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Near the front of the pack, smack-dab in the center, thinking:
''Avoid a crash, avoid a crash,'' Greg LeMond cycled into history
Sunday on the Champs- Elysees in Paris. He could feel the tension of
the past three grueling weeks unwind with each passing lap around the
Tuileries Gardens and along the famous boulevard. The peloton of
cyclists made a shimmering visual feast on this gray day -- all
chrome and colors and polka dots -- as it cruised over the asphalt
and cobblestones, beneath spreading sycamores, past some 2,000
watchful policemen, encouraged by 150,000 spectators. $
LeMond was in yellow, the cherished maillot jaune emblematic of
the overall lead in the Tour de France. As the cyclists passed under
the Arrivee banner for the sixth and final time, LeMond coasted
across the line in triumph -- the first American in the 83-year
history of the race to win the Tour. He finished 3 minutes and 10
seconds ahead of Bernard Hinault, the teammate who three days earlier
had abandoned his controversial and divisive drive for a record sixth
Tour championship.
This wasn't just any Tour de France, but the most difficult,
turbulent and ultimately satisfying one in recent memory. A race? No,
a war: of nerves, of stamina, of wits, of strength. Left by the
wayside over 23 days on the 4,100- kilometer course were 78 cyclists
-- more than twice the number that gave up last year. Lost, too, were
one promise and one friendship. All this to crown a single champion,
in a race that contained two.
It really is the damnedest event: three weeks of misery for the
athletes in the midst of some of the loveliest and most varied
countryside on earth. More than 20 million spectators are said to
line the route, though how such multitudes can be counted while
spread out over so many miles is anyone's guess. Every hillside is
crawling with people; every city block is a mob scene; and even along
remote stretches of highway, with not a dwelling in sight, little
clusters of spectators appear out of nowhere, sipping wine, some
napping, some eating at linen-covered folding tables, all waiting
hours for no more than a passing glimpse of the cyclists. In the
interim the spectators are entertained by a caravan of vehicles
driven by the Tour's sponsors, literally miles of traveling,
screaming, flashing billboards peddling everything from cockroach
killer to chain saws. These vehicles are filled with hundreds of
thousands of cheap trinkets -- paper hats, empty plastic bags,
leaflets -- that are heaved willy-nilly toward the masses, who then
scrape and claw and dive to the middle of the road to retrieve them
-- grown men and women leaping in front of speeding automobiles
disguised as shopping carts in order to salvage, say, a sample packet
of banana flakes. It is not to be believed.
The route changes annually, circling France in a clockwise
direction one year, counterclockwise the next. This year the Tour
started on July 4 outside Paris, headed north to Lievin, and went
west through Normandy, south through Brittany and east through the
Pyrenees before winding through the Alps last < week and then turning
north back to Paris. It was a traveling traffic jam of one-night
stands that one would think only the Swiss could pull off. ''We
have an expression,'' says Philippe Sudres, one of the Tour's press
liaison men, '' 'The Tour is a permanent miracle.' ''
It was against this backdrop that the 1986 race unfolded, a
stirring drama that boiled down to two men -- LeMond and Hinault --
once the Tour headed into the mountains on July 15. Co-captains of
the La Vie Claire team, they are the two finest cyclists in the
world, a quantum jump up from whomever one cares to put in third.
Hinault, 31, was racing in his eighth and, he says, final Tour.
LeMond, 25, is in his cycling prime. Hinault was chasing
immortality -- he is one of the three men who have won five Tours.
And LeMond was chasing a dream he had nurtured since he was 17 -- to
become the first American to win the most prestigious bike race in
the world.
They were teammates, and they were friends. On many occasions
Hinault had likened LeMond to a twin brother -- an analogy that the
French press, which adores Hinault, took a step further, noting that
one twin usually dominates the other. And so it had been until this
year, which was supposed to mark the passing of the torch from the
elder La Vie Claire ace to the younger. Hinault had promised quite
publicly to work for LeMond in this year's Tour, just as LeMond had
worked for Hinault last summer, when Hinault won his fifth. ''I came
to this race expecting him to honor that promise,'' said LeMond, who
finished second to Hinault in '85 by a mere 1 minute, 42 seconds. ''I
thought he was sincere. I believed him. I realize now that everything
he said was designed to take the pressure off him. It put him in a
no-lose situation.''
