The first signs of distress appeared on the first mountain climb of the long day. The Dodge Caravan with the Nevada license plates did not seem to appreciate the exotic trip. The Pyrenees? What am I doing here? A cough was followed by a shudder. The indicator on the temperature gauge moved higher and higher.
"Uh-oh," Kathy LeMond said. "Uh-oh, for sure."
One mountain led to another. She was traveling the same route her husband, Greg, would ride on his bicycle two hours later, in the 16th stage of the 77th Tour de France. What would happen as he tried to make up lost time on the Italian racer Claudio Chiappucci? That was the question of the day. What would happen to the family minivan? That was the question of the moment.
On the climb up the second mountain, the tortuous Col du Tourmalet, the smoke began to appear. The white smoke was first. The black smoke was second. The van shuddered some more, fighting against an impossible situation. The road appeared to rise directly into the blue sky. The lowest gear did not seem low enough. What engine was made to handle something like this?
"A guy in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a column last year," Kathy said as the stop-and-start trip continued. "It was after Greg was named [SI's] Sportsman of the Year. The guy said something like, 'Who can throw a pass like Joe Montana? Who can hit a baseball like Jose Canseco? These are superhuman feats that should be rewarded. Not riding a bicycle. Anyone can ride a bicycle.' Well, I'd like to see him try to ride a bike, just once, out here...."
On the third mountain, four kilometers from the finish of the stage, the minivan coughed one last time and died. Kathy stood at the side of the road with her parents and her brother-in-law and her nine-month-old daughter, Simone, and caught a ride the rest of the way with friends. Two hours later, on schedule, her husband arrived at the finish in Luz Ardiden.
LeMond had attacked on the descent of the Col du Tourmalet, ripping down the twisting road, pedaling hard to the next summit as if he were a kid late for a big test at school, passing Chiappucci, erasing all but five seconds of the lead that the Italian had held over him from the first day of the 23-day race. This was the moment when the 29-year-old from Wayzata, Minn., took the big step toward winning his third Tour—which was completed on Sunday with a grand finish down the Champs-Elysées. This was his most important charge. LeMond had been on his bicycle for seven hours, four minutes and 44 seconds that Tuesday when he reached Luz Ardiden.
"So he made it, and the family car didn't," a reporter said to Kathy. "What does that mean? That he's more efficient than the car?"
"Without a doubt," she replied.
What is left to say about this improbable, boyish-looking guy? He comes to Paris in the summer and he is Josephine Baker and he is Hemingway and he is Hershey bars and Jerry Lewis comedies and he is MADE IN AMERICA and he captures French minds, if not necessarily French hearts. He takes the biggest bike race in the world and folds it neatly and puts it in his pocket and makes it his own.