Le Grand LeMond|
Greg LeMond, 1989 Sportsman of the Year, rewrote his own legend with a heroic comeback and a magnificent finish in the Tour de France
by E. M. Swift
Issue date: December 25, 1989
It was a ride every bit as shocking to cycling enthusiasts as Bob
Beamon's long jump in Mexico City was to track fans a performance
the experts believed simply could not be done. Not with the Tour de
France on the line. Not by a mere mortal, made of flesh and blood and
sinew. Certainly not by 28- year-old Greg LeMond, whose body is all
those things plus approximately 30 small lead pellets.
The distance of the final time trial, from Versailles to Paris
(24.5 kilometers), was too short, the experts said; the course
(slightly downhill) was too easy; the time to make up (50 seconds)
was too great. And Laurent Fignon, the two-time Tour winner who was
the overall leader going into the final stage, was arrogant, too
contemptuously Gallic to be whipped on his home turf by an American
in the bicentennial year of the French Revolution. "Greg believes he
can win," Fignon had said on the eve of the final stage. "But it is
impossible. I am too strong in the mind and the legs. Fifty seconds
is too much to make up in such a short distance."
Fifty seconds should have been too much of a margin for LeMond to
overcome. On a normal day the best LeMond could hope for, it was
said, was to gain one second a kilometer on Fignon 24.5 seconds in
all less than half the time he needed to make up to win. Not even
LeMond's most optimistic supporters not even his wife, Kathy, who
thinks he hung the moon believed he could erase Fignon's lead.
Kathy didn't allow herself to hope for such a miracle. She would be
happy with second. That, to her, would be miracle enough.
1989 Sportsman of the year: Greg LeMond
Because by being in a position to challenge again for the famous
yellow jersey le maillot jaune in cycling's greatest race,
LeMond had silenced all those who had doubted him over the past 27
months. He had proved wrong all the ones who said: You can't; you
won't; you haven't the strength or the desire. He had even vanquished
the worst enemy of all, that voice in the back of his head that had
tried, in the darkest moments, to convince him to give up the chase
and move on to other things.
So, you see, in many ways LeMond's race had already been won.
Which is what he was thinking when he went to bed on July 22, the
night before that final, spectacular ride. Fignon and the 50
seconds were a last golden apple to be reached for after the bushel
basket was full. The important matter had been settled. LeMond no
longer doubted himself.
What a feeling that was, to know that he could listen to his
instincts and feel the rhythms of his body and trust what they told
him. To hear "You can do it" and be able to believe.
It had always been that way for LeMond, ever since he first
started competitive cycling at age 14 in the hills around Reno. He
had ascended in his sport at a dizzying pace, turning pro at 19,
joining a top French team and establishing himself among the European
elite of cycling at a time when the U.S. was decidedly a Third World
country in that sport. In 1983 LeMond became the first American to
win the professional road race at the world championships, the most
prestigious one-day event in the sport. In 1984 LeMond became the
second American ever to attempt the Tour de France, and he finished
third. (That year the race was won by Fignon.) In 1985 he finished
second in the Tour to the legendary five-time winner, Bernard
Hinault, who was LeMond's teammate and rival. Then, in 1986, LeMond
became the first non-European ever to win the Tour, beating Hinault
and becoming No. 1 in his sport at the relatively tender age of 25.
With his prime competitive years still ahead of him, Greg LeMond was
at the top of the heap.
