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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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It was the first time Fignon had worn the yellow jersey since his winning years of 1983 and '84. He, like LeMond, had had his share of injuries in the interim. Surgery on his left Achilles tendon had put him off his form for four years. Now that he was back on top, Fignon wasted little time alienating friend and foe. "Success goes straight to his head," says LeMond. "He can change from a very humble guy to a very arrogant guy overnight."

LeMond, whose return to form in the race had been the talk of French cycling fans, was Fignon's first target. Fignon accused the underdog LeMond, through the press, of not defending the yellow jersey like a champion, of being content to ride on his—Fignon's—wheel, allowing Delgado to race away from the pack.

LeMond confronted Fignon the next day. "Don't talk to me about not racing like a champion," he told Fignon. "I saw you hang on to that motorcycle, and if you consider that racing like a champion, I'd be happy to tell people about it."

Before the Tour was over, a television crew would videotape Fignon spitting into the lens of its camera in response to a request for an interview. Fignon consistently declined to smile for pictures, insisting on one occasion that he was just as cute when frowning. And, memorably, when Fignon refused to accommodate photographers for even five minutes during a rest day in the Alps, he provoked French journalists into organizing a nationwide Fignon boycott. No photographs were published of the dour and temperamental race leader in any French paper for the next 48 hours.

A genuine rivalry was developing between the boyish, optimistic LeMond and the arrogant Fignon, with many Frenchmen allied with LeMond. And privately, LeMond believed it was to his advantage that Fignon had the yellow jersey during the second week of the race. It would be Fignon who would be expected to control each day's stage, chasing down attackers, and Fignon who would be hounded for interviews. LeMond, just seven seconds back, felt the pressure ease. "It was like a load off my shoulders," he says.

The next three stages resulted in few changes in the overall standings, though the 100°-plus temperatures and the breakneck pace began to wear down the pack. Four of LeMond's ADR teammates had already dropped out—in all, 60 of the original 198 riders failed to make it to Paris—but he was not without allies. Vincent Barteau, one of Fignon's teammates, happens to be among LeMond's closest friends in cycling. LeMond had convinced the PDM team to sign Barteau for the 1988 season and had, essentially, kept him from quitting the sport. Their friendship paid dividends: During the race, whenever Fignon was feeling strong, Barteau would make his way over to LeMond before the start and warn him, "Keep your head up today, Greg, things are going to happen." When Barteau won the 13th stage in Marseilles, he dedicated the win to LeMond, a gesture that raised LeMond even higher in the esteem of the French populace.

Then on July 15, with a week to go in the race, LeMond recaptured the yellow jersey. He did so impressively, beating Fignon by 47 seconds in the second of the Tour's three individual time trials, a margin that gave him the overall lead and a cushion of 40 seconds. Any doubts that LeMond had had about his climbing ability were laid to rest permanently at this stage—the first of five grueling days in the Alps. The route went from the city of Gap (elevation: 2,400 feet) to the Alpine resorts of Orcières-Merlette (6,003 feet), a distance of 24 miles, which included climbs of five and six miles. That night, after he had finished, LeMond felt stronger, both physically and mentally, than he had when he won the 1986 Tour. He knew now he could win the race.

LeMond had even stopped thinking of Fignon as the man to beat. It was Delgado, just 2:48 behind and in fourth place, whom LeMond would watch out for as the Tour continued through the Alps.

Visibly struggling, Fignon lost another 13 seconds to LeMond in the 16th stage, from Gap to Briançon, a 108-mile route that included a tortuous 13-mile climb up the Col d'Izoard. LeMond pressed the pace all day in an effort to stay with Delgado and drop Fignon once and for all. But, as it turned out, the Frenchman's powers of recovery and, perhaps, his pride were greater than LeMond had anticipated. "I killed myself to do well in that stage," says LeMond. "And I paid for it the next day."

He paid because the next day finished with the climb up L'Alpe d'Huez, the single most difficult ascent in the Tour de France. It is an annual event on the Tour, a punishing spectacle to which some 250,000 spectators travel, waiting along the roadside as long as 24 hours to exhort the riders up the 6,000-foot, 15-kilometer climb. Other ascents are longer, a few are steeper, but none is more dramatic than the 21 switchbacks of L'Alpe d'Huez, which this year came at the end of a 100-mile, five-hour-plus stage that included two other mountains rated "beyond category" in height and difficulty. It was the stage that nearly cost LeMond the Tour.

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