Now it's on to the mountains The Americans were doing right well, so far, in the Tour de France - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Now it's on to the mountains The Americans were doing right well, so far, in the Tour de France


Two things became apparent last week as the 73rd Tour de France --
the largest ever, with 210 riders competing for 21 teams -- continued
its relentlessly beautiful and increasingly suspenseful journey
around Gaul. First, truth will out, particularly when egotistical
playboys are involved. Second, after 10 stages and 1,619 kilometers
of pedaling, the real racing had yet to begin.
But, shhh, don't tell the U.S. team. Sponsored by 7-Eleven, the
Americans looked on the race's July 4th starting date as a bountiful
omen, and in the first-ever Tour appearance by a U.S.-based outfit,
they have gotten off to a roaring start and won the respect of the
European cycling community. ''You could sense the other riders
thinking, These guys are getting too much, too soon,'' said Davis
Phinney, 26, of Copper Mountain, Colo., who on July 6 won the third
stage of the race, a 220-kilometer haul from the Parisian suburb of
Levallois Parret to Lievin, which is near the Belgian border. ''I
still can't believe it. All these years of being known just as a
criterium rider, and all of a sudden I'm legitimate.'' In fact,
Phinney was a bronze medalist at the '84 Olympics.
On July 5 the 7-Eleven team had earned -- for six hours, anyway
-- the maillot jaune, the coveted yellow jersey that is given to the
overall leader of the race. It was won by Canada's Alex Stieda, one
of two non-Americans on the 7-Eleven team (the other is Raul Alcala
of Mexico). After the prologue and the first short stage, Stieda had
the lowest total elapsed time. ''It gave the team confidence just to
see Alex with it on,'' said the American coach, Mike Neel, who had no
illusions that his team would retain the jersey for long.
Indeed, in the team time trials that same afternoon, Stieda became
exhausted and had to slow down so much that he was almost
disqualified. ''Our goals were to win one or two stages and to finish
five racers,'' says Neel. ''We just don't have the get-go yet to
compete for the top three overall spots.''
On July 10 the team got another boost when its captain, Ron Kiefel
of Boulder, Colo., finished second in the seventh stage, a
190-kilometer route through picturesque Normandy. Not that Kiefel was
exactly enjoying the scenery. ''You can't look around too much,'' he
says. ''You're always watching out for someone slamming on the brakes
ahead of you, for riders weaving, for cars squeezing the peloton (the
formation incorporating the main body of competitors).'' Like eight
of his nine 7-Eleven mates (the exception is Doug Shapiro), Kiefel,
26, is competing in his first Tour de France.
''We're here to learn,'' says the director of the 7-Eleven cycling
program, Jim Ochowicz. ''There's no way to train for this race except
by riding in it. Whipping through these little towns, people hanging
off both sides of the roads, cars roaring by, cobblestones, sirens --
how are you going to prepare for that at home? This is the major
One look at what cyclists are paid will tell you that. The
7-Eleven riders make between $18,000 and $40,000 a year -- the
average is $25,000 -- and they earn about that much again in prize
money. Greg LeMond, an American who races for a French team, La Vie
Claire, is in the second year of a four-year, $1.2 million contract,
which means he's paid more in a year than the entire 7- Eleven squad.
And LeMond approximately doubles his income in bonuses and
However, since triumphing in the 1983 World Road Race
Championship, LeMond has not won a major European competition. He
finished a disappointing fourth in this year's Tour of Italy, the
second most prestigious race in the world, and was third and second,
respectively, in the past two Tours de France. LeMond is getting a
reputation for being a man who can't win the big one. ''Greg LeMond
has all the physical qualities needed to win the Tour,'' said Laurent
Fignon, one of the favorites, on the eve of the opening leg. ''But he
doesn't have the mind-set of a winner.''
Ouch. But then, that's Fignon, who by age 23 had won two Tours de
France. He missed all of last season recovering from surgery to
repair an Achilles tendon, but during his convalescence, his fans
could keep tabs on his whereabouts and affaires amoureux by reading
the Paris papers. Fignon is now 25, the same age as LeMond, and is
ready to reassume the cycling spotlight.
''He wants to become the next big Hinault,'' says LeMond, whose
hair stands rigid on the nape of his neck at the very mention of
Fignon's name. ''Maybe he will be, but I get so sick of reading about
him in the French papers. He hasn't done anything in two years.''
Ah, yes. Let us not forget LeMond's teammate, Bernard Hinault,
one of three five-time winners of the Tour and the defending
champion. Although no one has won six times, Hinault, 3l, vowed after
last year's Tour that he would try to help one of his teammates --
preferably LeMond -- win in 1986, because LeMond had helped him do so
in l985. Hinault now says he will work for LeMond only if LeMond has
a better chance of winning than he has. In other words, may the best
man win.
Fignon's team, Systeme U, which is composed entirely of French
riders, blew everyone away in the team time trials on July 5. That
gave Fignon a lead of almost two minutes over Hinault and LeMond and
put him in second place overall. Fignon remained ahead of them until
Saturday's individual time trial in Nantes, the first truly
significant stage before the Tour heads into the Pyrenees and,
eventually, the Alps, where the outcome probably will be decided.
The French call the time trials the ''races of truth.'' Almost
invariably, the best rider wins. No strategy or teamwork is
involved. The racers take off in two-minute intervals, and for 61
kilometers -- in Nantes, anyway -- they put the hammer down. That's
an hour and 20-some minutes of busting your hump. If you feel sick at
the finish, you've loafed. You should feel as if you want to die.
Which is exactly how the arrogant Fignon felt when he crossed the
finish line and looked up through his oval-shaped spectacles to see
his time: 1:22.28, good for 32nd place and 3 minutes, 42 seconds
behind Hinault's spectacular winning mark of 1:18.46. The truth was
out. Fignon was not back to form. And with the mountains lying
ahead, his chances for winning a third Tour looked bleak. ''I'm not
making excuses,'' he said afterward, temporarily humbled. ''I just
didn't do well.''
LeMond, elated, finished second to Hinault, 44 seconds back,
despite suffering a flat tire, which cost him about 30 seconds.
LeMond had now moved into eighth place in the overall classification,
1:59 behind the leader, Jorgen Pederson of Denmark, who should lose
that eminence as the race heads into the Pyrenees. Hinault was in
third place, 1:10 behind, looking as strong as ever. Fignon had
fallen back into 12th place.
LeMond was brimming with confidence. Last year he lost by 2:34 to
Hinault in one time trial and 1:23 in another. Now he was pointing
out that the flat course in Hinault's home province of Brittany is
ideally suited for the champion. ''He needed to take two or three
minutes out of me today to really have the advantage going into the
mountains,'' said LeMond, a fine climber who finished only 1:42
behind Hinault in last year's Tour. ''He's not the Bernard Hinault
of five years ago. I know in the last week of the race I'm going to
be stronger than he is.''
Spoken like a man who has developed the mind-set of a winner. Now
let's move on to the mountains. Let the real racing begin. END


GERARD VANDYSTADT/VANDYSTADT The race passed last week through picturesque Normandy, but for the riders sight-seeing took a backseat to pursuing the ''maillot jaune.''


GERARD VANDYSTADT/VANDYSTADT LeMond (above) hoped to win the Tour; Phinney was happy just to win respect.