A few months later, all that changed. In April 1987, LeMond went
turkey hunting with his uncle and his brother-in-law, Patrick Blades,
on a ranch in Lincoln, Calif. The three split up and lost track of
one another. LeMond was just getting settled behind a bush when a
shotgun blast his brother-in- law's went off so close by that
at first he thought his own gun had accidentally discharged. LeMond
started to straighten up, to ask, "Who shot. . . ?" when he felt
the blow of approximately 60 No. 2-sized pellets in his back and
side. He discovered he could barely breathe his right lung had
collapsed. His kidney and liver were hit. So were his diaphragm and
intestine. Two pellets lodged in the lining of his heart. As LeMond
lay in the field, awaiting the helicopter that would ultimately save
his life, he thought he was going to die. He even had an idea how it
would feel: no violent death throes, no excruciating pain. He would
just pass out from the loss of blood and die, like going to sleep. He
was too shot up to worry about whether he would ride a bicycle
again. His concerns were more basic: Will I live to see my wife and
He learned about pain. A tube to draw blood out of his collapsed
lung had to be inserted into his chest without anesthesia, and it
remained there for a week. "I never thought I'd be the type that
needed painkillers," LeMond says. "You think you're used to pain on
your bike, but that's not pain. The suffering you feel on your bike
is nothing compared to real pain. I think of that sometimes when I
Thirty shotgun pellets remain in LeMond, including the two in the
lining of his heart, but, miraculously, none of the damage was
irreparable. Eight weeks later he started the long road back.
At the time of the accident LeMond weighed 151 pounds, with a
body-fat content of 4%. When he started training again, he weighed
137, with 17% body fat. His body, in its efforts to survive, had
consumed vast amounts of its muscle. LeMond began to understand how
weak he really was when he went riding with a 250-pound man one day,
and the man left him behind on a climb.
The next two years were lost ones, professionally. Every time he
started to show signs of progress, something would set him back. He
had an emergency appendectomy four months after the shooting
accident, ending his 1987 season. In July 1988 his comeback was
further delayed by surgery to repair an infected tendon in his right
shin, forcing him to miss the Tour de France for a second straight
year. The powerful Dutch team, PDM, with which LeMond had signed a
two-year deal in 1987, wanted to cut his 1989 salary by $200,000.
"They had lost total confidence in me," he says. "They were trying
to claim that maybe my liver was bad, my lung was shot up, maybe I
had lead poisoning. That's why I wasn't riding well. They said,
'Maybe you're not going to ever come back.' "
When he reasoned it out, LeMond knew that he had to be patient.
His body had to go through a series of plateaus, every one requiring
a period of adaptation. To reach each new plateau, LeMond had to
stretch his endurance. Then he had to allow his body time to
recuperate before stretching again to reach a higher level. "No
matter how dedicated you are, how seriously you train, you need a
certain period of time to do that," he says. "It's impossible to go
When he didn't reason it out, however and what athlete is a
perpetual slave to reason? when he listened to his disgruntled
employers and read what the skeptics were saying, at home and
abroad, he kept hearing one phrase in his head: Maybe you're not
going to ever come back.
Before the start of the 1989 season, LeMond took a pay cut and
signed with ADR, a Belgian-based truck-leasing company, for $350,000
plus bonuses. ADR has a lower budget and considerably lower
expectations than powerhouse PDM. That translated to less pressure on
LeMond, but it also meant he had a weaker team working for him.
Teammates who help to break the wind and chase down opponents are an
integral part of professional cycling.
After riding well in the spring classics in Europe, LeMond
returned to the U.S. in May and fared poorly in the inaugural Tour de
Trump a race he had designs on winning. He struggled from the
start and finished 27th, leading even his most ardent American
supporters to question whether he could ever regain his former level.
"I was just not capable of staying with anybody on the hills,"
LeMond says. "I suffered unbelievably."
Lemond sped down the Champs-Elysees to improbable glory.
(Jean Pierre Lenfant/Allsport)
Before the shooting accident LeMond was one of the most daunting
cyclists in the mountains, a climber who thrived on the steepest
grades. Now he was the one being dropped. "The hardest part about
coming back from an injury is you always remember yourself at your
best," he says. "Never the way you were when things were going
badly. I kept remembering how I rode in the '86 Tour de France, when
I floated up hills or when I could ride 30 miles per hour for an hour
and a half during the time trials."
LeMond had his blood tested near the end of the Tour de Trump to
see if that might yield some clue to his disappointing performances.
It revealed nothing. He returned to Europe to prepare for the Tour of
Italy, one of cycling's most prestigious events after the Tour de
France. There, too, he faltered. In the first mountain stage LeMond
lost eight minutes to the leaders. His masseur, Otto Jacome, who has
been a friend of the LeMond family since Greg was 15, took one look
at him afterward and said, "You are white. You need iron."
