Because, the way LeMond had it figured, on a normal day, when both he and Fignon were riding to form, he could beat Fignon in that Versailles-to-Paris time trial by 30, maybe even 40 seconds. On a normal day. With the advantage of the tri-bars, plus the aerodynamically designed helmet LeMond planned to use, who could tell? Those two things could easily be worth another second per kilometer, which would bring the total up past the 50 seconds he needed. Besides, LeMond felt terrific, the best he'd felt the entire Tour, fully recovered from that brutal climb up L'Alpe d'Huez. And he had nothing to lose. He had already accomplished far more than he had hoped. The night before the time trial, he told his masseur he thought he could win.
"That's the way to talk," Jacome said.
There was a festive air about Paris on July 23, which dawned warm with a slight breeze. LeMond rode the course in the morning to get a feel for it and was concerned because it was so easy, with a 200-to-300-foot drop at the start and no significant climbs. He had already decided he didn't want aides in his support vehicle to tell him his splits or how he was faring in relation to Fignon. That would only detract from his concentration. LeMond's plan was to put his head down and ride as fast and as smart as he could for 24.5 kilometers (15.2 miles).
Fignon, on the other hand, asked Guimard to keep him informed of LeMond's progress. After trying his own version of the tri-bars in a practice ride that morning, Fignon had gone back to the cowhorn-style handlebars that are preferred by most European racers. Inexplicably, Fignon chose to discard the racing helmet he had used during earlier time trials and went hatless, letting his pony tail flap in the breeze—a triumph of vanity over aerodynamics. Fignon, you see, was treating this race into Paris as little more than a formality. He was too strong in mind and body for LeMond to make up the 50 seconds (although Fignon later revealed that he was suffering from a boil on his backside that had to be anesthetized). He did not believe he could lose.
Fignon took off two minutes behind LeMond. After five kilometers Guimard shouted to Fignon that he had already lost 10 seconds. No way! Fignon cranked his pace up a notch. It did no good. After 10 kilometers he had lost 19 seconds to LeMond. What? After 14 kilometers, 24 seconds. After 18 kilometers, 35 seconds. Harder and harder Fignon rode, panic creeping into his legs.
LeMond, meanwhile, had no notion of the stir he was creating until he reached the Champs-Elysées, about three miles from the finish. Heading up toward the Arc de Triomphe on the big cobblestone avenue, LeMond thought he heard the public-address announcer say he had gained 35 to 40 seconds on Fignon. Some spectators, sensing an upset, were waving American flags as he approached. But LeMond kept his head down, holding his tuck position, allowing his helmet to slice through the wind, only lifting it every few seconds to get a sight reading and a breath of air, like a swimmer pushing a kick board.
LeMond nearly caught Delgado, who had started two minutes ahead of him, crossing the finish line in 26 minutes, 57 seconds. His time was 33 seconds faster than the previous best, which had been posted by Fignon's teammate Thierry Marie. Now there was nothing to do but wait.
LeMond, alternately glancing at the ticking digital clock and the flashing lights of the caravan of vehicles trailing Fignon, knew that the outcome would be close. That, in itself, was exhilarating. LeMond was tired but not spent. It had been too short a ride to exhaust him. He could make out Fignon now, wearing the yellow jersey, barreling toward the finish. Watching the clock, then Fignon, hearing the roar of the fans, LeMond kept thinking how terrible it would be to lose by one second after more than 2,000 miles. Then that second quietly passed...27:47...27:48.... He had won.
Fignon crossed the line with the third-best time of the day, 27:55—58 seconds slower than LeMond. Had the two of them started in Versailles that day side by side, LeMond would have won the race by some 900 yards. It was a margin that, even now, seems incredible. LeMond had averaged 34 mph—the fastest time trial ever in the Tour de France. Fignon, thinking he had won even as he crossed the finish line, slid from his bike and collapsed in exhaustion. It wasn't until his masseur, holding him in his arms, said, "Laurent, you lost the race," that he knew the truth. His mind went blank. Holding his head in his hands, Fignon burst into tears—the first time he had cried since he was a child.
For LeMond, well, you can imagine. After pumping his fist in the air a few times, he was in shock. He wanted to find Kathy. Then he wanted to find his father, Bob. Those were the two people who had never lost faith in him. He wanted to remember this moment exactly as it was, always.