But LeMond, 28, drew inspiration from Fignon, who had been dogged by illness and injury since winning the Tour de France in 1983 and '84. Achilles tendon surgery kept Fignon from defending his title in '85, and he dropped out of the race in '86 and again last year. He didn't regain top form until this year, when he won the Milan-San Remo Classic in the spring and the Giro d'Italia last month. LeMond finished 39th in the Giro, nearly an hour behind Fignon.
"It's been slow, so slow," he told a reporter during the first week of the Tour. "I'm not getting old. That's not the problem. I'm starting [from scratch]. Do you know how hard that is?"
Delgado practically kicked himself out of this year's Tour before it began. By arriving nearly three minutes late for the Prologue, the 7.8-km lap around the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg that began this year's Tour, he dug himself a hole that he spent the rest of the race trying to climb out of. It was a costly mistake that earned him the nickname lanterne rouge, given to the last-place rider in the 198-man field. In the team time trial the next day, a nervous stomach added four more minutes to Delgado's time. It was a measure of his fearsome power that he would finish third, just 3:34 behind LeMond.
LeMond, Fignon and Delgado dominated the '89 race. LeMond first donned the yellow jersey after a time-trial victory in the fifth stage on July 6. It was his biggest win since the 1986 Coors Classic. "This is the happiest day of my life," LeMond said after the stage. "It's even more emotional than winning the Tour in Paris three years ago."
He wore the jersey through the sunflower fields of Poitiers, the rolling vineyards of Bordeaux and into the Dumasian countryside of D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. Fignon took it from him five days later, on July 11, after the last climb up the Pyrenees. LeMond had fought tenaciously to keep his five-second lead as he chased the Frenchman along the mountain roads, but he broke down as soon as he caught Fignon and slipped seven seconds behind.
"I made LeMond explode," said Fignon, referring to how a racer feels when his legs become en compote ("like applesauce") and his bike gets as wobbly as a tourist's dollar. "I showed him I was the strongest. If he wants the yellow jersey, he'll have to walk over my body."
The 28-year-old Fignon is a willful, enigmatic intellectual whose literary taste runs the gamut from Balzac to Stephen King. A former veterinary student, Fignon is nicknamed le Professeur. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and a discomfited scholar's smile. He has a cool, brusque air, and he shuns the spotlight. Still, L'Humanité, the Communist daily, found him endearing enough to print ALLEZ FIGNON under the bills of the caps the paper sold along the Tour's route.
LeMond had his supporters, too. "I love the story of a man who's close to being dead and comes back as champion," said Jean-Michel Espinasse, the director of an art gallery in Brétigny-sur-Orge. Espinasse urged LeMond on during the 15th-stage time trial, from Gap to Orcières-Merlette, a 39-km mountain climb of 5,633 feet. "Audace, audace, toujours de l'audace!" Espinasse shouted, echoing Danton's revolutionary rallying cry. Boldness, boldness and even more boldness.
Fignon held a seven-second lead at the beginning of the stage, but LeMond soon closed the gap. He had the fifth best time of the day to Fignon's 10th best, and with that, on July 16, the American regained the yellow jersey with a 40-second advantage. "Before I started I would have been happy with a spot in the top 20." LeMond said. "Now I feel I have a real shot at [winning]."
"The Yankee is some kind of genius wise guy," Fignon said after the stage. "He plays the role of the weak chicken who suddenly gets back into shape and surprises everybody. It's almost like he planned it. He's very smart, but I'm not going to let him get into my wheel in the Alps."