Again LeMond had his blood tested. This time he was diagnosed as
anemic, and his doctor immediately gave him an injection of iron. "I
was riding myself into the ground," LeMond says. "I was pushing so
hard that I was eating into my muscles."
The worst was still to come. In the 11th stage of the Tour of
Italy, during a climb called the Tre Cime di Laverado, LeMond
finished 17 minutes behind the leaders. If it hadn't been for the
Italian spectators urging him on, he figures he would have finished
25 to 30 minutes down. Riders he had once dominated were pedaling
away from him with bewildering ease. How did they do it? he wondered.
He was more impressed than angry, feeling for the first time in his
career that he was out of his league.
"I came back to the room and was ready to cry," he recalls. "I
called Kathy that night and told her, 'Get ready to sell everything.
I want no obligations. If things don't turn around, I'm quitting at
the end of the year.' " She didn't try to talk him out of it. It was
the lowest point in his cycling career.
Shortly after that phone call, things began to turn. LeMond had a
second injection of iron and started feeling stronger. He actually
stayed within shouting distance of the leaders on a late mountain
stage of the Tour of Italy, which was such a morale booster that he
wanted an all-out test. Being hopelessly out of contention in the
overall standings, LeMond decided to go for broke in the final stage
of the Tour of Italy, an individual time trial of just under 34
miles. He would hold nothing back, start to finish. If he ran out of
gas "blew up," in cycling parlance so be it. But LeMond
didn't blow up. He finished second, a whopping minute and 18 seconds
ahead of Fignon, the overall winner. "It changed my entire
outlook," says LeMond. "Obviously, there was nothing wrong with me
So he came to the Tour de France quietly hopeful. His goals for
the 23-day, 2,025-mile race were relatively modest: He wanted to
finish in the top 20 in the overall standings and to win one of the
21 stages. LeMond's name was never mentioned among the prerace
favorites, whose numbers included Pedro Delgado of Spain (the
defending champion), Stephen Rooks of the Netherlands, Stephen Roche
of Ireland, Andy Hampsten of the U.S. and Fignon. LeMond, having
watched the race on television the past two years, was just happy to
But the Tour de France is an event unlike any other, and LeMond
felt invigorated in a way he had not been since his accident. The
carnival-like caravan that precedes the cyclists along the route, the
throngs of people lining the roads, the hordes of international
journalists, the daily live television coverage, the tension among
the athletes all of these elements contribute to the supercharged
atmosphere of the race. Twenty-four hours a day ^ for more than three
weeks the Tour is the center of the universe for all those involved.
Sleep comes in snatches. Bags are never unpacked. There is no
escaping the mounting pressure, the crowds, the physical and mental
exhaustion that gradually wears down all but the strongest riders.
LeMond soaked it all in. This was his turf. He had never finished
worse than third in the Tour, and the last time he had competed he
won. He felt, in a funny way, as if he were defending his title. In
the July 1 Prologue a 4.8- mile sprint against the clock through
Luxembourg that opened the 76th Tour LeMond's morale got a further
boost when he finished fourth among the 198 starters, tied with
Fignon and six seconds behind the leader, Erik Breukink of the
Netherlands. In a stunning development, Delgado came to the starting
line two minutes and 40 seconds late and finished the Prologue dead
last, 2:54 behind the leader. LeMond began to adjust his sights
upward. "I said to myself if I could finish in the top five in the
Prologue, I could finish in the top five overall."
LeMond's strategy was to use the first eight stages, which were
relatively flat, to refine his conditioning before the Tour headed
into the mountains. He figured to lose some time in the second stage
of the race, the team time trial through Luxembourg, and he did.
LeMond's ADR team finished the 28.5-mile course 51 seconds behind
Fignon's winning Super U team. Still, LeMond was pleased. ADR was
fifth of 22 teams, five places better than he thought it would
finish. Delgado, meanwhile, suffering stomach cramps, fell more than
seven minutes behind Fignon, six behind LeMond, before the Tour was
72 hours old.
