Many people know that the Cartier Santos was the very first pilot’s watch. It was designed and crafted by Louis Cartier for his good friend, and aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont. But did you also know that the Cartier Santos won the Tour de France? No, well, don’t be embarrassed, as neither did we.
It was Dale Vito Boom, part of the team at ACE Jewelers, who send me last week an image of a cyclist obviously in a hurry, wearing not only the coveted yellow jersey, indicating he was leading the Tour de France but also around his wrist a very familiar watch. As an avid cyclist himself, Dale has a passion for vintage race bikes (check out @dalevintage to see his adventures in this field). While looking into the 92 carbon-fiber Z team frame, he spotted that the man who won the Tour de France in 1990 on this type of bike was wearing a Cartier Santos.
The man in that picture was Greg LeMond. While his name may indicate otherwise, LeMond was born in 1961 in Lakewood, California. He started his professional cycling career in 1981 and quickly made a name for himself. Already in 1983 did he win the Road World Championship, becoming the first American male to do so. In 1986, he achieved another first by winning the Tour de France, something no other professional cyclist from outside Europe had ever done.
While it was not so strange to see professional cyclists participating in the Tour de France wearing watches, a Cartier Santos was not an obvious choice. In fact, it is especially strange to see such a watch on the wrist of LeMond, as he was one of the pioneers of aerodynamics in this sport. The advantages of this became especially clear in the Tour de France of the year before, 1989. LeMond started that Tour de France as a bit of an outsider. After his win in 1986, he had missed the two editions in the following years as a result of a hunting accident. Nevertheless turned the Tour de France of 1989 into a nailbiting event, in which LeMond took on two-time winner Laurent Fignon. Both men switched the coveted yellow jersey no-less than five times during the course of the Tour, always being within seconds of each other. With a much stronger team, Fignon finished well before LeMond at the Alpe d’Huez, as he did the day after, giving him almost a minute’s advantage. Usually, that would be enough to become victorious overall, but not this time. In the final time-trial, LeMond used not only a teardrop-shaped Giro helmet (mind you, helmets weren’t mandatory until 2003 in professional cycling) and clip-on handlebars. It gave him the edge that he needed. Riding at an average speed of 54.55 kph, even today one of the fastest time trials ever ridden, Fignon’s lead was reduced to just 2 seconds when LeMond entered the Champs-Elysées. In the end, LeMond won the 1989 Tour de France by only 8 seconds, writing history as winning with the closest margin ever.
So, after collecting the trophy, did LeMond take his bike and cycled to the Rue de la Paix to treat himself to a Cartier Santos? That might very well be the case, but to actually use it for cycling the Tour de France the next year is quite surprising. Not only does the watch serve little to no purpose, but it also adds unnecessary weight and doesn’t improve aerodynamics, all things LeMond was very keen on. It didn’t stop him from winning in 1990 again. While the pictures give the impression that he is wearing a steel Santos, as he received the trophy, we can see that it is, in fact, the steel-gold model. This is entirely in line with the fashion of the 1990s when steel-gold watches were en vogue, a trend the Santos was mainly responsible for.
Things become even more interesting when we blow up the image of LeMond’s Santos. While quite pixelated, a dark shape is present at the six o’clock position, making a strong case that he is wearing the quartz-powered moon phase model with pointer-date. This Ref.119901 is rather uncommon as many preferred the time-only model during those days. As vintage Cartier models with a moon phase remain rare, this is an attractive model to get, as it gives an unexpected twist to the iconic Santos.
What happened to LeMond’s Santos remains unclear, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns up at a Phillips auction in the near future. Fact is that in the Tour de France of 1991, he was wearing a gold-tone TAG Heuer S/EL. That year, he finished as 7th, with Fignon finishing one place before him. The winner that year was Miguel Indurain, who didn’t wear a watch at all. While we can’t credit the Santos for contributing to LeMond’s Tour de France win in 1990, it did come along for the ride, and how many luxury watches can say that?