The truth is that on Saturday, the day that the U.S. hosted its first-ever World Professional Road Racing Championship—the showcase event in 10 days of world championship cycling in Colorado Springs—Greg LeMond, winner of the 1986 Tour de France and the standard-bearer of American cycling, would rather have been golfing. Or fishing. Or maybe mulling over sponsorship proposals. Anything but having to hump his Huffy 17 times around a 9½-mile loop through the Air Force Academy campus, 162.5 miles in all, at altitudes ranging from 6,700 to 7,200 feet, while suffering the aftereffects-of-the-flu blues and the motivational blahs.
World championship? You would have thought LeMond, the man who is supposed to elevate road racing to major-sport status in America, was racing for the Wallonne Championship of Belgium, his adopted country for the six months a year he spends racing in Europe. LeMond pooh-poohed his chances of winning at every turn last week, arriving in Colorado Springs with a satchel of excuses. The one-day, winner-take-all format for choosing a pro world champion was a lousy process to begin with, LeMond pointed out, although no one could recall his complaining in 1983 when he won the worlds in Switzerland, an upset that launched his career into international prominence. He claimed further that the course was too easy, making it a tactical race rather than a race of pure strength. As winner of the Tour de France, LeMond was tactically a marked man. Only two men in cycling history had been able to win both the Tour and the world championships in the same year. Why was that particular double so difficult? LeMond was asked that question during a press conference on Thursday—a half-hour affair that was his only media appearance until after the race. "All this," he replied, gesturing at the room jammed with reporters, "right here. Demands by the media; people asking for my autograph. It wears you down."
LeMond will never be accused of viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. The greatest cyclist that America has ever produced also happens to be a world-class whiner. A year ago he was bemoaning the lack of attention that he received in the U.S. Now that he has it, he longs for peace and quiet. Following his victory over Bernard Hinault of France in the Tour, which ended July 27, LeMond raced in four European events in three days—commanding some $10,000 per race. He then flew to Washington for an Aug. 1 meeting with President Reagan, the highlight of which came when LeMond's 2½-year-old son, Geoffrey, rebuffed the President's grandfatherly advances with a straight-arm. From Aug. 9 to Aug. 24 LeMond participated in the Coors Classic, a 1,065-mile, 17-stage race from San Francisco to Boulder, Colo., in which he finished second, 1:26 behind Hinault.
It was on the next-to-last day of the Coors that LeMond picked up his flu bug, which, he says, nearly forced him to drop out of the race. Then for four days he relaxed in Lake Tahoe, but when it came time to train for the worlds, LeMond found that a 3½-hour workout left him "dead." The next day, during a planned four-hour session, he turned back after only an hour, and three days before the worlds he attempted a seven-hour ride but quit after two. "I feel fine until I get on my bike," said LeMond. "Then my legs just don't want to go. I hate to say it, but I don't even put myself among the favorites." It was a far cry from the LeMond who told people after he finished second to Joop Zoetemelk of Holland in last year's world championships that no one was going to beat him in 1986 on his own turf.
September 14, 1986
On Saturday the weather in Colorado Springs was chilly—mid-50s—and overcast, which had the effect of making the mild, rolling world-championship course even easier. Each 9½-mile lap had approximately 750 feet of climbing in it, but of course that also meant there were 750 feet of descent. The pace was so slow for the first seven laps that the riders began pulling on arm warmers to fend off the chill. LeMond seemed fine despite his lack of training, and rode near the front of the pack, surrounded by his U.S. teammates, often within spitting distance of Hinault. LeMond's strategy was to ride conservatively until the last hour, and then if he felt up to it, make his move.
But that strategy backfired when, on the 12th lap, some 4½ hours into the race, a group of 11 riders broke away from the pack, led by Italy's Moreno Argentin—a prerace favorite—and France's Laurent Fignon. Very quickly the group was ahead of the pack by two minutes, a lead held by varying margins until the 16th lap, when Argentin attacked again. The only riders who were able to keep pace with Argentin, a 25-year-old who had finished third in the worlds last year, were France's Charly Mottet and West Germany's Rolf Goelz.
Trailing by 1:25 with one lap to go, LeMond at last made his move, leading the pack out. But it was too late. On the final hill Argentin outsprinted Mottet, who had been wheel sucking the Italian the entire last lap, to win in 6 hours, 32 minutes, 38 seconds. Mottet held on for second. LeMond, just 9 seconds behind Argentin, finished seventh, the only American in the Top 20. Hinault finished back in the pack.
Afterward LeMond was less than gracious, calling the race the "most negative" world championships he had ever participated in. He also noted that there had been a communications breakdown near the end. Going into the bell lap, he had thought he was only 30 or 40 seconds behind Argentin, rather than 1:25. Oh, well, it was a lousy way to choose a world champion anyway, he reiterated.
LeMond hustled off to catch a plane for Seattle, where he will ride next week before heading to New York for the inaugural Cititour, a one-day race in the Apple. "Too busy," LeMond said before leaving. "I've got to take a break sometime, my God."
Greg, we've noticed.