Last week, in the middle of Thursday's grueling five-mile, 2,600-foot climb up Wintergreen Mountain in Virginia, America's most famous cyclist began to believe that he just might, at last, win America's most famous bike race. Greg LeMond—former world champion, three-time winner of the Tour de France and the only cyclist most Americans have ever heard of—had been dreading this ascent, which capped the eighth stage of the 11-stage Tour Du Pont. Yet here it was, and LeMond felt stronger than he'd dared to imagine. He began to push. By the end of the day, LeMond was back in the yellow jersey, emblematic of the race's overall leader.
"I don't feel the race is over yet," said LeMond, catching his breath beside the finish line at Wintergreen Resort. "But now I have as good a chance as anyone."
LeMond was being too modest. By this point in the race, no one else really had a chance. Over the last three stages, with the help of his fellow Team Z cyclists, LeMond held off the determined challenges of some of the sport's best riders. With a signature performance in Sunday's concluding 14.7-mile time trial, over the rim-jarring streets of Washington, D.C., he sealed a victory that had eluded him in three previous tries. "I'm glad to have this one on my list at last," he said.
The Tour Du Pont's organizers must be equally glad to have LeMond's name on their list. This year marked the fourth edition of the race, which bills itself as "America's Premier Cycling Event." In its first two years the race was known as the Tour de Trump, but The Donald is long gone, and with Du Pont having stepped in as the main sponsor last year, the race has taken on new stature. May's Tour Du Pont (an anagram, by the way, for "Not you, sad Trump") is now a fixture on the international cycling calendar. Despite being held at the same time as the Tour of Spain, one of Europe's premier races, the 1992 Tour Du Pont drew its strongest field ever.
One hundred and five riders from 19 countries set off on the 1,000-mile route from Wilmington, Del., through the Pocono and the Blue Ridge mountains, to the finish in D.C. Among the big wheels on hand were world champion Gianni Bugno of Italy and two-time Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon of France, both riding for Team Gatorade; Australia's Phil Anderson, of the Motorola team; Stephen Swart of New Zealand, riding for Coors Light; and Atle Kvalsvoll of Norway and Team Z, the Tour Du Pont runner-up in '90 and '91. Then, of course, there was LeMond.
Though he remains as unaffectedly boyish as ever, LeMond will be 31 next month. He is in his 12th year as a professional, and despite his successes in Europe over the past few summers, LeMond had not won a stage race in the U.S. since 1985. Until Sunday his highest Tour Du Pont finish had come last year, when he placed 12th after riding in support of Kvalsvoll, playing the role of what cyclists call a domestique.
While LeMond insisted that he was as strong as ever going into this year's race, he also admitted that he might well be in a support position again. He had spent the winter in Minnesota, he said, putting in more time on cross-country skis than on a bike. Such training kept him fit, but it also added muscle to his upper body, muscle that would be unwelcome baggage on the mountain stages. "I didn't think I could win it, because of Wintergreen," said LeMond after Sunday's victory. "I thought Atle would win the overall race, and I hoped just to have a stage win or two."
He got off to a good start, taking the race's prologue, a three-mile dash through Wilmington's Brandywine Park on May 7. He appeared headed for another victory in stage 2, a 16-mile time trial, until a flat rear tire dropped him to third overall, 12 seconds behind Britain's Dave Mann, of Coors Light. Now it seemed LeMond would merely try to stay close, and when the riders left the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., for the 98-mile trek ending at Wintergreen, LeMond was in second place, eight seconds behind Swart. Four hours later, with 2½ miles to go to the summit, Kvalsvoll attacked, and LeMond quickly joined the chase. He charged up to take 11th, and once again he was the man in yellow. And now the hills were behind him.
On Friday the tour covered 111 miles, from Wintergreen down to Richmond. With LeMond content to cruise along in the peloton, Anderson sprinted to his third stage win to close to within 10 seconds of the leader. The next day, after the tour's penultimate stage, a 97-mile circuit race through the streets of Richmond, LeMond's margin over Anderson was still 10 seconds. LeMond, widely considered the best time-trial rider in the world, seemed close to victory.
However, he was far from secure. "I've seen riders get too confident with their lead," said LeMond. "Jeez, I'm nervous."
Hein Verbruggen, president of the International Cycling Union, made the 100-mile drive from Richmond to Washington with LeMond on Saturday afternoon. He laughed softly when asked about LeMond's nervousness. "He will win," Verbruggen said. "Oh, yes, he will win."
Starting last on a gray, muggy afternoon, LeMond settled into a powerful rhythm as he sped past the sights of the capital. "Some days you feel good; some days you feel great," LeMond said later. "Today I only felt good."
Good was good enough. LeMond crossed the line in 29:59, the third-fastest time of the day. Swart had made an impressive run, but his 30:13 left him third overall. Anderson, spent and struggling, dropped to sixth, while Kvalsvoll, 20 seconds behind LeMond, finished second for the third year in a row.
For LeMond, who received a check for $50,000 and a kiss from D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, bigger tasks and bigger rewards lie ahead in France in July. In the meantime these 10 days in May will serve as a vindication of sorts. "I've always been one to question where I stand." said LeMond. "Now I'd say I've still got a couple more years."
After having grabbed the lead in stage 8, LeMond grabbed his lunch in stage 9.