The race headed into Belgium for stages 3 and 4. LeMond knew it
was in these long, flat early stages one, 149.4 miles, the other,
158.1 that the Tour could be lost but not won. The field was still
full of vigor and high hopes. Inches separated the cyclists as they
sped through the countryside, and because the true contenders had
yet to be determined, nobody was willing to give space. Outside the
Belgian city of Liege, the route narrowed from a nice paved road to a
cobblestone lane about six feet wide. It was important to be near the
front of the peloton at that point, to avoid being devoured by the
terrible crashes that sometimes consumed 30 or 40 riders. As the
field jockeyed for position, the pace of the peloton picked up. The
cyclists, riding along at a 25-mph clip, increased their speed to 30
mph as they neared the cobblestone section, then to 35, then to 40
mph, full racing speed. Britain's Sean Yates, riding beside LeMond,
touched the wheel of the bike ahead of him and went down hard,
bringing a handful of riders down with him. One Swiss rider, Mauro
Gianetti, broke his nose in a crash and lost 11 minutes to the
leaders. LeMond considered it a fine omen that he got away in one
His first major test came during the fifth stage, a 45-mile
individual time trial through rainy, windswept Brittany, from Dinard
to Rennes. The French call these trials "the races of truth."
Tactics and teammates are meaningless. The cyclists, individually
spaced at one-to-two-minute intervals, simply go all out against the
clock. The best man almost invariably wins. LeMond, when he is right,
is the best time trialist in the world. In this race, however, he
also had a technological ally tri-bars which were developed by
an American cyclist named Boone Lennon. Widely used by triathletes,
these clip-on U-shaped handlebars stick out over the front wheel of
the bike, putting the cyclist into an aerodynamically streamlined
position similar to a skier's tuck. LeMond had first considered using
tri-bars at the Tour de Trump, in which a number of riders
experimented with them with success. But he never even took a
practice ride with them until the day before the Dinard-to-Rennes
time trial, because if the tri-bars worked, LeMond knew, everyone
would be using them before long and his edge would be lost. He found
they not only put him in a better aerodynamic position but allowed
him to rest on his bike, relaxing his upper body and enabling him to
push a bigger gear.
LeMond rode like the LeMond of old that day, catching five of the
riders who had started ahead of him, including the Netherlands'
Breukink, winner of the Prologue. He covered the rainswept course,
into a headwind, in 1:38:12, which works out to an average speed of
about 28 mph. LeMond beat Delgado by 24 seconds, Fignon by 56 seconds
and the fourth-place finisher, France's Thierry Marie, by an
impressive one minute, 51 seconds. It was not so staggering a margin
that everyone ran out and got themselves a new set of handlebars, but
LeMond knew he could do even better. Early in the race he had hit a
bump, the impact of which pushed his tri-bars down so that his body
position changed. He felt too stretched out as he pedaled.
That time trial was LeMond's first win since his hunting accident,
and the margin of his victory propelled him into first place in the
overall standings, five seconds ahead of Fignon. Clutching the yellow
jersey, LeMond called the moment his greatest day in cycling, more
thrilling even than the day he won the Tour in '86. He had expected
to win then. This, he had only dreamed of. And deep inside he began
thinking, for the very first time, that if he could win that time
trial, he might just be able to win the whole darn thing.
"Although," he says, "the mountains were still to come, and I
hadn't raced well in the mountains in three years."
LeMond was so excited that he began to take a sleeping pill every
night just to get some rest. With the yellow jersey came
responsibilities that LeMond knew could sap his strength. Other
riders look to the wearer of the yellow jersey to control the Tour.
He had to stay near the front of the peloton, ready to follow every
break and chase down every attack. At the end of each stage there was
the crush of autograph seekers and always the interviewers posing the
same questions: How do you feel? Who else looks strong? How long can
you keep it?
"There's a lot of wasted energy when you take the yellow
jersey," LeMond says. "But I wanted to wear it as long as I could,
whether it was one, two or three days, because at that point I had no
idea how I would perform when the mountains showed up."
