A 2,500-Mile Grudge Match Ends with a Kiss as America's Greg Lemond Wins a Classic

updated 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When 25-year-old Greg LeMond pumped across the finish line on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, it was more than the climax of a grueling Tour de France and the first-ever triumph for an American: It was the denouement of an epic duel on wheels between LeMond and Bernard Hinault, 31, the French star who has alternately served as his mentor and prime rival. Two hundred and eight other riders had started out on the 2,500-mile, 24-day course that took them from the Paris suburbs to the Pyrenees and over the Alps, but the contest between LeMond and Hinault—a wily and irascible competitor aptly nicknamed "the badger"—eclipsed them all. Playing out the rivalry before a roadside audience of 14 million, the five-time Tour champion—presumably hungry for a record-setting sixth win before his retirement later this year—goaded, taunted and, some say, betrayed his teammate. By the time it was over, the laurel wreath had been passed, and Hinault, who finished second, had fulfilled his cryptic promise of "ending my career," as he put it, "with a beautiful exploit."

The relationship had begun simply, with the French superstar adopting the raw young American as his protégé and handpicked successor. LeMond, a Nevada native who began cycling at 14, burst onto the European circuit in 1980. Signed to France's Renault squad that year, he quickly fell under the spell of Hinault, the charismatic team leader who had already won the Tour twice, in 1978 and 1979. "Bernard was my hero then," recalls LeMond.

On the face of it, the two couldn't have had less in common: LeMond, the son of a Reno Realtor and a homemaker, was the polite and amiable neophyte—"Huck Finn with steel thighs," as one writer put it. Hinault was a capricious daredevil and folk hero: He had escaped from humble beginnings in Brittany to become one of the richest cyclists in Europe, with an annual income from riding and endorsements of about $500,000 a year. Notorious for angry outbursts, he tested the tolerant affection of his countrymen: "He has the character of a pig," says a Tour insider. To Greg, however, he offered inspiration, support and tactical advice. Eventually, he declared, "LeMond will ride over my body."

The rift opened in 1985, when LeMond signed a four-year, $1.4 million contract to ride with Hinault on a new team, La Vie Claire. In a sport where teamwork is all, LeMond was cast for a supporting role in last year's Tour, cooperating in a collective strategy that would give Hinault, and only Hinault, a shot at winning. It rankled, but Greg complied, sacrificing his own chance for victory. After claiming the spoils, the battered badger told reporters: "If I am in the Tour de France next year, I shall only compete to help one of my teammates.... I will make Greg LeMond win."

Still, to many observers, the veteran road warrior seemed unwilling to surrender the fabled yellow jersey of the leader in this year's race. Breaking away from a field that included a pioneer squad from America, the 7-Eleven team, Hinault subjected LeMond to a series of physical and psychological tests—grabbing the up-front position, attacking his lead and publicly calling for a showdown. As the race progressed the public clashes took their toll. The 5'10", 150-lb. LeMond looked gaunt and tense; he broke into frustrated tears after losing an individual time trial to his rival, and twice threatened to quit the race. "I was ready for anything," he told reporters, "but it's still hard to have to look out for your own teammate."

"If I pushed Greg to the limit of his nerves, it was for his own good," declared Hinault, who called a truce three days before the race's end when Greg held a commanding two-minute, 18-second lead over him. "This year I did not have it in my head to win, so I could play more, take more risks."

Some Tour observers were willing to believe that Hinault was only trying to arouse a killer instinct in Greg. The disillusioned LeMond, however, was having none of it. "He was doing it for his own good," he said bitterly. "He was hoping I'd crack psychologically."

For LeMond, the sting of Hinault's challenge has undoubtedly been salved by his own triumph. With the winner's booty in sight (including a resort apartment and $26,000 in cash that he will share with the team) he allowed, "This is the hardest Tour I've ever been through, but it all worked out in the end. I think we can be friends after this." Dazed and teary at the post-race ceremony in the heart of Paris, he stood before a crowd of 70,000 (including wife Kathy, 26, and son Gregory, 2½) clutching his diamond-studded gold trophy as the French Signal Corps played The Star Spangled Banner. Hinault offered his protégé a handshake, a kiss and congratulations on a race well run. "It was good to hear that," said LeMond.

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