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The insecurities of living abroad do not bother him. He eats the food, bathes under the hand-held showers, talks the language. Parlez-vous français? Oui, très bien. He piles up a stack of obviously insurmountable difficulties, then crashes through them. For three weeks in June and July, he pedals from one postcard setting to another, stronger than everyone, the champion of a foreign sport played under foreign rules that sometimes seem to come from the age of chivalry. He conquers the hills. He conquers the flat-out sprints. He conquers the piranhas of the peloton, the grand mass of 197 riders that surrounds him.
"I think this is the toughest sport in the world," he said Sunday after racing 3,414 kilometers to win his second Tour in a row, his third in his last three tries. "No other sport combines both endurance and intensity the way this one does. You have a triathlon, which is nine hours long—running, swimming and cycling—but that is endurance. Who can last? You have running events that demand intensity but not endurance. Here you have everything. You're tested on all of your levels of athletic ability."
When LeMond won the Tour in 1986, he was a 25-year-old curiosity, the first American ever to capture this event, an instant symbol of cycling's widening appeal. When he won last year, he was an inspiration, coming back from a 1987 hunting accident, in which he was shot by his brother-in-law, and from 1988 surgery for an infected tendon in his right shin. When he won this year, he simply was inevitable. He was the best, moving inexorably toward the records of five-time Tour winners Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault.
"I always say that the person who wins the Tour is the person who deserves to win the Tour," LeMond said. "This race is too long to have it any other way. I think I dominated this Tour from the beginning to the end. I was the one who made the big moves. I was the one who deserved to win."
Every Tour de France is a potboiler, spun out in nightly news segments as small and sometimes dramatic things happen to each of the leading characters. What will happen next? Tune in tomorrow. The plot lines for this Tour were laid out in the first stage, on July 1, when LeMond, Laurent Fignon of France, Pedro Delgado of Spain and Erik Breukink of the Netherlands were jumped by a group of four lesser-known riders. A 139-kilometer race was held in the morning, beginning and ending outside Poitiers, at a theme park called Futuroscope. A 44.5-kilometer team time trial was staged that afternoon, again beginning and ending at the theme park. The favorites stayed in the peloton for the morning, letting the four irregulars take the lead. What was the worry? These were not riders who could win the Tour de France.
The lead became four minutes, five minutes, six minutes. There were thoughts in the peloton that perhaps this was becoming a bigger lead than anyone had anticipated, but no one broke to chase down the four leaders. The margin became eight minutes, nine minutes, 10. By the end of the day, Steve Bauer of Canada had the overall lead, 10 minutes and 33 seconds ahead of LeMond. Frans Maassen of the Netherlands, LeMond's French teammate Ronan Pensec and Chiappucci also were more than 10 minutes ahead. These became the most important people in LeMond's future.
"Ten minutes is a lot of time to make up," LeMond said. "It's a long race, but...if I had a 10-minute lead on the first day, I don't think I ever would lose the Tour de France."
Included in his immediate trouble was a swelling, the size of a golf ball, that had appeared on the top of his left foot. In his excitement on the first day—finally feeling healthy after a virus had dogged him all spring—he had worn his shoe too tight. He would not be able to tighten the shoe correctly for the rest of the race. He would wear a bandage and a little sponge doughnut around the swelling.
"So many things happen to him in a long race like this," his trainer, Otto Jacome, said. "On the first day, he winds up with the big ball on his foot. On the sixth day, he wears a new pair of pants and he...chafes—is that the word?—around his crotch. A two-inch strip. It hurts so much, I hear him scream when he takes a shower. He needs a bandage every day for that. Then he crashes, he cuts his leg. Then he dislocates a finger in one race. He can only brake with one hand for the rest of the day—the rear wheel. He slides in the turn. Then he has the flat tire; he is so mad, he throws the tire in anger. He hurts his back. So many things happen."
The thinking always was that the four pretenders would fade, but who knew? A complication arrived when after the 10th stage, at St. Gervais Mont Blanc, Pensec took the yellow jersey (maillot jaune), which signifies the leader of the Tour. Cycling etiquette and tradition, not to mention the instruction of LeMond's Z team directors, decreed that he could not attack a teammate for the lead. The team's strategy now had to be to help Pensec, not LeMond, to win.