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 Induràin 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 S‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árensen 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, Induràin 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. Induràin, 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.
LeMond had never before pushed himself so hard to finish a stage. But Induràin had beaten LeMond by more than seven minutes and had long since been fitted for the jersey in which he would make himself so comfortable. Induràin was now more than five minutes ahead of LeMond in the overall standings. In the postrace hurly-burly, as LeMond veered off toward the van that the Z team used as its refuge, he didn't see an ABC cameraman sprinting after him. The two collided, leaving LeMond sprawled atop a car hood. LeMond's wife, Kathy, shepherding an entourage of friends and relatives around the Tour, had by chance watched the ghoulish stage on TV in, of all places, Lourdes. "It didn't work," she said.
Un jour sans, the French call these things—an off day. Every rider's greatest fear is to have one in the mountains. In a scene that looked like a wartime evacuation, a helicopter airlifted LeMond from the mountaintop. "This Tour is far from over," he said before the door shut and the chopper took off.
For him, alas, it was over. That night team doctors took blood samples that revealed that LeMond's white blood cell count was elevated to nearly twice its normal levels. Dr. David Morris, Kathy LeMond's immunologist father, saw the open sores on his son-in-law's feet and diagnosed an infection. In a way, the news gave LeMond comfort. "It's not normal that I should be in such good condition before the race and so good through the first part of the Tour and then suddenly have such a bad day," he said.
Indeed, antibiotics helped tide LeMond through the three flat stages before the Alps. But he was now riding just as the grunts in the peloton do—to survive. For the first time in his life he approached the base of the storied climb up l'Alpe d'Huez without any nervousness. The next day, on the way to Morzine, he faltered on the very first ascent. "It'll pass," Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, a Z domestique, told LeMond, while riding beside him. "You'll do better next year."
LeMond, fearing Duclos-Lassalle would miss the time-cut and be eliminated, told him to go on without him. But Duclos-Lassalle stayed, transforming himself from domestique into au pair as he tried to keep LeMond on his bike.
The hills around Morzine are the very ones where LeMond, then a 17-year-old amateur, watched his first Tour de France. His eyes, once so wide, now welled up with tears as cameramen on motorcycles leered at him in his agony. LeMond considered quitting in the feed zone after that climb, then rejected the idea. "My teammates were doing their best for me," he said. "I couldn't abandon them. Besides, people might think I was quitting because I wasn't winning."
He wasn't going to win. He was now more than 14 minutes behind Induràin, who might well have beaten a healthy LeMond. A farmer's son from Villava, Induràin is 27 and at 6'2" is taller than your average climber. He showed the smoothest form in the mountains. On the flat he turned his size into power, winning both time trials. "When one rider looks that good, other riders start thinking about second place," said Andy Hampsten, an American on the Motorola team whom LeMond beat out for seventh place during Saturday's final time trial between Lugny and Macon.
LeMond's failure will only embolden his critics. They are mostly old-school Europeans, retired champions like Belgium's Eddy Merckx, who are contemptuous of LeMond's strategy of throwing all his effort into one race each season and skeptical of his training habits and the proximity of his family when he competes. (Of course, they are probably also jealous of LeMond's deal with Z, a French children's clothing company, which pays him about $1.7 million a year.) They point out that LeMond has never won the Tour of Italy and, indeed, hasn't won a race since the 1990 Tour de France—which he won without placing first in any individual stage. A true champion, they insist, should show more panache.
But cycling has changed profoundly since the early 70s, when Merckx twice won eight stages in a single Tour de France. There were no more than 12 teams in those Tours, and the star system, whereby the indentured domestiques served their masters, was even more rigidly in place than it is now. Today there are more, better riders. And there is less back-room deal-making of the sort that could once deliver races to big names and powerful teams. Where a single rider once might win 30 or 40 races in a season, today a single team is lucky to win 20 and a first-rate rider, 10.
Those changes have affected LeMond since he turned pro in 1980. "My first six years, I finished in the top three of almost every race I entered," he says, "but the level of competitiveness is so much higher now. And as you get older, it's harder to get to the same level of conditioning. The only thing I'd change about this year is I'd not listen to the critics. I went into the Tour of Italy thinking I had to win or at least finish in the top five. Every day I tried my maximum and went beyond my limit. [Exhausted, he gave up the race six days from the finish.] You do want to prove your critics wrong. But every year I point to the Tour de France. I have a passion for this race I can't hide."
Most French people know and appreciate that. And in LeMond's determination to indulge his joie de vivre for at least part of each year—he has to save that right hand for fly-fishing, after all—they sympathize, too. Following his brush with death, it seems obvious that he would want to spend more time at home with Kathy and their three children or drink an occasional glass of wine instead of the prescribed mineral water. So it was that as LeMond came through the Alps, he was hailed by L'Equipe, the French sports daily, as Père Courage—Lather Courage. And when he reached the Champs-‚Äö√†√∂‚àö¢lysèes first on Sunday, after a solo breakaway lasting 30 kilometers, more than just American tourists hailed him, even after the peloton reeled him in with five turns around the Arc de Triomphe still to go. "People here like to see their heroes win," he said, "but they also like to see them be human. I'm not a bionic man."
LeMond finished his five previous Tours third, second, first, first, first, in that order: He had never before come to Paris at the end of July without a place to stand on the podium. On Sunday, LeMond discovered that he could stand anywhere in the city, by himself, very well.