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Tour de Courage
Alexander Wolff
August 05, 1991
Greg LeMond fought sickness and adversity in the 78th Tour de France and finished a hero, though not a winner
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August 05, 1991

Tour De Courage

Greg LeMond fought sickness and adversity in the 78th Tour de France and finished a hero, though not a winner

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LeMond had never before pushed himself so hard to finish a stage. But Induráin had beaten LeMond by more than seven minutes and had long since been fitted for the jersey in which he would make himself so comfortable. Induráin was now more than five minutes ahead of LeMond in the overall standings. In the postrace hurly-burly, as LeMond veered off toward the van that the Z team used as its refuge, he didn't see an ABC cameraman sprinting after him. The two collided, leaving LeMond sprawled atop a car hood. LeMond's wife, Kathy, shepherding an entourage of friends and relatives around the Tour, had by chance watched the ghoulish stage on TV in, of all places, Lourdes. "It didn't work," she said.

Un jour sans, the French call these things—an off day. Every rider's greatest fear is to have one in the mountains. In a scene that looked like a wartime evacuation, a helicopter airlifted LeMond from the mountaintop. "This Tour is far from over," he said before the door shut and the chopper took off.

For him, alas, it was over. That night team doctors took blood samples that revealed that LeMond's white blood cell count was elevated to nearly twice its normal levels. Dr. David Morris, Kathy LeMond's immunologist father, saw the open sores on his son-in-law's feet and diagnosed an infection. In a way, the news gave LeMond comfort. "It's not normal that I should be in such good condition before the race and so good through the first part of the Tour and then suddenly have such a bad day," he said.

Indeed, antibiotics helped tide LeMond through the three flat stages before the Alps. But he was now riding just as the grunts in the peloton do—to survive. For the first time in his life he approached the base of the storied climb up l'Alpe d'Huez without any nervousness. The next day, on the way to Morzine, he faltered on the very first ascent. "It'll pass," Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, a Z domestique, told LeMond, while riding beside him. "You'll do better next year."

LeMond, fearing Duclos-Lassalle would miss the time-cut and be eliminated, told him to go on without him. But Duclos-Lassalle stayed, transforming himself from domestique into au pair as he tried to keep LeMond on his bike.

The hills around Morzine are the very ones where LeMond, then a 17-year-old amateur, watched his first Tour de France. His eyes, once so wide, now welled up with tears as cameramen on motorcycles leered at him in his agony. LeMond considered quitting in the feed zone after that climb, then rejected the idea. "My teammates were doing their best for me," he said. "I couldn't abandon them. Besides, people might think I was quitting because I wasn't winning."

He wasn't going to win. He was now more than 14 minutes behind Induráin, who might well have beaten a healthy LeMond. A farmer's son from Villava, Induráin is 27 and at 6'2" is taller than your average climber. He showed the smoothest form in the mountains. On the flat he turned his size into power, winning both time trials. "When one rider looks that good, other riders start thinking about second place," said Andy Hampsten, an American on the Motorola team whom LeMond beat out for seventh place during Saturday's final time trial between Lugny and Macon.

LeMond's failure will only embolden his critics. They are mostly old-school Europeans, retired champions like Belgium's Eddy Merckx, who are contemptuous of LeMond's strategy of throwing all his effort into one race each season and skeptical of his training habits and the proximity of his family when he competes. (Of course, they are probably also jealous of LeMond's deal with Z, a French children's clothing company, which pays him about $1.7 million a year.) They point out that LeMond has never won the Tour of Italy and, indeed, hasn't won a race since the 1990 Tour de France—which he won without placing first in any individual stage. A true champion, they insist, should show more panache.

But cycling has changed profoundly since the early 70s, when Merckx twice won eight stages in a single Tour de France. There were no more than 12 teams in those Tours, and the star system, whereby the indentured domestiques served their masters, was even more rigidly in place than it is now. Today there are more, better riders. And there is less back-room deal-making of the sort that could once deliver races to big names and powerful teams. Where a single rider once might win 30 or 40 races in a season, today a single team is lucky to win 20 and a first-rate rider, 10.

Those changes have affected LeMond since he turned pro in 1980. "My first six years, I finished in the top three of almost every race I entered," he says, "but the level of competitiveness is so much higher now. And as you get older, it's harder to get to the same level of conditioning. The only thing I'd change about this year is I'd not listen to the critics. I went into the Tour of Italy thinking I had to win or at least finish in the top five. Every day I tried my maximum and went beyond my limit. [Exhausted, he gave up the race six days from the finish.] You do want to prove your critics wrong. But every year I point to the Tour de France. I have a passion for this race I can't hide."

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