Greg LeMond has never believed that winning the Tour de France is as simple as cycling down to the strip to fetch a bag of soft tacos. Problem is, that's what so many of his countrymen apparently believe. They weigh their slight knowledge of the world's most punishing bicycle race against LeMond's familiar, breezy television commercial for Taco Bell, and thus know the Tour much as that other TV pitchman, Bo, knows it—vaguely, as "that Tour de France thing." It doesn't help that LeMond seems to disappear into France every July and then emerge 23 days later as Tour champion. Tour France? Easy. Thomas Cook could do it.
When you've ridden five Tours and won three of them, including two with lead pellets lodged permanently in your abdomen as a result of a near-fatal hunting accident, people tend not to take into account your mortality. Thus LeMond's inability to win the 78th Tour, which ended in Paris on Sunday—LeMond finished seventh, a humbling 13:13 behind the winner, Miguel Induráin of Spain—should be as much a revelation for the naive Statesider as it was a lesson for LeMond. And, oh, was it a lesson for LeMond.
"I've learned that I can accept defeat," he said in Aix-les-Bains last Thursday, with the mountains at last behind him. "I came into the Tour thinking I couldn't lose, that anything but first would be a disaster. But, in a way, I feel relief. It would be too easy if I came and won every year. When you're bad, you appreciate when you're good, and this adds value to the victories I've had."
The race began in a bizarre fashion. At the second stage, a team time trial in Bron, 1987 Tour winner Stephen Roche of Ireland, having misunderstood his starting time, showed up late and was eliminated from the race for finishing outside the time limit. During the fifth stage, Danish rider Rolf Sörensen had to leave the race while wearing le maillot jaune, the yellow jersey emblematic of the overall lead, when he broke his collarbone in a fall. The following week the powerful Dutch PDM team withdrew after a number of its riders came down with a mysterious ailment. The team blamed food poisoning, saying it was probably salmonella from some bad chicken; cynics in the press, noting that the PDM withdrawal occurred after the Tour's first big time trial and that none of the team's entourage or support staff had been afflicted, suggested that adverse reactions to banned substances may have been to blame.
But nothing was as curious as when the lurching grades in the Pyrenees and the steadier ascents in the Alps bamboozled the 30-year-old LeMond, whose Tour victory in 1989 remains one of the most dramatic athletic achievements of our time. If LeMond had to pinpoint where this year's race began to turn against him, he would probably look to a spot about 30 kilometers outside the Spanish resort of Jaca, where the Tour headed on July 18. As the peloton—the pack—left France, he was wearing the yellow jersey for the fourth straight day and felt good.
Then, as cyclists will, LeMond got thirsty. At the time, he was about seven minutes behind a breakaway group, in a pack of some 30 riders. Yet none of his teammates on the nine-man Z team was among them. Two of the best climbers on the team, Scotland's Robert Millar and Norway's Atle Kvalsvoll, had suffered falls earlier in the Tour, and neither was up to tending to all the chores of a domestique, a lesser rider who, among other tasks, ferries food and water from the support car to the team's leader.
At such a moment, there surely is no lonelier team sport. LeMond considered riding back to his support car to get water, but he didn't want to take the 10-second penalty that it would incur. So he soldiered on, on empty. By the end of the stage, he had lost much more than the yellow jersey: He had lost confidence both in his teammates and in the physical form that had given him confidence in himself.
LeMond felt fevered and dehydrated that night, the eve of the Tour's most difficult stage, a gantlet of five climbs back over the French border to Val Louron. In the arid upcountry of the Pyrenees, the sun turned the blacktop gooey, and the partisan Basque fans saluted LeMond with obscene gestures. During the first climb of the day, up to the Col du Pourtalet, the Gatorade support car accidentally sideswiped him, knocking him to the ground. When he tried a solo breakaway some three hours later, at the base of the Tourmalet, a climb so forbidding that it's rated "beyond category" in difficulty, Induráin and Italy's Claudio Chiappucci stayed right with him.
A kilometer from the summit, they had put 17 seconds between themselves and LeMond. Over the final 500 meters up the Tourmalet, LeMond labored as no one had seen him do before, searching vainly for the rhythm that's so important in climbing. He sweated more heavily than usual and wore his jersey unzipped. Induráin, meanwhile, must have taken sustenance from the Basque country he calls home. He finished the descent of the Tourmalet more than a minute ahead of LeMond.
During the final climb into Val Louron, LeMond rode with teammate Eric Boyer. Yet Boyer could do nothing when, two kilometers from the finish, a Spanish spectator charged at LeMond, spitting invective. Instinctively, LeMond pulled his left hand off the handlebars and made a fist, into which the man collided and fell. "I wanted to save my right hand for fly-fishing," LeMond said later.