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Le Grand LeMond
E.M. Swift
December 25, 1989
Greg LeMond, 1989 Sportsman of the Year, rewrote his own legend with a heroic comeback and a magnificent finish in the Tour de France
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December 25, 1989

Le Grand Lemond

Greg LeMond, 1989 Sportsman of the Year, rewrote his own legend with a heroic comeback and a magnificent finish in the Tour de France

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LeMond was so excited that he began to take a sleeping pill every night just to get some rest. With the yellow jersey came responsibilities that LeMond knew could sap his strength. Other riders look to the wearer of the yellow jersey to control the Tour. He had to stay near the front of the peloton, ready to follow every break and chase down every attack. At the end of each stage there was the crush of autograph seekers and always the interviewers posing the same questions: How do you feel? Who else looks strong? How long can you keep it?

"There's a lot of wasted energy when you take the yellow jersey," LeMond says. "But I wanted to wear it as long as I could, whether it was one, two or three days, because at that point I had no idea how I would perform when the mountains showed up."

It is the mountain stages that make the Tour de France one of the most grueling physical challenges in sport. Impossible climbs up narrow switchbacks are followed by terrifying descents at speeds approaching 70 mph. Hundreds of thousands of spectators make annual pilgrimages to the steepest climbs, the ones that are rated "beyond category," to watch the world's greatest cyclists laboring past, standing on their pedals, moving barely faster than a man can walk. It is in these mountains—first the Pyrenees, then the Alps—that the race is usually won, and it was in these mountains that most observers expected LeMond to falter.

He surprised even himself when he didn't. In the first stage in the Pyrenees, from Pau to Cauterets, a 91-mile trek that included four major climbs, LeMond stayed with Fignon the entire way to hang on to the yellow jersey for the fourth straight day. It was another psychological benchmark, and at two o'clock in the morning he called Kathy, who was staying in their house in Kortrijk, Belgium. (The LeMonds also have a house in Wayzata, Minn., which is where they live in the winter.) "You awake, honey?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered. "What are you doing awake?"

He was too excited to sleep, he told her. He was back. How far back—80%? 90%? All the way?—remained to be seen. But they both knew that by staying with Fignon in the mountains, he had already cleared a hurdle that only three weeks earlier had seemed impossible. And now, as Kathy remembers, "We began to get greedy and actually think about the possibility of Greg winning the Tour. So I stopped sleeping at night, too."

The weakness of LeMond's team began to take its toll, however, in the 10th stage, from Cauterets to Luchon-Superbagnères, the second and last day in the Pyrenees. LeMond noticed Fignon struggling early on. At one point both he and Hampsten saw Fignon grab on to a photographer's motorcycle for a second or two during a climb, an act that technically could have disqualified the Frenchman. "He was hurting, and if I'd had teammates with me," says LeMond, "we could have set a really hard pace and tried to drop Fignon on that climb and the next climb and the next one. It could have cost him minutes."

But LeMond was, essentially, riding without help, so he bided his time while Fignon rode through his early troubles. Meanwhile, Delgado—still 6:24 behind in the overall standings—broke away from the leaders. No one responded. "Everyone was looking at me as if to say, It's your job to chase him down, Greg, you've got the yellow jersey," recalls LeMond. "But I had no choice but to play it cautious and calm, as if Delgado didn't matter. The ideal thing for Fignon would have been for me to lead the chase and tire myself out, then to attack me on the final climb."

Fignon, recovering from his early problems, did attack on the final climb, an 11.2-mile monster up to Superbagnères that took 45 minutes for the leaders to complete. LeMond hung with him most of the way. Then, less than a mile from the summit, Fignon attacked again. LeMond responded too quickly. "It was a big mistake on my part, a tactical error," he says. "I should have kept my pace and recovered the ground slowly. Instead I caught right up to him then all of a sudden I blew up, boom. I put my body into oxygen debt."

In the last half mile Fignon gained 12 seconds on LeMond to take over the yellow jersey, but the big winner of the day was Delgado, who made up 3½ minutes to catapult himself into fourth place overall, only 2:53 behind Fignon.

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