Were LeMond to win, Hinault would be the magnanimous five-time
champion who selflessly made it possible. Were Hinault to win, the
man they call le Blaireau (the Badger) would be a legend alone at the
Which is exactly where he appeared to be headed after the first of
two stages in the Pyrenees, a leg from Bayonne to Pau, when Hinault
broke the race open on July 15 by attacking at the Marie-Blanque pass
and escaping with Spain's Pedro Delgado to finish 4:36 ahead of the
third-place LeMond. ''We have rediscovered the greatest Hinault, that
of 1980,'' gushed La Vie Claire's sports director, Maurice Le
Guilloux. ''In the Tour de France, Bernard clearly feels he is in his
own home. He is in his own garden.''
/ Feeling depressed and betrayed, LeMond publicly questioned his
decision to race for La Vie Claire this year. Overall he was
second, trailing Hinault by 5:25, a lead perilously close to being
insurmountable. ''I thought the Tour de France was over for me,''
LeMond said later.
Had Hinault raced conservatively the next day, in all likelihood
it would have been over. But he is Hinault, le Blaireau. The French
love about him the same thing Americans loved about Arnold Palmer: He
charges. The next day, during perhaps the hardest single stage of the
Tour, Hinault attacked yet again, alone this time, after the first of
four punishing climbs. ''No one else in the world would have attacked
those two stages in a row,'' said Andy Hampsten, the only other
American cyclist on La Vie Claire's team, who ultimately finished
fourth overall and was the top first-year racer of this Tour. ''No
one else could have.''
After 154 kilometers, just 30 kilometers from the finish of that
stage, Hinault held a lead of nearly three minutes over his closest
pursuers, which included Hampsten, LeMond and Urs Zimmermann of
Switzerland. But it was in the 80s, and in Luchon, at the foot of
the last climb of the day -- 1,160 meters up the Superbagneres --
Hinault ran out of gas. The others caught him, then passed swiftly
by. Hampsten, working for LeMond, attacked first, setting up LeMond's
solo attack in the last five kilometers, when he dropped the others
behind. ''That's what won me the Tour de France,'' LeMond would say
later. ''I have to really thank Andy for that.''
Hinault gave back all that he had won the day before and then
some, straggling in 4:39 behind LeMond. His lead was now down to 46
seconds. Asked why he had taken such a suicidal risk, le Blaireau
replied: ''Cycling is a magnificent sport, but remember, it is also
a game.''
A serious game. In the next few days the hostility between LeMond
and his erstwhile mentor grew. ''We were still friends until
Luchon,'' LeMond said later. ''Then I came too close to him. He saw
that we were equals.''
Had Hinault and LeMond been on different teams, it would merely
have been a battle between racers. As it was, it was also a battle
of loyalties. Bernard Tapie, the owner of La Vie Claire, a chain of
health-food stores, declared that he considered LeMond the favorite,
but that, as a Frenchman, in his heart he was pulling for Hinault.
So were 55 million other Frenchmen and Hinault's four French
teammates. LeMond's camp was considerably smaller: Hampsten and
Canadian teammate Steve Bauer; LeMond's parents, Bob and Bertha; and
his spunky wife, Kathy, who at one point declared on French
television, ''If Hinault's going to continue attacking Greg during
the race, he should say so instead of pretending they're teammates.
If he's going to break his promise, at least admit it.''
LeMond finally earned the maillot jaune on July 20, in the Alps,
during the 17th stage of the Tour, breaking away with Zimmermann on
the terrifying Col d'Izoard descent. It's a series of mountain
switchbacks that, if LeMond had gone awry, could have landed him in a
meadow of wildflowers some 2,000 feet below. Hinault raced much of
the day with a muscle strain in his left calf, and at one point was
massaged with an analgesic by the team doctor riding alongside in a
car. He finished 13th, losing another 3:21 to LeMond, and now he had
fallen to third place in the overall standings, trailing both LeMond
and Zimmermann. Surely now, with Zimmermann between them, Hinault
would work for the team.
And he did. Or seemed to. On July 21, the last brutal day in the
Alps, a 165- kilometer stage from Briancon to the ski resort of
L'Alpe d'Huez, Hinault and LeMond broke away on the Col du Galibier
descent. Alternating in the lead, they were clocked at one point at
110 kilometers per hour -- better than 66 mph -- and left a boxed-in
Zimmermann far behind. For the final 130 kilometers they rode
together as teammates, eventually increasing their margin over the
third-place Zimmermann to 5:15. As they approached the finish LeMond
wrapped an arm around Hinault's shoulder in gratitude. ''I thought,
'Phew! It's finally over. We're a team again,' '' he said later.
