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An American Takes Paris
E.M. Swift
August 04, 1986
Pushed to the limit by Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond (in yellow) rode to a historic win in the Tour de France.
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August 04, 1986

An American Takes Paris

Pushed to the limit by Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond (in yellow) rode to a historic win in the Tour de France.

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Had Hinault raced conservatively the next day, in all likelihood it would have been over. But he is Hinault, le Blaireau. The French love about him the same thing Americans loved about Arnold Palmer: He charges. The next day, during perhaps the hardest single stage of the Tour, Hinault attacked yet again, alone this time, after the first of four punishing climbs. "No one else in the world would have attacked those two stages in a row," said Andy Hampsten, the only other American cyclist on La Vie Claire's team, who ultimately finished fourth overall and was the top first-year racer of this Tour. "No one else could have."

After 154 kilometers, just 30 kilometers from the finish of that stage, Hinault held a lead of nearly three minutes over his closest pursuers, which included Hampsten, LeMond and Urs Zimmermann of Switzerland. But it was in the 80s, and in Luchon, at the foot of the last climb of the day—1,160 meters up the Superbagnères—Hinault ran out of gas. The others caught him, then passed swiftly by. Hampsten, working for LeMond, attacked first, setting up LeMond's solo attack in the last five kilometers, when he dropped the others behind. "That's what won me the Tour de France," LeMond would say later. "I have to really thank Andy for that."

Hinault gave back all that he had won the day before and then some, straggling in 4:39 behind LeMond. His lead was now down to 46 seconds. Asked why he had taken such a suicidal risk, le Blaireau replied: "Cycling is a magnificent sport, but remember, it is also a game."

A serious game. In the next few days the hostility between LeMond and his erstwhile mentor grew. "We were still friends until Luchon," LeMond said later. "Then I came too close to him. He saw that we were equals."

Had Hinault and LeMond been on different teams, it would merely have been a battle between racers. As it was, it was also a battle of loyalties. Bernard Tapie, the owner of La Vie Claire, a chain of health-food stores, declared that he considered LeMond the favorite, but that, as a Frenchman, in his heart he was pulling for Hinault. So were 55 million other Frenchmen and Hinault's four French teammates. LeMond's camp was considerably smaller: Hampsten and Canadian teammate Steve Bauer; LeMond's parents, Bob and Bertha; and his spunky wife, Kathy, who at one point declared on French television, "If Hinault's going to continue attacking Greg during the race, he should say so instead of pretending they're teammates. If he's going to break his promise, at least admit it."

LeMond finally earned the maillot jaune on July 20, in the Alps, during the 17th stage of the Tour, breaking away with Zimmermann on the terrifying Col d'Izoard descent. It's a series of mountain switchbacks that, if LeMond had gone awry, could have landed him in a meadow of wildflowers some 2,000 feet below. Hinault raced much of the day with a muscle strain in his left calf, and at one point was massaged with an analgesic by the team doctor riding alongside in a car. He finished 13th, losing another 3:21 to LeMond, and now he had fallen to third place in the overall standings, trailing both LeMond and Zimmermann. Surely now, with Zimmermann between them, Hinault would work for the team.

And he did. Or seemed to. On July 21, the last brutal day in the Alps, a 165-kilometer stage from Briançon to the ski resort of L'Alpe d'Huez, Hinault and LeMond broke away on the Col du Galibier descent. Alternating in the lead, they were clocked at one point at 110 kilometers per hour—better than 66 mph—and left a boxed-in Zimmermann far behind. For the final 130 kilometers they rode together as teammates, eventually increasing their margin over the third-place Zimmermann to 5:15. As they approached the finish LeMond wrapped an arm around Hinault's shoulder in gratitude. "I thought, 'Phew! It's finally over. We're a team again,' " he said later. Then Hinault clasped LeMond's hand and raised it over his head. Finally LeMond. laughing, pushed Hinault ahead so he could finish the stage first. It was a warm moment, the emotional high point of the Tour, and was hailed as one of the most memorable scenes in the event's flamboyant history.

It was also a sham. "I am very proud of what we did today," Hinault said afterward. "We have shown the spectators another image of our sport. A very beautiful image. But again I say, the Tour is not over. I have not offered Greg the Tour de France."

LeMond couldn't believe it. He is a better climber than Hinault, yet he had not attacked the final 21-switchback climb up to L'Alpe d'Huez because he had thought their duel was finished. Now, with the mountains behind them, they were back on Hinault's turf. And sure enough, several times the next day Hinault attacked again, trying to leave LeMond behind. Always LeMond caught up, and they finished with identical times. "Well, you didn't lose anything today," a friend told LeMond afterward as he headed for his evening massage.

"No," LeMond replied. "Just a teammate. Forever."

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