Following the success of Bernard Hinault in the previous edition, the La Vie Claire team was heavily favored. Hinault promised to return Greg LeMond's support to win the 1985 Tour, however, continuing attacks cast doubt on Hinault's sincerity. He claimed that his tactics were simply to wear down LeMond's (and his) opponents and that he ultimately knew that LeMond would be the winner because of time losses earlier in the race. Regardless of his true motives, this tactic worked well, and rivals Laurent Fignon of Système U and Carrera Jeans–Vagabond's Urs Zimmermann were put on the defensive from the first day. Fignon quit the race due to injuries aggravated by stress.
The ascent of the legendary Alpe d'Huez gave spectators a spectacular stage in which Hinault made a suicidal solo attack to demoralize the opposition, to be matched only by LeMond at the top. In a gesture of respect, the two riders reached the top hand-in-hand, beaming smiles, and LeMond let Hinault finish first to claim the stage. However, within hours LeMond and Hinault were interviewed together on joint television, where Hinault stated that the race was not over, seemingly betraying his teammate LeMond. He went on to say that they would let the final time trial determine the winner.
The race was won by LeMond, the first from an English-speaking country, with a winning margin of three minutes and ten seconds over Hinault, and Zimmermann completed the podium, ten minutes and 54 seconds down on LeMond. In the race's other classifications, Hinault won the mountains classification, Panasonic–Merckx–Agu rider Eric Vanderaerden the points classification, La Vie Claire's Andrew Hampsten won the young rider classification, with La Vie Claire finishing at the head of the team classification by one hour 51 minutes, after placing four riders inside the final overall top ten placings.
This would be the final Tour for legendary Dutch rider Joop Zoetemelk. He started and finished 16 Tours, a record, of these Tours he finished in the top 5 eleven times and won the 1980 Tour de France. He rode his final Tour wearing the rainbow jersey as world champion.
In June, 23 teams had requested to start in the 1986 Tour. The Tour direction accepted 21 applications, so a total of 21 teams participated in the 1986 Tour de France. The two teams whose application was denied were Skala-Skil and Miko. Each team sent a squad of ten riders, which meant that the race would start with a peloton of 210 cyclists, a record setting total. From the 210 riders that began this edition, 132 made it to the finish in Paris.
7-Eleven became the Tour's first team from the United States, with a squad consisting of eight Americans, one Canadian and one Mexican.Jim Ochowicz, 7-Eleven's founder and manager, met with the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) and persuaded them to invite his team. In the Spring, the team withdrew from competition in Europe (missing the opportunity to become the first American team in the history of the Vuelta a España) due to the United States conflict with Libya, losing out on much needed competitive racing unavailable in the United States.