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In a revolutionary finish in the bicentennial year, Greg LeMond of Wayzata, Minn., stormed into Paris on Sunday afternoon and snatched the Tour de France from the French pretender. From the start of the final day's 27-km time trial in Versailles, LeMond had approached the French capital like a lone soldier on a heroic mission. His goal: to make up the 50 seconds that separated him from the Tour's leader, Laurent Fignon of Paris, and then some.
Hunched tightly over his handlebars, his helmeted head lowered into an aerodynamically efficient position, LeMond rode all out, all the way, gaining precious seconds with each kilometer. So totally was he within himself that he had asked his support crew not to give him his splits during this final leg; he didn't want anything to break his concentration. He also didn't want to hear about the progress of the man he was chasing. LeMond would simply push himself to the limit.
In both of the previous individual time trials in the 23-day Tour, he had turned in a faster time than Fignon. And after each of them he had gained the yellow jersey emblematic of the race's overall leader. Still, LeMond wasn't given much of a chance of catching Fignon on this last day. The Frenchman's lead was considered almost insurmountable.
Fignon's strategy was entirely different. He was aware of his own time all along the course and was kept informed of LeMond's progress. With his blond ponytail streaming like a horse's mane, Fignon bore the yellow jersey into his native city in pursuit—in expectation, really—of his third Tour de France victory.
Because the field raced at two-minute intervals in reverse order of the standings, LeMond and Fignon were the last two riders on the course. Ahead of LeMond was Spain's Pedro Delgado, the star-crossed defending champion who was a distant third. As he approached the finish line near the Arc de Triomphe, LeMond almost caught Delgado. LeMond's time of 26:57 was the fastest of the day by 33 seconds. Now all that was left was the waiting. LeMond, who in 1986 became the first American to win the Tour, stood nervously on the Champs Elysées, trying to listen on French radio as the last racer, Fignon, sped toward the closest denouement in the event's 86-year history.
Fignon knew his task. The jostling crowd cheered as he chugged through the Place de la Concorde, desperately pumping against the clock. But as he passed the Arc and turned for the finish line, it was too late. Eight seconds too late. Utterly exhausted, Fignon fell from his bike and collapsed. He had to be helped up. He then sat stonily, trying to recover, surrounded by people pressing in on him even as he remained alone.
A few seconds passed before LeMond and his team knew for sure that he had won. When victory was certain, he headed to the VIP enclosure, where his wife, Kathy, was waiting, and they held each other in a long, emotional embrace. "Nothing compares to this," he said, savoring his win.
It was, without question, the most stunning achievement of LeMond's remarkable career. No one, including LeMond himself, had picked him to be a contender. He had not competed in the race since 1986, when he won with the support of five-time champion Bernard Hinault and the magnificent French La Vie Claire team.
After that, great things were expected of LeMond, but a serious accident in 1987 nearly cost him his life. He was hunting wild turkey with his brother-in-law, Patrick Blades, when Blades mistook him for a bird in the bushes and shot him in the back. Some of the buckshot pellets are still in LeMond's body. "The doctors say there is no danger of leaving them there," said LeMond. "Your body forms scar tissue."
His slow recuperation was complicated by an emergency appendectomy four months later. In 1988, LeMond began anew with the premier Dutch team, PDM, but an inflamed shin forced him to drop out of the Giro d'Italia in June. A subsequent dispute over his salary prompted LeMond to switch to ADR, a weak Belgian team. There were rumors that the sponsor, a vehicle rental company, was beginning to think that, in taking on LeMond, it was paying too much for damaged goods. "The last two years have been the most humiliating of my life," said LeMond. "Riders and team managers thought I was through, and that made me more determined than ever to return."