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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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Near the front of the pack, smack-dab in the center, thinking: "Avoid a crash, avoid a crash," Greg LeMond cycled into history Sunday on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. He could feel the tension of the past three grueling weeks unwind with each passing lap around the Tuileries Gardens and along the famous boulevard. The peloton of cyclists made a shimmering visual feast on this gray day—all chrome and colors and polka dots—as it cruised over the asphalt and cobblestones, beneath spreading sycamores, past some 2,000 watchful policemen, encouraged by 150,000 spectators.

LeMond was in yellow, the cherished maillot jaune emblematic of the overall lead in the Tour de France. As the cyclists passed under the Arrivée banner for the sixth and final time, LeMond coasted across the line in triumph—the first American in the 83-year history of the race to win the Tour. He finished 3 minutes and 10 seconds ahead of Bernard Hinault, the teammate who three days earlier had abandoned his controversial and divisive drive for a record sixth Tour championship.

This wasn't just any Tour de France, but the most difficult, turbulent and ultimately satisfying one in recent memory. A race? No, a war: of nerves, of stamina, of wits, of strength. Left by the wayside over 23 days on the 4,100-kilometer course were 78 cyclists—more than twice the number that gave up last year. Lost, too, were one promise and one friendship. All this to crown a single champion, in a race that contained two.

It really is the damnedest event: three weeks of misery for the athletes in the midst of some of the loveliest and most varied countryside on earth. More than 20 million spectators are said to line the route, though how such multitudes can be counted while spread out over so many miles is anyone's guess. Every hillside is crawling with people; every city block is a mob scene; and even along remote stretches of highway, with not a dwelling in sight, little clusters of spectators appear out of nowhere, sipping wine, some napping, some eating at linen-covered folding tables, all waiting hours for no more than a passing glimpse of the cyclists. In the interim the spectators are entertained by a caravan of vehicles driven by the Tour's sponsors, literally miles of traveling, screaming, flashing billboards peddling everything from cockroach killer to chain saws. These vehicles are filled with hundreds of thousands of cheap trinkets—paper hats, empty plastic bags, leaflets—that are heaved willy-nilly toward the masses, who then scrape and claw and dive to the middle of the road to retrieve them—grown men and women leaping in front of speeding automobiles disguised as shopping carts in order to salvage, say, a sample packet of banana flakes. It is not to be believed.

The route changes annually, circling France in a clockwise direction one year, counterclockwise the next. This year the Tour started on July 4 outside Paris, headed north to Liévin, and went west through Normandy, south through Brittany and east through the Pyrenees before winding through the Alps last week and then turning north back to Paris. It was a traveling traffic jam of one-night stands that one would think only the Swiss could pull off. "We have an expression," says Philippe Sudres, one of the Tour's press liaison men, " 'The Tour is a permanent miracle.' "

It was against this backdrop that the 1986 race unfolded, a stirring drama that boiled down to two men—LeMond and Hinault—once the Tour headed into the mountains on July 15. Co-captains of the La Vie Claire team, they are the two finest cyclists in the world, a quantum jump up from whomever one cares to put in third. Hinault, 31, was racing in his eighth and, he says, final Tour. LeMond, 25, is in his cycling prime. Hinault was chasing immortality—he is one of the three men who have won five Tours. And LeMond was chasing a dream he had nurtured since he was 17—to become the first American to win the most prestigious bike race in the world.

They were teammates, and they were friends. On many occasions Hinault had likened LeMond to a twin brother—an analogy that the French press, which adores Hinault, took a step further, noting that one twin usually dominates the other. And so it had been until this year, which was supposed to mark the passing of the torch from the elder La Vie Claire ace to the younger. Hinault had promised quite publicly to work for LeMond in this year's Tour, just as LeMond had worked for Hinault last summer, when Hinault won his fifth. "I came to this race expecting him to honor that promise," said LeMond, who finished second to Hinault in '85 by a mere 1 minute, 42 seconds. "I thought he was sincere. I believed him. I realize now that everything he said was designed to take the pressure off him. It put him in a no-lose situation."

Were LeMond to win, Hinault would be the magnanimous five-time champion who selflessly made it possible. Were Hinault to win, the man they call le Blaireau (the Badger) would be a legend alone at the top.

Which is exactly where he appeared to be headed after the first of two stages in the Pyrenees, a leg from Bayonne to Pau, when Hinault broke the race open on July 15 by attacking at the Marie-Blanque pass and escaping with Spain's Pedro Delgado to finish 4:36 ahead of the third-place LeMond. "We have rediscove red the greatest Hinault, that of 1980," gushed La Vie Claire's sports director, Maurice Le Guilloux. "In the Tour de France, Bernard clearly feels he is in his own home. He is in his own garden."

Feeling depressed and betrayed, LeMond publicly questioned his decision to race for La Vie Claire this year. Overall he was second, trailing Hinault by 5:25, a lead perilously close to being insurmountable. "I thought the Tour de France was over for me," LeMond said later.

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