Then Hinault clasped LeMond's hand and raised it over his head.
Finally LeMond, laughing, pushed Hinault ahead so he could finish the
stage first. It was a warm moment, the emotional high point of the
Tour, and was hailed as one of the most memorable scenes in the
event's flamboyant history.
It was also a sham. ''I am very proud of what we did today,''
Hinault said afterward. ''We have shown the spectators another image
of our sport. A very beautiful image. But again I say, the Tour is
not over. I have not offered Greg the Tour de France.''
LeMond couldn't believe it. He is a better climber than Hinault,
yet he had not attacked the final 21-switchback climb up to L'Alpe
d'Huez because he had thought their duel was finished. Now, with the
mountains behind them, they were back on Hinault's turf. And sure
enough, several times the next day Hinault attacked again, trying to
leave LeMond behind. Always LeMond caught up, and they finished with
identical times. ''Well, you didn't lose anything today,'' a friend
told LeMond afterward as he headed for his evening massage.
''No,'' LeMond replied. ''Just a teammate. Forever.''
The mental stress was taking its toll on LeMond, who found himself
unable to enjoy his pending victory. ''I can't even face him,'' he
said. ''We aren't talking. I have no respect for him anymore. I'll be
happy when it's over and I'm on the Champs-Elysees, because I'll know
that I've done it myself. He hasn't helped me one iota. I know I'll
never be friends with him again after this race. Not the way he's
treated me.''
Hinault's last real chance to make up the 2:43 by which he trailed
LeMond came last Thursday at St.-Etienne, during a 58-kilometer
individual time trial. These so-called ''races of truth'' are
Hinault's specialty. It was a cool day, overcast, and the tension
before the start was palpable. Hinault was shaking visibly, and
LeMond was not only nervous about the race but also was fearful that
a spectator would throw something at him or knock him off his bike.
''I feel like I'm one rider against all of France,'' he had said.
They were the last two riders of the day. Hinault would start three
minutes before LeMond.
LeMond wasn't worried about Hinault taking away his 2:43 lead in
one chunk -- he was riding too well for that. He wanted to win to
show all of France that he deserved to be champion. After 20
kilometers, LeMond led Hinault by eight seconds; 31 kilometers into
the race, Hinault led by four seconds. Then came the fall. Taking a
righthand turn too swiftly through the town of St.Chamond, LeMond
slid down at a spot where two other riders had tumbled. He bounced up
quickly and started off, but three kilometers later stopped once
again, this time to switch bikes, having damaged his brakes in the
crash. He had lost perhaps 30 seconds -- no more -- and when he
flashed across the finish line after 1 hour, 16 minutes and 1 second,
he found he had lost to Hinault by 25 seconds. They had finished
1-2, but LeMond retired to his trailer in tears. He later reemerged
ashen-faced to receive his yellow jersey, a ceremony that takes place
every day. Then he disappeared in record time to find his solace.
Ironically, it was about that time -- while LeMond was sitting in
tears < -- that Hinault threw in the towel, announcing to the press:
''Le Tour est fini. LeMond has won the Tour.'' Later, when pressed,
Hinault expanded on his relentless pursuit of his teammate. ''People
think I wasn't too nice to Greg, and he may think so, too. But I
pushed him to go to his very limit. He knows now to which point he
can go, and this will help him in the future. You know, I never saw
any reason not to go as fast as I can.''
It was the only way le Blaireau has ever known. And, still, it
was not enough. In years to come LeMond will remember that when some
young lion claws at him. ''It was probably good to see how I
performed under pressure,'' LeMond admitted when the race was finally
settled. ''That's Bernard. That's the way he is. He's a champion.''
And that makes two of them. END



GERARD VANDYSTADT/VANDYSTADT, PARIS The Badger subdued, LeMond exulted.

DINGO/VANDYSTADT, PARIS Hinault (polka dots) exasperated LeMond, who still pedaled into Paris wearing yellow.

GERARD VANDYSTADT/VANDYSTADT, PARIS Hampsten, fourth in the Tour, rode an ultrastreamlined bike in the Nantes time trial.

GERARD VANDYSTADT/VANDYSTADT, PARIS LeMond took the lead for good in the Alps during this perilous Col d'Izoard descent.