault, and in 1984 Renault took down Hinault with a commanding win at the Tour, with Fignon winning by over 10 minutes. LeMond, who was now the reigning world champion, was third overall riding in support of Fignon and only was 1:14 behind Hinault. With those performances, and with the spectre of Fignon looming large in Hinault’s quest for an all-important fifth yellow jersey, Hinault once again sought out Greg to help him on his team. But, like when Renault signed Fignon in 1982, bringing LeMond over to La Vie Claire would prove to be Hinault signing his own replacement.

All of this coloured the crucial pairing of the 1985 and 1986 Tours de France, where the LeMond-Hinault rivalry was born and then brought to a head. Ironically, Fignon – ostensibly the reason why LeMond was brought to the team – was not a factor in 1985 or 1986.

In 1985, the La Vie Claire pair finished first and second overall, Hinault on top by a margin of 1:42, with a gulf between them and third place. LeMond burned with promise and may well have been able to win the Tour himself, instead obeying orders to stick with Hinault as the Frenchman faded in the final week. It was as if the future of cycling was waiting for the old guard to complete their moment in the spotlight.

Obviously, Hinault thought differently, hoping to squeeze out one more year of running the sport from the front, and the 1986 Tour will always be remembered as one of cycling's great rivalries, and certainly the fiercest between two teammates.

"I can't imagine how that works when there's someone smiling at you eating their cornflakes in the morning and then you go and do the bike race and he tries to kill you," York notes in the GCN+ documentary.

Hinault indeed came out swinging, but this time LeMond wasn't backing down, and the pair proceeded to attack each other as if they were on different teams. Ironically, the enduring image of that Tour is that of the pair crossing the line together atop Alpe d'Huez, but that momentary presentation of a united front could not have been less representative of the Tour as a whole. Hinault won that stage, but LeMond carried yellow to Paris to become the first non-European to win the Tour, while Hinault hung up his wheels at the end of that year.

The layers of the rivalry that culminated in the 1986 Tour were very much built into the transition from traditional cycling to modern cycling. Even within the team at the top of cycling, a team that was almost unchallenged by the other riders in the race, there was a true sporting and cultural conflict between the old mentality of the sport and its new direction.

After the 1986 Tour, cycling was different. It was modern in ways that were striking compared to the start of the 1980s. La Vie Claire and the rivalry that defined the team had a lot to do with this change and thus the history of the team is fundamental to the history of cycling.

Check out the trailer for the new Superteam: La Vie Claire documentary above and be sure to subscribe to GCN+ to watch a deep archive of bespoke cycling documentaries, as well as live racing from across the calendar and around the world.

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