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?
July 29, 1990
"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-Elysèes. 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.
The insecurities of living abroad do not bother him. He eats the food, bathes under the hand-held showers, talks the language. Parlez-vous fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºais? Oui, très bien. He piles up a stack of obviously insurmountable difficulties, then crashes through them. For three weeks in June and July, he pedals from one postcard setting to another, stronger than everyone, the champion of a foreign sport played under foreign rules that sometimes seem to come from the age of chivalry. He conquers the hills. He conquers the flat-out sprints. He conquers the piranhas of the peloton, the grand mass of 197 riders that surrounds him.
"I think this is the toughest sport in the world," he said Sunday after racing 3,414 kilometers to win his second Tour in a row, his third in his last three tries. "No other sport combines both endurance and intensity the way this one does. You have a triathlon, which is nine hours long—running, swimming and cycling—but that is endurance. Who can last? You have running events that demand intensity but not endurance. Here you have everything. You're tested on all of your levels of athletic ability."
When LeMond won the Tour in 1986, he was a 25-year-old curiosity, the first American ever to capture this event, an instant symbol of cycling's widening appeal. When he won last year, he was an inspiration, coming back from a 1987 hunting accident, in which he was shot by his brother-in-law, and from 1988 surgery for an infected tendon in his right shin. When he won this year, he simply was inevitable. He was the best, moving inexorably toward the records of five-time Tour winners Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault.
"I always say that the person who wins the Tour is the person who deserves to win the Tour," LeMond said. "This race is too long to have it any other way. I think I dominated this Tour from the beginning to the end. I was the one who made the big moves. I was the one who deserved to win."
Every Tour de France is a potboiler, spun out in nightly news segments as small and sometimes dramatic things happen to each of the leading characters. What will happen next? Tune in tomorrow. The plot lines for this Tour were laid out in the first stage, on July 1, when LeMond, Laurent Fignon of France, Pedro Delgado of Spain and Erik Breukink of the Netherlands were jumped by a group of four lesser-known riders. A 139-kilometer race was held in the morning, beginning and ending outside Poitiers, at a theme park called Futuroscope. A 44.5-kilometer team time trial was staged that afternoon, again beginning and ending at the theme park. The favorites stayed in the peloton for the morning, letting the four irregulars take the lead. What was the worry? These were not riders who could win the Tour de France.
The lead became four minutes, five minutes, six minutes. There were thoughts in the peloton that perhaps this was becoming a bigger lead than anyone had anticipated, but no one broke to chase down the four leaders. The margin became eight minutes, nine minutes, 10. By the end of the day, Steve Bauer of Canada had the overall lead, 10 minutes and 33 seconds ahead of LeMond. Frans Maassen of the Netherlands, LeMond's French teammate Ronan Pensec and Chiappucci also were more than 10 minutes ahead. These became the most important people in LeMond's future.
"Ten minutes is a lot of time to make up," LeMond said. "It's a long race, but...if I had a 10-minute lead on the first day, I don't think I ever would lose the Tour de France."
Included in his immediate trouble was a swelling, the size of a golf ball, that had appeared on the top of his left foot. In his excitement on the first day—finally feeling healthy after a virus had dogged him all spring—he had worn his shoe too tight. He would not be able to tighten the shoe correctly for the rest of the race. He would wear a bandage and a little sponge doughnut around the swelling.
"So many things happen to him in a long race like this," his trainer, Otto Jacome, said. "On the first day, he winds up with the big ball on his foot. On the sixth day, he wears a new pair of pants and he...chafes—is that the word?—around his crotch. A two-inch strip. It hurts so much, I hear him scream when he takes a shower. He needs a bandage every day for that. Then he crashes, he cuts his leg. Then he dislocates a finger in one race. He can only brake with one hand for the rest of the day—the rear wheel. He slides in the turn. Then he has the flat tire; he is so mad, he throws the tire in anger. He hurts his back. So many things happen."
The thinking always was that the four pretenders would fade, but who knew? A complication arrived when after the 10th stage, at St. Gervais Mont Blanc, Pensec took the yellow jersey (maillot jaune), which signifies the leader of the Tour. Cycling etiquette and tradition, not to mention the instruction of LeMond's Z team directors, decreed that he could not attack a teammate for the lead. The team's strategy now had to be to help Pensec, not LeMond, to win.
"It's strange to American thinking, but that's the way it is," LeMond's father, Bob, said. "You don't take a saddle horse and ask him to win the Kentucky Derby, do you? You don't come into the Super Bowl and say, hey, maybe we'll have a lineman replace Joe Montana at quarterback. But that's the way it is in cycling."
