12/22/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
The ultimate test of the world's finest cyclists, the Tour de France is a race that is won less with speed than with character. So it was that when 25-year-old Greg LeMond sprinted across the finish line on the Champs Elysées last July, he became not merely the first American ever to win the 83-year-old event but a racer who had conquered demons to do it. For LeMond, cycling is "the thinking man's endurance sport," and, even now, reflecting on a torturous three-weeks-plus on the road, he sounds as if he had reached the very limits of what one man could possibly bear. "I never suffered so much in my life," he says wearily. "But then, I know how to suffer."
This was no pleasure tour LeMond had embarked on. It was 23 days and 2,542 miles up and down the Alps and the Pyrenees. It was 23 days of pedaling six hours a day at speeds of up to 60 mph. And for LeMond, there was the additional burden of psychological warfare. "Hinault," he says, unable to keep a bitter racer's edge from his voice. "If I didn't have to battle Hinault so much it would have been different."
Bernard Hinault, of course, was no ordinary rival. The 32-year-old Frenchman was the Tour's defending champion, a shrewd, unrelenting rider who was co-captain, with LeMond, of the formidable La Vie Claire racing team. There had been an expectation, carefully fostered by Hinault, that the two would race in concert and not as competitors. In 1985, after all, LeMond had sacrificed his own chances so that teammate Hinault could win the Tour for the fifth time—a record he shares with two other cyclists. This year Hinault was supposed to return the favor. "I will make Greg LeMond win," he vowed. In his own way, perhaps he did, but as LeMond saw it Hinault was racing to win himself, disarming him with talk of cooperation and friendship while going for the young American's throat. Hinault had been LeMond's hero, his mentor. Now suddenly he was his nemesis.
Understand that the Tour de France is a race of tactics. Cyclists ride in a pack, trying to block each other, drafting like race car drivers in the wake of those ahead, then trying to wear out the leader with repeated sprints. Hinault, known as the Badger for his ferocious attacks, gave his young teammate no quarter. "He was putting pressure on me, hoping I would crack," said LeMond. And the American, a Reno, Nev. native who learned his racing in California, almost gave in. "Hinault is the most popular guy in his own country," says LeMond. "You get a sense of paranoia. I felt like I was riding against all of France." Leg muscles burning, lungs gasping, the two men went head to head for hours at a time, hammering away at each other in the style of Frazier and Ali. However, in the end only three minutes and 10 seconds separated them.
Later Hinault claimed he had only been pressing LeMond to make him perform at his best. "People think I wasn't too nice to Greg, and he may think so, too," said Hinault. "But I pushed him to go his very limit. He knows now to which point he can go." LeMond greeted the explanation with a certain disdain. "He's a good actor," says the victorious road warrior. "He can make himself look like a hero."
If his feelings are still ruffled, LeMond can console himself with the estimated $1 million a year he makes from prize money and endorsements, mostly in Europe. Next month he will begin training again. Then he and his wife, Kathy, and son Geoffrey, 2, will leave their off-season home near Sacramento for their house in Kortrijk, Belgium. The food is superb there, and LeMond will indulge all his passions: foie gras, lobster salad and pigeon. "No one in cycling," he points out, "is into a vegetarian diet." Nor is he into forgiveness. Bernard Hinault retired last month in a ceremony that was shown live on French TV. Greg LeMond was invited but did not attend.