The Tour de France now has well over 100 editions under its belt, in a lifespan that's just shy of 120 years. Over this period, the race has changed dramatically. In the good old days, riders often raced over 400km per day and had to make any mechanical repairs themselves (though many argue that the illicit use of trains, planes and automobiles often played its part).
So, through the years of the ever-evolving race, between dozens of riders racing hours apart, to tightly-tuned team strategies targeting bonus seconds here and there, what are the closest finishes in Tour de France history?
The smallest winning margin at the Tour de France
Laurent Fignon in 1989 (Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)
- Greg LeMond - 8 seconds, 1989
- Alberto Contador - 23 seconds, 2007
- Oscar Pereiro - 32 seconds, 2006
- Jan Janssen - 38 seconds, 1968
- Stephen Roche - 40 seconds, 1987
- Bernard Thevenet - 48 seconds, 1977
- Chris Froome - 54 seconds, 2017
- Jacques Anquetil - 55 seconds, 1964
- Carlos Sastre - 58 seconds, 2008
- Tadej Pogacar - 59 seconds, 2020
The closest ever Tour de France took place in 1989, where Greg LeMond defeated Laurent Fignon by just eight seconds in one of the most pulsating finishes to a Tour you are ever likely to see. In contrasting fashion to modern-day racing, that race featured five time trials, including the opening prologue in Luxembourg and a mammoth 73-kilometre individual time trial between Dinard and Rennes, where LeMond and Fignon were first and third respectively.
The duo seesawed between the top two positions throughout the race, regularly taking turns in the yellow jersey before handing it back to their rival. LeMond regained the lead after the stage 15 time trial to Orcières-Merlette, but Fignon grappled the yellow jersey back on Alpe d’Huez and entered the final stage with a 50 second lead.
Nowadays, this would mean that Fignon was the winner of the Tour de France as no time can realistically be won and lost — the final stage is used as a celebration before a sprint finish. However, in 1989, Paris hosted a 24.5-kilometre time trial which concluded on the Champs-Élysées.
LeMond and Fignon finished the stage first and third respectively again, but LeMond had averaged 54.5 kilometres per hour and defeated Fignon by 58 seconds. The margin was enough for LeMond to win the Tour de France by just eight seconds. Fignon, who had won the Giro d’Italia earlier that year, never returned to a Grand Tour podium again, though he did win stage 11 of the ‘92 Tour.
The Tour de France has never concluded with a time trial since, but will do so in 2024. The riders face a 35km hilly time trial in the south of France as the traditional finish in Paris is moved to accommodate the Olympic Games.
The largest winning margin at the Tour de France
In contrast, the largest margin between the winner of the Tour de France and the runner up occurred at the 1903 Tour de France, the first edition of the race. Maurice Garin finished two hours, 59 minutes and 21 seconds ahead of Lucien Pothier. For context, the same time gap separated Tadej Pogačar and Greg Van Avermaet at the 2020 Tour de France, who finished first and 50th respectively.
In general, the margin of victory at the Tour de France has decreased as time has passed. Prior to the Second World War, the Tour de France was regularly decided in hours rather than minutes. The first Tour de France post-World War II took place in 1947 and was the first Tour not organised by L’Auto. Since, the time gap between the winner and runner-up has never been more than 30 minutes.
Fausto Coppi climbing Alpe d'Huez on his way to winning the 1952 Tour de France by over 28 minutes (Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)
- Fausto Coppi, 28 minutes and 17 seconds, 1952
- Gino Bartali, 26 minutes and 16 seconds, 1948
- Hugo Koblet, 22 minutes, 1951
- Eddy Merckx, 17 minutes and 54 seconds, 1969
Luis Ocaña, 15 minutes and 51 seconds, 1973
(Largest Tour de France winning margins since 1947)
Fausto Coppi won the 1952 Tour de France by just over 28 minutes, which is the largest margin since the Tour de France restarted after the Second World War. Coppi also won five stages that year in a dominant performance.
Cover image: Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images