On Sunday afternoon the most grueling and glamorous cycling race in the world, the Tour de France, which to all intents and purposes had been decided five days and some 800 kilometers earlier on an incline in the Pyrenees, came to its official conclusion before 250,000 spectators on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Six times the 144-man pack, representing 15 countries, circled between the Arc de Triomphe and the rose-dappled Tuileries Gardens—a six-kilometer loop—before finally crossing under the Arrivée banner for the last time, completing the 24-day, 4,100-kilometer race. In the middle of the pack—76th to be exact—hung the winner, Bernard Hinault, his eyes a purplish black, wearing a dashing smile on his face and the yellow jersey on his back: le maillot jaune, emblematic of the overall leader of the Tour. Moments later, beneath a canopy of sycamores, the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, gave Hinault the blue S√®vres vase that is the traditional trophy of the race. Hinault, the No. 1 sports star in France, raised it happily over his head for a record-tying fifth time, and the band broke into La Marseillaise.
So ended the 72nd Tour, which had begun back on June 28 near the small seaside town of Vannes and had circled the country. The route, which is altered every year, proceeded northeast to Belgium, southeast along the German border, south through the Alps, briefly ducking into Switzerland, west through the Pyrenees, then finally north to the race's traditional Paris finish. An estimated 20 million people lined the roads to catch a fleeting glimpse of the cyclists, roughly the number of Americans that have attended major league baseball games this year. Worldwide, another 600 million or so watched the Tour on television. Nine of the 23 legs were in the mountains, punishing runs up and down impossibly steep switchbacks, in which it is common for the racers to push each other until they vomit—often fouling the man behind them. Four of the legs were individual time trials, the so-called "races of truth," in which competitors were started at two-or three-minute intervals and timed over distances that ranged between 6.8 and 75 kilometers. In scorching July sunshine and driving thunderstorms, over asphalt, gravel and cobblestones, through countryside spattered by rolling vineyards and fields of sunflowers, past castles and villages and tawny stacks of hay—all of France's lush summer beauty—the cyclists pedaled on, eyes seldom straying from the ribbon of road ahead or the backs of the whippet-lean racers in front of them. Twenty-four days in all, only one of which was a rest day. Said America's Greg LeMond, who finished an impressive if melancholy second to his La Vie Claire teammate, Hinault, just one minute, 42 seconds behind after 113 hours, 24 minutes and 23 seconds of riding: "I honestly believe that the Tour de France is the hardest athletic event in the world."
Ah, LeMond. It was LeMond, the blond, blue-eyed, 24-year-old heir apparent to Hinault, who provided the most dramatic moment of the Tour—on July 16 in the Pyrenees, when he leaped off his bike and tearfully accused his coach, Paul Koechli, of not allowing him to try to win the race. As the race neared its conclusion, LeMond was the one man in a position to prevent the 30-year-old Hinault from joining Belgium's Eddy Merckx and France's Jacques Anquetil as the only five-time winners in the Tour's history. In the end, he remained the loyal second lieutenant and held his own ambitions in check to ride shot-gun for a game but battered Hinault, his team's unofficial captain. LeMond contented himself with second place and the knowledge that next year he will be the top banana on La Vie Claire, the first team in the Tour's history to have its riders finish one-two.
"I helped Hinault accomplish his goals this year," said LeMond following the Tour's completion, "and he will help me accomplish mine next year."
Do not shed any tears for LeMond just yet. A California native who now has homes in Sacramento and Belgium, he is the most highly paid professional bike rider in the world. He is in the first year of a four-year $1.2 million contract with La Vie Claire, having defected from the Renault team before this racing season, a move which, with endorsements, tripled his income. It also dimmed the hopes he harbored of winning this year's Tour. He is paid, for now anyway, to be No. 2. Bike racing is a team effort in these mammoth road races. Eighteen teams, each with 10 members, started in this year's Tour, and each had a few sprinting specialists, a few climbing specialists, a few folks whose job was to get in the way of the other teams' hot-shots, and one or two others like Hinault and LeMond, who are highly skilled in all phases of cycling, particularly in the individual time trials, in which every competitor must fend for himself.
It was these cyclists—the complete ones—around whom the teams planned their daily strategy. As a four-time winner of the Tour, Hinault was unquestionably La Vie Claire's No. 1 gun while LeMond, the 1983 world champion, was insurance in the event that Hinault faltered.
Until July 13, the 14th stage of the Tour, that seemed nearly inconceivable. Hinault, referred to in the French press as Le Breton—his hometown, Quessoy, is a farming community on the north coast of Brittany—had never seemed stronger. In May he won the difficult Giro D'Italia, an event second in prestige only to the Tour de France, for the third time. (LeMond finished third.) Then, after starting off inauspiciously in the first week of the Tour, Hinault catapulted into the overall lead on July 6, the eighth leg of the race, when he blew everybody away in the second individual time trial, a 75-kilometer stretch from Sarrebourg to Strasbourg. It was the longest "race of truth" the Tour had held since 1961, and the entire course that day assumed the festive air of a street party, each village along the way ushering out its local oompah band for the cyclists' entertainment. But the real party was Hinault's. He completed the leg in 1:34:55, an astonishing two minutes, 20 seconds faster than the next finisher, Ireland's Stephen Roche. LeMond placed fourth, 2:34 behind Hinault, which put him 2:32 behind Le Breton in the overall standings. At the next "race of truth," a 31-kilometer sprint on the 13th leg, LeMond lost another 1:23 to Hinault, which left him a distant second overall, 5:23 behind his captain.
