Work in Sports
The Grand LeMond
1989 Sportsman of the Year rewrote his own legend
Posted: Thursday July 06, 2000 02:34 PM
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.
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 kids?
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 ride."
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 straight there."
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."
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 physically."
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 be there.
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 piece.
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 minutes."
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 was Fignon's.
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 today."
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 Tour.
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 rider."
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 could lose.
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 wait.
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 reinforced that."
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.