For two days in the Alps, as the Tour continued its clockwise trip around the French road map, LeMond could not attack. He felt fine. He was in the mountains, where he does some of his best work. He still could not attack. When Pensec finally lost the yellow jersey to Chiappucci in the time trials in the 12th stage, the race was more than half done. LeMond trailed Chiappucci by 7:27.
Somehow, he remained confident. The spring had been awful, with the virus keeping him in the back of the pack in most of his races. The European press had derided him for eating cheeseburgers, for playing golf, for not caring. He had been spat upon and heckled at a three-day race in Belgium, where he lives half of the year. He had finished 78th in the Tour de Trump in the U.S., riding with the nobodies, pedaling as hard as he could but unable to go fast. The idea that he was fit now, ready to go, gave LeMond strength. Why couldn't he win again? He knew how.
LeMond's first move came in the next stage. He jumped Chiappucci between Villard de Lans and St. Etienne, knocking the lead down to 2:34. There was a perfect moment at the end of the day's 149-kilometer race when, with the finish line in sight, LeMond motioned four other riders in the lead group to go ahead of him. It was as if he were saying, "Go ahead, boys. You can pose on the bandstand with Miss Rh‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•ne Alps and her dècolletage for today's glory. I'm planning to pose in Paris."
The next two days were simply a matter of waiting for the big day in the Pyrenees. Was there any doubt LeMond would attack? Was there any doubt Chiappucci would falter? All of this was written in the form charts as surely as if it were Saratoga in August. Wasn't it?
Again, Chiappucci surprised. A 27-year-old rider with the Carrera team, he had always been one of the worker ants in the peloton, a domestique, helping other, more famous riders succeed. This was the race of his life, and he attacked it that way. He held a 2:24 lead over LeMond that morning and went to the front early in the 215-kilometer uphill, downhill marathon between Blagnac and Luz Ardiden. For most of the way, it was Chiappucci who heard the first cheers on mountain roads crowded with campers and backslappers. He wore the yellow jersey as if it were a suit of armor against the heat and the form book and, well, the truth.
"It was my best moment," he later said. "To prove that I am something more than I am supposed to be."
In the end, though, Chiappucci faltered. LeMond moved at the top of the Col du Tourmalet and kept moving. By the time he was passing his wife's stalled van, four kilometers from the finish, he was ahead of Chiappucci and putting more distance and time between them with every turn of his spoked wheels. Chiappucci earned a symbolic victory by holding on to a five-second lead and the yellow jersey for another day, but LeMond had the real victory.
He would fret for the next four days, worrying about what could go wrong as he stayed with the Italian in each race, waiting for the important time trials at Lac de Vassivière on the day before the finish in Paris. LeMond knew what should happen. He should beat Chiappucci in the time trial easily. Form. He would overcome a flat tire—and the resulting twisted back—suffered near Lourdes. He would go to bed at 11 and awaken each morning at four, worrying even more. He still would win. It was inevitable.
Last Saturday, starting in inverse order of the standings, LeMond was the next-to-last rider on the 46-kilometer circuit. Chiappucci was the last. By the time he was midway around the course, LeMond knew he had a 45-second lead. When Chiappucci finished two minutes and 21 seconds behind, LeMond knew he was the winner of the Tour de France. The final leg of the Tour, into Paris on Sunday, would be a parade. He would be wearing the yellow jersey. For the first time in the race.
"It'll be a day when I can relax and enjoy the Tour de France," he said. "I always enjoy the Tour de France, but this day I'll really enjoy."
"It's all been amazing," Kathy said as she stood near the finish line in Paris with Simone and the other two LeMond children, Geoffrey and Scott. "I was walking down the Champs-Elysèes last night, and I realized I was passing a restaurant where, exactly 10 years ago, Greg and I had dinner with Bernard Hinault. Hinault was trying to convince Greg to sign a pro contract.
"Here we were, two 19-year-old kids. Our knees were knocking because we were in the presence of the great Hinault. We didn't know a word of French. We were scared to death.... And here we are."
The peloton was wheeling along the Champs-Elysèes in the closing minutes of the race. Mostly ceremony. The day again was warm. The cheers again were for LeMond. The Star-Spangled Banner soon would be played.
"About the van—" someone said.
"We got it off the mountain at 10 o'clock, after everything had cooled," Kathy said. "We drove it here. Everything was fine. Then yesterday the transmission fell out. Right here in Paris."
There would be no such problems with her husband. None at all.