In the early years of the Tour, which was first run in 1903, a five-minute lead was not worth talking about. A five-hour lead was not worth talking about, because the rules forbade outside assistance from anyone, and bicyles routinely broke apart on the hideously rutted roads. Now, however, nearly all the roads are smoothly paved and, in case of problems, support cars follow closely behind carrying spare tires and bicycles, not to mention food, water and rain gear. Hinault's lead was considered insurmountable if he stayed healthy.
He didn't. On July 13, on the closing sprint at St. Étienne, Hinault bumped handlebars with Australian Phil Anderson and fell face-first to the pavement 300 meters from the finish, bouncing for several seconds before finally grinding to a stop. Remounting, blood pouring down the side of his face and onto the shoulder of his yellow jersey, Hinault coasted slowly across the line, where officials immediately helped him off his bike. Asked if he would be able to continue, Le Breton grimaced and told the assembled journalists: "For the team, for my two kids and for my wife, I've got to go on to win."
What he didn't know while making that glorious pronouncement was that his nose was broken in two places. What he did know was that the Pyrenees lay ahead and somehow he had to conquer them.
In the next three days both Hinault's strength and his lead began to erode, so that by July 16 his margin over LeMond was down to 3:38, with Roche standing third, 6:14 back. That day's leg, from Toulouse to Luz-Ardiden, was a 209.5-kilometer monster that included three punishing climbs, the second of which, a 17-kilometer trek up the Col du Tourmalet, marked the highest spot on the Tour, 2,114 meters.
Hinault, his eyes blackened and face puffy, labored behind the leaders as the pack inched its way up the Col du Tourmalet switchbacks. He was having difficulty breathing in the thin, chilly air. As if the broken nose were not enough of a handicap, the constant inhaling through his mouth had given him a case of bronchitis. Six kilometers from the cloud-shrouded summit, Hinault fell off the pace. When he finally reached the top, he was trailing the group ahead of him, which included Roche and LeMond, by 1:16. And there were still 35.5 kilometers and a very steep climb left.
It was then that Koechli, a strident Swiss technocrat, drove up to LeMond and told him to stop pushing Roche unless he was certain he could leave him in the dust. Chastened, LeMond never attacked the final climb, hanging just off Roche's rear tire while the Irish rider set the pace. When he crossed the finish line, relatively fresh, LeMond was just 1:13 ahead of the struggling Hinault. Furious and tearful, LeMond pushed past French reporters to get to Koechli, with whom he argued bitterly for several minutes, finally saying, in front of TV cameras, "If Hinault was in my place he would not have waited, that's all I have to say. I have nothing against Hinault, I want him to win the Tour."
So did the team. La Vie Claire, a health food chain, is a French company. The Tour de France is a French passion. Bernard Hinault is a French hero whose final moment of glory was at hand. LeMond's frustration came from finally being forced to face up to the facts of life. The owner of La Vie Claire, Bernard Ta-pie, came over and told LeMond to pipe down, and after a closed-door meeting, LeMond was dutifully contrite. "If I'd raced my own race I might have pulled Roche with me and put the team slightly at risk," he said the following night. "But I also might have won the Tour de France. I had to make a big sacrifice. When you're in the heat of competition and you see one of your life's dreams slip through your fingers, it kills you."
Hinault had no hard feelings. "Greg is like a twin brother of mine," he said when asked about the incident, which he had not seen because he was still pedaling toward the finish through the fog. "He could have won if he didn't have to take care of me in the Pyrenees. It's the sign of a champion not to be satisfied with second place."
The next morning, before the final stage in the Pyrenees, Roche, who represented a rival team, said to LeMond at the start, "Come with me when I break and I'll get you the yellow jersey. I'd rather see you win than Hinault." By pacing and alternately drafting for each other, two cyclists working together can go faster than one. But LeMond stayed loyal to his teammate, and when Roche broke ahead, the American stuck with Hinault. Roche, working alone, was able to take a minute and a half off Hinault's lead, but still trailed Le Breton by 3:33 in the overall standings, with the mountains now finally behind them. LeMond was in second, 2:13 back. "The race is over with, really," LeMond said that night, noting that Hinault had finally recovered his strength. "Second place is a good place to finish in the Tour de France."
Still, LeMond had one final hurrah, winning the 45.7-kilometer individual time trial in Limoges on Saturday in the next-to-last stage of the race. In so doing he beat Hinault, who finished second by just five seconds. It was the first "race of truth" LeMond had ever won in a major event, and he was ecstatic. "You can't win the Tour de France if you can't win time trials," he said, looking ahead to next year. "This is a great victory for me." As he was joining Hinault for a television interview, a few reporters suggested to LeMond that Hinault, who had led the early stages of the time trial, had allowed him to win as a kind of thank you for LeMond's help in the Pyrenees. "I hear you gave me a present," LeMond said upon greeting his teammate.
Hinault spat out this reply: "You can win with your own legs. I don't have to give you a gift. The truth is I didn't pace myself right."
Perhaps. But possibly it was, in fact, a gift from a grateful champion to the man being groomed to become the first American to win the greatest cycling test in the world. Asked if he would return next year to try for a record sixth victory, Hinault said, "Normally, this would be my last victory. There is a new generation coming, and it is time for the team to go on. But I will race one more year, and if I am in the Tour de France, I shall only compete to help one of my teammates win. It should be Greg LeMond."
Then Hinault, the dashing Breton, flashed his killing smile. "Next year, I will make Greg LeMond win."