Cycling has an odd PHRASE that would seem to be more appropriate to sumo wrestling or rodeo. In the argot of the sport, "pushing the big meat" means powering your bike in its highest or most difficult gear. One lesson learned from the final stage of the Tour Du Pont, nè Tour de Trump, is that pushing the big meat requires having a little meat on one's bones to begin with.
As it turned out, sheer physical strength helped decide the 11-stage, 1,100-mile Tour Du Pont, which came down to Sunday's final race, a meandering 15-mile time trial through Wilmington, Del. Going into that last stage, Atle Kvalsvoll, a stringy Norwegian with France's Team Z, had worn the yellow jersey, emblematic of being the leading rider, for six of the race's 11 days. When the 5'11", 135-pound Kvalsvoll donned the jersey, which usually fits skintight on its wearer, it hung loosely on his pigeon chest and stick-figure arms.
On a bike, however, Kvalsvoll is transformed into an objet d'art. Through the Allegheny, Blue Ridge and Pocono mountains he had ridden splendidly and built a 50-second lead over runner-up Erik Breukink of Holland, who rides for the PDM team. Velophiles agreed that only two of the race's 91 remaining riders (104 had started) were capable of making up so much time over so little distance. One was Kvalsvoll's teammate Greg LeMond. The other was the 6-foot, 155-pound Breukink, who had won 15 time trials in his seven-year pro career. Kvalsvoll excelled at lengthy stages and on the steeps. The short course would favor the more powerful Breukink.
The situation harked back to the 1989 Tour de France, which LeMond won by making up an astounding 50 seconds on Laurent Fignon of France on the final day. On Sunday, however, LeMond looked on helplessly as Breukink bit off huge chunks of Kvalsvoll's lead. Five miles into his ride, Kvalsvoll had lost 30 seconds. Even after Breukink had given back 20 seconds replacing a flat, he gained inexorably on the smaller man. The progress reports coming over the public address system at the finish line—Breukink had made up 38 seconds, then 49, then 56—suggested an exhausted, defeated Kvalsvoll.
May 26, 1991
Leaning against a barricade at the finish, as he waited for Kvalsvoll to come in, LeMond saw that the situation was hopeless for his teammate. "It feels like I lost a race that I'd had the lead in," he said.
In a sense, he had. LeMond had sacrificed any chance of winning the Tour Du Pont to ride support for Kvalsvoll and get him the lead. LeMond had no complaints, however. He was merely deferring gratification. Renowned as a time trialist, climber and tactician, LeMond proved that he is also a superior domestique, cycling parlance for a drone. When a dangerous rider broke from the peloton—say Breukink, Alexi Grewal of Coors Light or Steve Bauer of Motorola—LeMond, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle or one of the four other Team Z drones would buzz off in hot pursuit. By blocking the upstart or taking turns hugging his rear wheel, thereby sapping his energy, they invariably wore the challenger down and prevented him from diminishing Kvalsvoll's lead.
So masterfully had Team Z controlled the race that by the penultimate stage, last Saturday's 120-mile rollercoaster through the Poconos, Breukink and his PDM teammates had given up trying to break away. "Saturday the guys were a little bit tired, so I said, 'Go easy, I'll do it Sunday,' " said Breukink after the race. It was an arrogant decision, but it proved to be a correct one.
As the Pocono Mountains stage neared its conclusion, the peloton riders asked one another accusingly, "When are you going to do something?" When a flurry of attacks finally materialized three miles from the finish, the assaults were too little and too late: LeMond and teammate Jèr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me Simon stamped them out like so many brushfires. When the stage was complete, Kvalsvoll said, "It's going to be easy to help Greg in the Tour de France."
Indeed, with every breakaway he neutralized, LeMond, who's in better shape in this month of May than he has been in years, collected an IOU from his beanpole teammate. Come July and the three-week Tour de France, the roles they played in the Tour Du Pont will be reversed. "Only one person on this team can win the Tour de France," says Z coach Roger Legeay. "In July everyone will be working for Greg."
The persistence of America's premier cyclist rubbed off on America's premier cycling event, as the Tour Du Pont ceaselessly refers to itself. Last year, about the time Donald Trump's colossal debts first made headlines, Michael Plant realized that he would be needing a new sponsor for his race. Gambling that he could find one, Plant, whose company, Medalist Sports, Inc., owns and organizes the tour, put up $45,000 a month of his own money for five and a half months to keep his staff on the payroll over the summer. "I had my neck out for a while there," says Plant. His gamble paid off. In November, Du Pont signed up as the race's main sponsor.
Stung by criticism that the 1990 Tour was too arduous, Plant and his people gave this year's riders some early breathers. The first five stages were smile-and-gliders designed for the homeboys to show off. Team USA, the American amateur contingent, won a stage and placed second in two others. Nineteen-year-old Bobby Julich of Team USA and Glen-wood Springs, Colo., who wound up in fifth place and was named the tour's outstanding young rider, spoke of how difficult it was not to yield when nudged by one of the riders "whose pictures I have on my walls."
Despite missing a month of intense mountain training after canceling a trip to Colombia during the gulf war on the recommendation of the State Department, Coors Light won the team title. Coors' Greg Oravetz, 24, a promising rider from Huntington Beach, Calif., even held the lead for two days, until, as Oravetz himself said, "the real race" began.
The sixth stage, on May 14, was 105 miles long, and the word among the cyclists was: Don't worry about the 100, but watch out for the five. The stage would start in Richmond, elevation 150 feet, and end near Wintergreen, Va., 3,900 feet above sea level. Most of the climbing would come in the final five miles.
The chess match started in the groin of the mountain. Motorola's Dag-Otto Laurentzen surged ahead, and LeMond gave chase, slowly returning him to the peloton. Then Robert Forest, another Team Z rider, broke for the lead. As the pack caught up with Forest, LeMond mounted his second attack. When LeMond was overtaken, Simon made a break. Team Z was forcing everyone else to ride defensively, to counterpunch. Once Simon was caught, Kvalsvoll seized the lead.
For Sunday's time trial, however, he was alone—in time trials a rider races against the clock with no domestiques to lance the wind ahead of him. At breakfast that morning, recalled LeMond, "Atle was really nervous." For his part, Breukink took an early morning practice spin around the course and then holed up in his hotel room, laughing out loud, he said, at a "really funny movie" called Nobody's Perfect.
Including Breukink. During an otherwise flawless ride, he hit a shadow-obscured pothole and punctured his front tire. Though his team van was right behind him with a spare, Breukink lost those 20 seconds—he would now have to make up a total of 70 seconds during the race. No problem. He made up 82.
Even before this gutsy win, Breukink was frequently mentioned as a favorite for the Tour de France. Keep in mind, though, that come July, LeMond will be out of the domestique business. He will be calling in favors.