Two things became apparent last week as the 73rd Tour de France—the largest ever, with 210 riders competing for 21 teams—continued its relentlessly beautiful and increasingly suspenseful journey around Gaul. First, truth will out, particularly when egotistical playboys are involved. Second, after 10 stages and 1,619 kilometers of pedaling, the real racing had yet to begin.
But, shhh, don't tell the U.S. team. Sponsored by 7-Eleven, the Americans looked on the race's July 4th starting date as a bountiful omen, and in the first-ever Tour appearance by a U.S.-based outfit, they have gotten off to a roaring start and won the respect of the European cycling community. "You could sense the other riders thinking, These guys are getting too much, too soon," said Davis Phinney, 26, of Copper Mountain, Colo., who on July 6 won the third stage of the race, a 220-kilometer haul from the Parisian suburb of Levallois Parret to Lievin, which is near the Belgian border. "I still can't believe it. All these years of being known just as a criterium rider, and all of a sudden I'm legitimate." In fact, Phinney was a bronze medalist at the '84 Olympics.
On July 5 the 7-Eleven team had earned—for six hours, anyway—the maillot jaune, the coveted yellow jersey that is given to the overall leader of the race. It was won by Canada's Alex Stieda, one of two non-Americans on the 7-Eleven team (the other is Raul Alcala of Mexico). After the prologue and the first short stage, Stieda had the lowest total elapsed time. "It gave the team confidence just to see Alex with it on," said the American coach, Mike Neel, who had no illusions that his team would retain the jersey for long.
Indeed, in the team time trials that same afternoon, Stieda became exhausted and had to slow down so much that he was almost disqualified. "Our goals were to win one or two stages and to finish five racers," says Neel. "We just don't have the get-go yet to compete for the top three overall spots."
On July 10 the team got another boost when its captain, Ron Kiefel of Boulder, Colo., finished second in the seventh stage, a 190-kilometer route through picturesque Normandy. Not that Kiefel was exactly enjoying the scenery. "You can't look around too much," he says. "You're always watching out for someone slamming on the brakes ahead of you, for riders weaving, for cars squeezing the peloton [the formation incorporating the main body of competitors]." Like eight of his nine 7-Eleven mates (the exception is Doug Shapiro), Kiefel, 26, is competing in his first Tour de France.
"We're here to learn," says the director of the 7-Eleven cycling program, Jim Ochowicz. "There's no way to train for this race except by riding in it. Whipping through these little towns, people hanging off both sides of the roads, cars roaring by, cobblestones, sirens—how are you going to prepare for that at home? This is the major leagues."
One look at what cyclists are paid will tell you that. The 7-Eleven riders make between $18,000 and $40,000 a year—the average is $25,000—and they earn about that much again in prize money. Greg LeMond, an American who races for a French team, La Vie Claire, is in the second year of a four-year, $1.2 million contract, which means he's paid more in a year than the entire 7-Eleven squad. And LeMond approximately doubles his income in bonuses and endorsements.
However, since triumphing in the 1983 World Road Race Championship, LeMond has not won a major European competition. He finished a disappointing fourth in this year's Tour of Italy, the second most prestigious race in the world, and was third and second, respectively, in the past two Tours de France. LeMond is getting a reputation for being a man who can't win the big one. " Greg LeMond has all the physical qualities needed to win the Tour," said Laurent Fignon, one of the favorites, on the eve of the opening leg. "But he doesn't have the mind-set of a winner."
Ouch. But then, that's Fignon, who by age 23 had won two Tours de France. He missed all of last season recovering from surgery to repair an Achilles tendon, but during his convalescence, his fans could keep tabs on his whereabouts and affaires amoureux by reading the Paris papers. Fignon is now 25, the same age as LeMond, and is ready to reassume the cycling spotlight.
"He wants to become the next big Hinault," says LeMond, whose hair stands rigid on the nape of his neck at the very mention of Fignon's name. "Maybe he will be, but I get so sick of reading about him in the French papers. He hasn't done anything in two years."