"I came back to the room and was ready to cry," he recalls. "I called Kathy that night and told her, 'Get ready to sell everything. I want no obligations. If things don't turn around, I'm quitting at the end of the year.' " She didn't try to talk him out of it. It was the lowest point in his cycling career.
Shortly after that phone call, things began to turn. LeMond had a second injection of iron and started feeling stronger. He actually stayed within shouting distance of the leaders on a late mountain stage of the Tour of Italy, which was such a morale booster that he wanted an all-out test. Being hopelessly out of contention in the overall standings, LeMond decided to go for broke in the final stage of the Tour of Italy, an individual time trial of just under 34 miles. He would hold nothing back, start to finish. If he ran out of gas—"blew up," in cycling parlance—so be it. But LeMond didn't blow up. He finished second, a whopping minute and 18 seconds ahead of Fignon, the overall winner. "It changed my entire outlook," says LeMond. "Obviously, there was nothing wrong with me physically."
So he came to the Tour de France quietly hopeful. His goals for the 23-day, 2,025-mile race were relatively modest: He wanted to finish in the top 20 in the overall standings and to win one of the 21 stages. LeMond's name was never mentioned among the prerace favorites, whose numbers included Pedro Delgado of Spain (the defending champion), Stephen Rooks of the Netherlands, Stephen Roche of Ireland, Andy Hampsten of the U.S. and Fignon. LeMond, having watched the race on television the past two years, was just happy to be there.
But the Tour de France is an event unlike any other, and LeMond felt invigorated in a way he had not been since his accident. The carnival-like caravan that precedes the cyclists along the route, the throngs of people lining the roads, the hordes of international journalists, the daily live television coverage, the tension among the athletes—all of these elements contribute to the supercharged atmosphere of the race. Twenty-four hours a day for more than three weeks the Tour is the center of the universe for all those involved. Sleep comes in snatches. Bags are never unpacked. There is no escaping the mounting pressure, the crowds, the physical and mental exhaustion that gradually wears down all but the strongest riders.
LeMond soaked it all in. This was his turf. He had never finished worse than third in the Tour, and the last time he had competed he won. He felt, in a funny way, as if he were defending his title. In the July 1 Prologue—a 4.8-mile sprint against the clock through Luxembourg that opened the 76th Tour—LeMond's morale got a further boost when he finished fourth among the 198 starters, tied with Fignon and six seconds behind the leader, Erik Breukink of the Netherlands. In a stunning development, Delgado came to the starting line two minutes and 40 seconds late and finished the Prologue dead last, 2:54 behind the leader. LeMond began to adjust his sights upward. "I said to myself if I could finish in the top five in the Prologue, I could finish in the top five overall."
LeMond's strategy was to use the first eight stages, which were relatively flat, to refine his conditioning before the Tour headed into the mountains. He figured to lose some time in the second stage of the race, the team time trial through Luxembourg, and he did. LeMond's ADR team finished the 28.5-mile course 51 seconds behind Fignon's winning Super U team. Still, LeMond was pleased. ADR was fifth of 22 teams, five places better than he thought it would finish. Delgado, meanwhile, suffering stomach cramps, fell more than seven minutes behind Fignon, six behind LeMond, before the Tour was 72 hours old.
The race headed into Belgium for stages 3 and 4. LeMond knew it was in these long, flat early stages—one, 149.4 miles, the other, 158.1—that the Tour could be lost but not won. The field was still full of vigor and high hopes. Inches separated the cyclists as they sped through the countryside, and because the true contenders had yet to be determined, nobody was willing to give space. Outside the Belgian city of Liège, the route narrowed from a nice paved road to a cobblestone lane about six feet wide. It was important to be near the front of the peloton at that point, to avoid being devoured by the terrible crashes that sometimes consumed 30 or 40 riders. As the field jockeyed for position, the pace of the peloton picked up. The cyclists, riding along at a 25-mph clip, increased their speed to 30 mph as they neared the cobblestone section, then to 35, then to 40 mph, full racing speed. Britain's Sean Yates, riding beside LeMond, touched the wheel of the bike ahead of him and went down hard, bringing a handful of riders down with him. One Swiss rider, Mauro Gianetti, broke his nose in a crash and lost 11 minutes to the leaders. LeMond considered it a fine omen that he got away in one piece.
His first major test came during the fifth stage, a 45-mile individual time trial through rainy, windswept Brittany, from Dinard to Rennes. The French call these trials "the races of truth." Tactics and teammates are meaningless. The cyclists, individually spaced at one-to-two-minute intervals, simply go all out against the clock. The best man almost invariably wins. LeMond, when he is right, is the best time trialist in the world. In this race, however, he also had a technological ally—tri-bars—which were developed by an American cyclist named Boone Lennon. Widely used by triathletes, these clip-on U-shaped handlebars stick out over the front wheel of the bike, putting the cyclist into an aerodynamically streamlined position similar to a skier's tuck. LeMond had first considered using tri-bars at the Tour de Trump, in which a number of riders experimented with them with success. But he never even took a practice ride with them until the day before the Dinard-to-Rennes time trial, because if the tri-bars worked, LeMond knew, everyone would be using them before long and his edge would be lost. He found they not only put him in a better aerodynamic position but allowed him to rest on his bike, relaxing his upper body and enabling him to push a bigger gear.
LeMond rode like the LeMond of old that day, catching five of the riders who had started ahead of him, including the Netherlands' Breukink, winner of the Prologue. He covered the rainswept course, into a headwind, in 1:38:12, which works out to an average speed of about 28 mph. LeMond beat Delgado by 24 seconds, Fignon by 56 seconds and the fourth-place finisher, France's Thierry Marie, by an impressive one minute, 51 seconds. It was not so staggering a margin that everyone ran out and got themselves a new set of handlebars, but LeMond knew he could do even better. Early in the race he had hit a bump, the impact of which pushed his tri-bars down so that his body position changed. He felt too stretched out as he pedaled.
That time trial was LeMond's first win since his hunting accident, and the margin of his victory propelled him into first place in the overall standings, five seconds ahead of Fignon. Clutching the yellow jersey, LeMond called the moment his greatest day in cycling, more thrilling even than the day he won the Tour in '86. He had expected to win then. This, he had only dreamed of. And deep inside he began thinking, for the very first time, that if he could win that time trial, he might just be able to win the whole darn thing. "Although," he says, "the mountains were still to come, and I hadn't raced well in the mountains in three years."