Prologues in the Tour de France generally don’t have too much impact on GC. Race favourites may gain or lose a few seconds over each other, but in the bigger scheme of things, it’s not going to make too much difference to the final result.
However, in the 1989 Tour de France, one of the race favourites, more or less, lost the Tour on the first day of the race. Pedro Delgado turned up late at the start of the prologue and lost minutes rather than seconds.
Delgado had won the race the previous year and alongside Laurent Fignon was considered to be one of the favourites to win. The Spaniard had won the Vuelta a Espana earlier that season, justifying his favourite tag.
The 1989 race opened with a 7.8km prologue in Luxembourg, and Delgado signed in 20 minutes early and then set off to warm up. Somehow though, he lost track of time and missed his start time. Race officials waited anxiously for Delgado to turn up as seconds turned into minutes. Eventually, he made his way to the start house, 2 minutes and 40 seconds late.
He frantically clambered up into the start house, leapt on his bike and set off. Despite racing in far from ideal circumstances, he set a reasonably respectable time. He finished 14 seconds behind the winner, Erik Breukink. The Dutchman had won in a time of 9 minutes 14 seconds, 6 seconds ahead of Fignon, Sean Kelly and Greg LeMond.
Delgado finished the first day 2’54” down on GC. In doing so, he became the only defending champion to begin the race in last place of 198 riders. Things were to go from bad to worse for him though. The following day consisted of a split stage, and in the afternoon’s team time trial, Delgado lost more time. The Super U team of Laurent Fignon won with LeMond’s ADR team finishing in fifth 51 seconds behind.
Delgado’s team finished in last position, 4 minutes and 32 seconds behind Super U. Delgado later said that he had been very nervous during those opening days and had not been sleeping well. As a consequence, he was feeling weak, and suffering from hypoglycaemia. After two days of the race, he was now over seven minutes behind Fignon.
He did claw back a lot of the lost time as the race progressed though. He came second in the fifth stage time-trial and was in superb attacking form in the mountains. However, it was too big of a deficit to overcome. Delgado finished 3’34” behind LeMond in Paris. Whether he could have won the race can only be guessed at.
Here’s some archive footage of his disastrous start to the race in Luxembourg.