It is the mountain stages that make the Tour de France one of the
most grueling physical challenges in sport. Impossible climbs up
narrow switchbacks are followed by terrifying descents at speeds
approaching 70 mph. Hundreds of thousands of spectators make annual
pilgrimages to the steepest climbs, the ones that are rated "beyond
category," to watch the world's greatest cyclists laboring past,
standing on their pedals, moving barely faster than a man can walk.
It is in these mountains first the Pyrenees, then the Alps that
the race is usually won, and it was in these mountains that most
observers expected LeMond to falter.
He surprised even himself when he didn't. In the first stage in
the Pyrenees, from Pau to Cauterets, a 91-mile trek that included
four major climbs, LeMond stayed with Fignon the entire way to hang
on to the yellow jersey for the fourth straight day. It was another
psychological benchmark, and at two o'clock in the morning he called
Kathy, who was staying in their house in Kortrijk, Belgium. (The
LeMonds also have a house in Wayzata, Minn., - which is where they
live in the winter.) "You awake, honey?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered. "What are you doing awake?"
He was too excited to sleep, he told her. He was back. How far
back 80%? 90%? All the way? remained to be seen. But they both
knew that by staying with Fignon in the mountains, he had already
cleared a hurdle that only three weeks earlier had seemed impossible.
And now, as Kathy remembers, "We began to get greedy and actually
think about the possibility of Greg winning the Tour. So I stopped
sleeping at night, too."
The weakness of LeMond's team began to take its toll, however, in
the 10th stage, from Cauterets to Luchon-Superbagneres, the second
and last day in the Pyrenees. LeMond noticed Fignon struggling early
on. At one point both he and Hampsten saw Fignon grab on to a
photographer's motorcycle for a second or two during a climb, an act
that technically could have disqualified the Frenchman. "He was
hurting, and if I'd had teammates with me," says LeMond, "we could
have set a really hard pace and tried to drop Fignon on that climb
and the next climb and the next one. It could have cost him
But LeMond was, essentially, riding without help, so he bided his
time while Fignon rode through his early troubles. Meanwhile, Delgado
still 6:24 behind in the overall standings broke away from the
leaders. No one responded. "Everyone was looking at me as if to say,
It's your job to chase him down, Greg, you've got the yellow
jersey," recalls LeMond. "But I had no choice but to play it
cautious and calm, as if Delgado didn't matter. The ideal thing for
Fignon would have been for me to lead the chase and tire myself out,
then to attack me on the final climb."
Fignon, recovering from his early problems, did attack on the
final climb, an 11.2-mile monster up to Superbagneres that took 45
minutes for the leaders to complete. LeMond hung with him most of the
way. Then, less than a mile from the summit, Fignon attacked again.
LeMond responded too quickly. "It was a big mistake on my part, a
tactical error," he says. "I should have kept my pace and recovered
the ground slowly. Instead I caught right up to him then all of a
sudden I blew up, boom. I put my body into oxygen debt."
In the last half mile Fignon gained 12 seconds on LeMond to take
over the yellow jersey, but the big winner of the day was Delgado,
who made up 3 1/2 minutes to catapult himself into fourth place
overall, only 2:53 behind Fignon.
It was the first time Fignon had worn the yellow jersey since his
winning years of 1983 and '84. He, like LeMond, had had his share of
injuries in the interim. Surgery on his left Achilles tendon had put
him off his form for four years. Now that he was back on top, Fignon
wasted little time alienating friend and foe. "Success goes straight
to his head," says LeMond. "He can change from a very humble guy to
a very arrogant guy overnight."
LeMond, whose return to form in the race had been the talk of
French cycling fans, was Fignon's first target. Fignon accused the
underdog LeMond, through the press, of not defending the yellow
jersey like a champion, of being content to ride on his Fignon's
wheel, allowing Delgado to race away from the pack.
LeMond confronted Fignon the next day. "Don't talk to me about
not racing like a champion," he told Fignon. "I saw you hang on to
that motorcycle, and if you consider that racing like a champion, I'd
be happy to tell people about it."
Before the Tour was over, a television crew would videotape Fignon
spitting into the lens of its camera in response to a request for an
interview. Fignon consistently declined to smile for pictures,
insisting on one occasion that he was just as cute when frowning.
