It was a ride every bit as shocking to cycling enthusiasts as Bob Beamon's long jump in Mexico City was to track fans—a performance the experts believed simply could not be done. Not with the Tour de France on the line. Not by a mere mortal, made of flesh and blood and sinew. Certainly not by 28-year-old Greg LeMond, whose body is all those things plus approximately 30 small lead pellets.
The distance of the final time trial, from Versailles to Paris (24.5 kilometers), was too short, the experts said; the course (slightly downhill) was too easy; the time to make up (50 seconds) was too great. And Laurent Fignon, the two-time Tour winner who was the overall leader going into the final stage, was arrogant, too contemptuously Gallic to be whipped on his home turf by an American in the bicentennial year of the French Revolution. "Greg believes he can win," Fignon had said on the eve of the final stage. "But it is impossible. I am too strong in the mind and the legs. Fifty seconds is too much to make up in such a short distance."
Fifty seconds should have been too much of a margin for LeMond to overcome. On a normal day the best LeMond could hope for, it was said, was to gain one second a kilometer on Fignon—24.5 seconds in all—less than half the time he needed to make up to win. Not even LeMond's most optimistic supporters—not even his wife, Kathy, who thinks he hung the moon—believed he could erase Fignon's lead. Kathy didn't allow herself to hope for such a miracle. She would be happy with second. That, to her, would be miracle enough.
Because by being in a position to challenge again for the famous yellow jersey—le maillot jaune—in cycling's greatest race, LeMond had silenced all those who had doubted him over the past 27 months. He had proved wrong all the ones who said: You can't; you won't; you haven't the strength or the desire. He had even vanquished the worst enemy of all, that voice in the back of his head that had tried, in the darkest moments, to convince him to give up the chase and move on to other things.
So, you see, in many ways LeMond's race had already been won. Which is what he was thinking when he went to bed on July 22, the night before that final, spectacular ride. Fignon and the 50 seconds were a last golden apple to be reached for after the bushel basket was full. The important matter had been settled. LeMond no longer doubted himself.
What a feeling that was, to know that he could listen to his instincts and feel the rhythms of his body and trust what they told him. To hear "You can do it" and be able to believe.
It had always been that way for LeMond, ever since he first started competitive cycling at age 14 in the hills around Reno. He had ascended in his sport at a dizzying pace, turning pro at 19, joining a top French team and establishing himself among the European elite of cycling at a time when the U.S. was decidedly a Third World country in that sport. In 1983 LeMond became the first American to win the professional road race at the world championships, the most prestigious one-day event in the sport. In 1984 LeMond became the second American ever to attempt the Tour de France, and he finished third. (That year the race was won by Fignon.) In 1985 he finished second in the Tour to the legendary five-time winner, Bernard Hinault, who was LeMond's teammate and rival. Then, in 1986, LeMond became the first non-European ever to win the Tour, beating Hinault and becoming No. 1 in his sport at the relatively tender age of 25. With his prime competitive years still ahead of him, Greg LeMond was at the top of the heap.
A few months later, all that changed. In April 1987, LeMond went turkey hunting with his uncle and his brother-in-law, Patrick Blades, on a ranch in Lincoln, Calif. The three split up and lost track of one another. LeMond was just getting settled behind a bush when a shotgun blast—his brother-in-law's—went off so close by that at first he thought his own gun had accidentally discharged. LeMond started to straighten up, to ask, "Who shot...?" when he felt the blow of approximately 60 No. 2-sized pellets in his back and side. He discovered he could barely breathe—his right lung had collapsed. His kidney and liver were hit. So were his diaphragm and intestine. Two pellets lodged in the lining of his heart. As LeMond lay in the field, awaiting the helicopter that would ultimately save his life, he thought he was going to die. He even had an idea how it would feel: no violent death throes, no excruciating pain. He would just pass out from the loss of blood and die, like going to sleep. He was too shot up to worry about whether he would ride a bicycle again. His concerns were more basic: Will I live to see my wife and kids?
He learned about pain. A tube to draw blood out of his collapsed lung had to be inserted into his chest without anesthesia, and it remained there for a week. "I never thought I'd be the type that needed painkillers," LeMond says. "You think you're used to pain on your bike, but that's not pain. The suffering you feel on your bike is nothing compared to real pain. I think of that sometimes when I ride."
Thirty shotgun pellets remain in LeMond, including the two in the lining of his heart, but, miraculously, none of the damage was irreparable. Eight weeks later he started the long road back.