In French, le monde means the world—and that is precisely what Greg LeMond sits atop. Last week, resplendent in his banana-yellow leader’s jersey, the 29-year-old American came wheeling up the Champs-Elysées to win his second straight Tour de France, the world’s premiere bicycle race—a feat one U.S. columnist, grasping for comparisons, likened to a Frenchman’s pitching a World Series no-hitter.
This was LeMond’s third Tour de France victory in five years. It follows his stirring comeback last year from a near-fatal hunting accident. This year, remarkably, he won not a single one of the 21 individual legs of the race—but came out ahead overall. If not a model of modesty, he at least spoke his heart as he hoisted the winner’s trophy aloft. “It’s always the best who wins,” he shouted. “The Tour de France never cheats anyone out of a real victory.”
Indeed, the Tour often seems more an ordeal than a mere race. LeMond and his Z Team, consisting of eight riders and himself, bested 197 other contestants. Over 21 stages in 22 days, in often searing midsummer heat, they raced 2,108 miles through city and countryside and up and down the Alps and the Pyrenees. LeMond’s winning time—90 hours, 43 minutes, 20 seconds—earned him a two-minute, 16-second victory over Italian racer Claudio Chiappucci, who held an ever-diminishing lead until day 21.
LeMond paid for his victory in pain. The night before LeMond rolled triumphantly into Paris, he had his usual hour massage by his friend and trainer Otto Jacome. His feet were a mass of corns from his tight cycling shoes. He was afflicted by saddle sores. He had dislocated a finger and survived two crashes. During one stage, in fact, he had collided with an elderly spectator, and the incident clearly illustrated how race crazy the French are and how much of a hero LeMond, who’s of Scotch-Irish, English and Cherokee Indian extraction, has become to them. “I didn’t really hurt her,” said LeMond on the trainer’s table, “but I got up and said, ‘Are you okay?’ Her husband says, ‘Go on! Get out of here! Don’t worry about her!’ ” LeMond’s other near-disaster occurred at stage 18, in the Pyrenees. LeMond had a flat tire, dropping 12 miles and 90 seconds behind Chiappucci. By the time help arrived, he was screaming, “I’ve blown it. I’ve lost the race.” But the bike was replaced, and four other members of Z Team mounted a concerted attack to bring LeMond back close to the lead. Setting off at top speed, they allowed LeMond to “draft,” or follow behind in their slipstream, over the treacherous mountain roads. Hitting 70 mph on the downhill slopes, LeMond admits he was terrified. “I never took risks like that,” he says. “I wouldn’t do that at any other race.”
For a time it appeared he wouldn’t be in any position to try. After his 1989 victory, and his selection as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s Sportsman of the Year, critics charged he spent too much time on commercial engagements and too little on training. When an overweight LeMond returned to the European race circuit in May, the sporting press was not sympathetic. HE’S FAT AND HE’S FINISHED, said one headline. As the Tour gained momentum, so did the broadsides. While LeMond whittled away at Chiappucci’s 10-minute lead, former champions Bernard Hinault, 35, and Eddy Merckx, 45, lit into him. Hinault, LeMond’s onetime teammate and rival, accused the American of not being a true patron—for not taking control of the race early on. And Merckx sniped at LeMond for a lack of panache.
LeMond displayed a certain panache in rebuttal. “You’ve got these old farts in cycling who romanticize the old days,” he says. “It’s a much harder sport than it was 10 years ago. Everybody knows how to train—and it’s more intense.” It is also far more lucrative, for which riders can thank LeMond. When he turned pro in 1981, the minimum salary for tour riders was $7,000. In the slipstream of LeMond’s success and star appeal (he earns $1.8 million for riding with Z Team, which is sponsored by a children’s clothing manufacturer) the minimum is now $30,000, with team salaries—except for his own—topping out at $800,000. Perhaps even more irritating to traditionalists is that LeMond, who prefers burgers and fries to pâté de foie gras, has changed the dour face of racing. Some cyclists, who tend to be angstridden, are affronted by his sunny demeanor and his cheerful willingness to sign autographs endlessly. Worse, LeMond, a devoted family man, has consistently broken the Tour tradition of no women and children by bringing along his wife, Kathy, 30, his three kids and his mom and dad from Reno. “Greg is away so much, we think about families that wake up together,” says Kathy, maker of the two LeMond homes in Wayzata, Minn., and Marke, Belgium. “I think if Greg quits, it will be because of the life-style.”
That doesn’t seem likely to happen soon. As is often done, LeMond’s gesture juste following this year’s Tour de France was to present his $360,000 winner’s prize to his eight co-riders, without whom he would surely have lost. “You never compete in the Tour just for money,” LeMond said afterward. “You don’t suffer, kill yourself and take the risks I take just for money. I love bike racing.”