And, memorably, when Fignon refused to accommodate photographers for
even five minutes during a rest day in the Alps, he provoked French
journalists into organizing a nationwide Fignon boycott. No
photographs were published of the dour and temperamental race leader
in any French paper for the next 48 hours.
A genuine rivalry was developing between the boyish, optimistic
LeMond and the arrogant Fignon, with many Frenchmen allied with
LeMond. And privately, LeMond believed it was to his advantage that
Fignon had the yellow jersey during the second week of the race. It
would be Fignon who would be expected to control each day's stage,
chasing down attackers, and Fignon who would be hounded for
interviews. LeMond, just seven seconds back, felt the pressure ease.
"It was like a load off my shoulders," he says.
The next three stages resulted in few changes in the overall
standings, though the 100 degrees-plus temperatures and the breakneck
pace began to wear down the pack. Four of LeMond's ADR teammates had
already dropped out in all, 60 of the original 198 riders failed
to make it to Paris but he was not without allies. Vincent
Barteau, one of Fignon's teammates, happens to be among LeMond's
closest friends in cycling. LeMond had convinced the PDM team to sign
Barteau for the 1988 season and had, essentially, kept him from
quitting the sport. Their friendship paid dividends: During the race,
whenever Fignon was feeling strong, Barteau would make his way over
to LeMond before the start and warn him, "Keep your head up today,
Greg, things are going to happen." When Barteau won the 13th stage
in Marseilles, he dedicated the win to LeMond, a gesture that raised
LeMond even higher in the esteem of the French populace.
Then on July 15, with a week to go in the race, LeMond recaptured
the yellow jersey. He did so impressively, beating Fignon by 47
seconds in the second of the Tour's three individual time trials, a
margin that gave him the overall lead and a cushion of 40 seconds.
Any doubts that LeMond had had about his climbing ability were laid
to rest permanently at this stage the first of five grueling days
in the Alps. The route went from the city of Gap (elevation: 2,400
feet) to the Alpine resorts of Orcieres-Merlette (6,003 feet), a
distance of 24 miles, which included climbs of five and six miles.
That night, after he had finished, LeMond felt stronger, both
physically and mentally, than he had when he won the 1986 Tour. He
knew now he could win the race.
LeMond had even stopped thinking of Fignon as the man to beat. It
was Delgado, just 2:48 behind and in fourth place, whom LeMond would
watch out for as the Tour continued through the Alps.
Visibly struggling, Fignon lost another 13 seconds to LeMond in
the 16th stage, from Gap to Briancon, a 108-mile route that included
a tortuous 13-mile climb up the Cold'Izoard. LeMond pressed the pace
all day in an effort to stay with Delgado and drop Fignon once and
for all. But, as it turned out, the Frenchman's powers of recovery
and, perhaps, his pride were greater than LeMond had anticipated. "I
killed myself to do well in that stage," says LeMond. "And I paid
for it the next day."
He paid because the next day finished with the climb up L'Alpe
d'Huez, the single most difficult ascent in the Tour de France. It is
an annual event on the Tour, a punishing spectacle to which some
250,000 spectators travel, waiting along the roadside as long as 24
hours to exhort the riders up the 6,000-foot, 15-kilometer climb.
Other ascents are longer, a few are steeper, but none is more
dramatic than the 21 switchbacks of L'Alpe d'Huez, which this year
came at the end of a 100-mile, five-hour-plus stage that included two
other mountains rated "beyond category" in height and difficulty.
It was the stage that nearly cost LeMond the Tour.
Delgado, LeMond and Fignon reached the base of L'Alpe d'Huez
together, paced by a Colombian, Abelardo Rondon, a teammate of
Delgado's. LeMond knew as did the others that if he could stay
with them during that climb, he would almost certainly win the Tour.
It was the last major test before the time trial into Paris, and time
trials being LeMond's forte, if he could retain his 53-second lead,
he would be all but uncatchable.
Rondon set a very fast pace from the outset, too fast for LeMond's
liking. He was hurting, gritting his teeth to keep up. Delgado
apparently wasn't faring much better, for he finally shouted to his
teammate to slow down.
Seven kilometers from the top, halfway up L'Alpe d'Huez, LeMond
began running out of energy. When he is truly laboring, as he was
now, LeMond's shoulders start to bob back and forth. Fignon's coach,
Cyrille Guimard, recognized the signs immediately. In 1980, Guimard,
then with the Renault team, had signed LeMond to his first European
contract. So Guimard sped his car up to Fignon and shouted to him, in
French, "You've got to go now! Right now!"
LeMond, just ahead, could hear every word, but he resisted the
urge to look back lest Fignon recognize the look of panic on his
face. "I can't do it," Fignon replied. "I can't."
Guimard's car dropped back. The pace continued as before. LeMond's
shoulders continued to rock. Four kilometers before the finish
Guimard drove up to Fignon again and yelled, "Attack him now! You've
got to go now!"
Fignon went bolting past LeMond and Delgado. Delgado responded,
but LeMond couldn't keep up. With three kilometers to go, he had
dropped 35 seconds behind. Two kilometers from the top, LeMond was 52
seconds back. He gathered what reserves he could and finished the
stage 1:19 behind Fignon and Delgado, who had ridden together to the
top. LeMond had lost the overall lead. Once again, the yellow jersey
Still, LeMond trailed Fignon by only 26 seconds, a margin he was
confident he could make up in the final time trial into Paris.
Fignon, too, was uncomfortable with so narrow a lead, and he made a
daring solo attack the next day during the relatively short (57-mile)
18th stage. The attack caught LeMond by surprise. Fignon, riding the
last 14 miles alone, won the stage by 24 seconds, increasing his
overall lead to 50 seconds over a dejected LeMond. When Greg saw
Kathy afterward, his first words were, "Maybe I lost the Tour
He certainly had, as far as everyone else was concerned. The
French media crowed about Fignon's panache and forgave him his past
indiscretions. In postmortem tones newspapers and television
commentators praised LeMond for lending drama and gumption to the
race. No one seriously entertained the notion that he still had a
chance to win, particularly after he gained no time on Fignon in the
19th stage the final one in the mountains despite outsprinting
Fignon to the finish in Aix-les-Bains for his second stage win of the
Even Fignon believed the race was over. He told LeMond before the
20th and penultimate stage an uneventful ride during which
everyone saved his strength for the next day's time trial "You
raced a great race, Greg. I have to tell you, my coach, Guimard,
predicted that this is the way it would finish, me winning and you
second. He said at the Tour of Italy, you'd be the most dangerous
LeMond thanked him and told Fignon that he, too, had raced a great
race, particularly over the last few days. But he was thinking, It's
not over yet, pal. And you're not psyching me into quitting.
Because, the way LeMond had it figured, on a normal day, when both
he and Fignon were riding to form, he could beat Fignon in that
Versailles-to-Paris time trial by 30, maybe even 40 seconds. On a
normal day. With the advantage of the tri-bars, plus the
aerodynamically designed helmet LeMond planned to use, who could
tell? Those two things could easily be worth another second per
kilometer, which would bring the total up past the 50 seconds he
needed. Besides, LeMond felt terrific, the best he'd felt the entire
Tour, fully recovered from that brutal climb up L'Alpe d'Huez. And he
had nothing to lose. He had already accomplished far more than he had
hoped. The night before the time trial, he told his masseur he
thought he could win.
"That's the way to talk," Jacome said.
There was a festive air about Paris on July 23, which dawned warm
with a slight breeze. LeMond rode the course in the morning to get a
feel for it and was concerned because it was so easy, with a
200-to-300-foot drop at the start and no significant climbs. He had
already decided he didn't want aides in his support vehicle to tell
him his splits or how he was faring in relation to Fignon. That
would only detract from his concentration. LeMond's plan was to put
his head down and ride as fast and as smart as he could for 24.5
kilometers (15.2 miles).
Fignon, on the other hand, asked Guimard to keep him informed of
LeMond's progress. After trying his own version of the tri-bars in a
practice ride that morning, Fignon had gone back to the cowhorn-style
handlebars that are preferred by most European racers. Inexplicably,
Fignon chose to discard the racing helmet he had used during earlier
time trials and went hatless, letting his ponytail flap in the breeze
a triumph of vanity over aerodynamics. Fignon, you see, was
treating this race into Paris as little more than a formality. He was
too strong in mind and body for LeMond to make up the 50 seconds
(although Fignon later revealed that he was suffering from a boil on
his backside that had to be anesthetized). He did not believe he
Fignon took off two minutes behind LeMond. After five kilometers
Guimard shouted to Fignon that he had already lost 10 seconds. No
way! Fignon cranked his pace up a notch. It did no good. After 10
kilometers he had lost 19 seconds to LeMond. What? After 14
kilometers, 24 seconds. After 18 kilometers, 35 seconds. Harder and
harder Fignon rode, panic creeping into his legs.
LeMond, meanwhile, had no notion of the stir he was creating until
he reached the Champs-Elysees, about three miles from the finish.
Heading up toward the Arc de Triomphe on the big cobblestone avenue,
LeMond thought he heard the public-address announcer say he had
gained 35 to 40 seconds on Fignon. Some spectators, sensing an upset,
were waving American flags as he approached. But LeMond kept his head
down, holding his tuck position, allowing his helmet to slice through
the wind, only lifting it every few seconds to get a sight reading
and a breath of air, like a swimmer pushing a kickboard.
LeMond nearly caught Delgado, who had started two minutes ahead of
him, crossing the finish line in 26 minutes, 57 seconds. His time was
33 seconds faster than the previous best, which had been posted by
Fignon's teammate Thierry Marie. Now there was nothing to do but
LeMond, alternately glancing at the ticking digital clock and the
flashing lights of the caravan of vehicles trailing Fignon, knew
that the outcome would be close. That, in itself, was exhilarating.
LeMond was tired but not spent. It had been too short a ride to
exhaust him. He could make out Fignon now, wearing the yellow
jersey, barreling toward the finish. Watching the clock, then Fignon,
hearing the roar of the fans, LeMond kept thinking how terrible it
would be to lose by one second after more than 2,000 miles. Then that
second quietly passed . . . 27:47 . . . 27:48. . . . He had won.
Fignon crossed the line with the third-best time of the day, 27:55
58 seconds slower than LeMond. Had the two of them started in
Versailles that day side by side, LeMond would have won the race by
some 900 yards. It was a margin that, even now, seems incredible.
LeMond had averaged 34 mph the fastest time trial ever in the Tour
de France. Fignon, thinking he had won even as he crossed the finish
line, slid from his bike and collapsed in exhaustion. It wasn't until
his masseur, holding him in his arms, said, "Laurent, you lost the
race," that he knew the truth. His mind went blank. Holding his head
in his hands, Fignon burst into tears the first time he had cried
since he was a child.
For LeMond, well, you can imagine. After pumping his fist in the
air a few times, he was in shock. He wanted to find Kathy. Then he
wanted to find his father, Bob. Those were the two people who had
never lost faith in him. He wanted to remember this moment exactly as
it was, always.
On the victory platform, looking out across the sea of faces and
awaiting the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner, he thought back on
the events of the last two years with a sort of wonder. "I kept
thinking about how I almost quit two months ago, and what a good
thing it was that I never give up early," he says. "That's what it
taught me. Never give up early. The last two years have really
In September, as a magical postscript to his comeback year, LeMond
won for the second time the professional road race at the world
championships, in Chambery, France. He thus becomes only the fourth
cyclist to win the worlds and the Tour de France in the same year.
His foil, again, was poor Fignon, whom he chased down three times in
the last 2 1/2 miles of the 163-mile race.
It was another magnificent performance by this country's greatest
cyclist, especially so because the winner of the Tour de France is
always a marked man at the worlds. But it did not qualify as a
shocker. Not after what happened in July. Notice had already been
served. With his prime competitive years now upon him, Greg LeMond,
Sportsman of the Year, is back on top of the heap.