Beating the Clock—and All the Odds—Cyclist Greg Lemond Triumphs in the Tour De France

updated 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

After 23 grueling days and more than 2,000 miles, the race had come down to a 15-mile sprint from Versailles to Paris. But American cyclist Greg LeMond, a seemingly insurmountable 50 seconds behind front-runner Laurent Fignon, had not given up hope of victory. "It's still possible," he said—and then proved his words no idle boast. Halfway through the final stage, he had clipped 29 seconds off Fignon's lead. Speeding along the Seine, LeMond continued to close the gap. Onlookers, sensing an upset at hand, shouted, "Vive LeMond!" All muscle, sinew and speed as he hurtled down the Champs-Elysées, LeMond crossed the finish line and did the impossible: clocked an astounding 26 minutes, 57 seconds to win the glamorous Tour de France.

LeMond, 28, had triumphed by the narrowest margin in the race's 86-year history—or what the French quickly dubbed the Eight Magic Seconds. Dismissed by many as a long shot at best, LeMond gave a come-from-behind performance that was remarkable enough, but even more so given the fact that he was riding with 40 shotgun pellets lodged inside him—the result of a near-fatal shooting accident in 1987. "I said anything was possible," LeMond joked to reporters, grinning and flush with victory. But moments later, watching a video replay of the finish, he too seemed astonished by his triumph against all odds. "It's maybe the greatest day in my life," he said. "It's crazy, it's incredible, it's almost a miracle."

Almost is right; LeMond has been fiercely driven throughout his career. Born in Reno, he took up cycling at 14 and began racing competitively a year later. "When Greg was 16, he would beat racers aged 20 and older," says his father, Bob. "He adores challenge." LeMond turned pro in 1980, the year the U.S. boycotted the Olympics, and soon began logging an impressive record. After signing on with a French team in 1980, he won third place in his first Tour de France four years later, came in second in 1985, and in 1986 became the first American to capture the winner's trophy.

Nine months after that sweet victory, tragedy struck. In April 1987, while hunting wild turkeys outside Sacramento, Calif., his brother-in-law, Patrick Blades, accidentally shot a camouflaged LeMond, spraying at close range 60 steel pellets into his chest and abdomen. "I've been shot!" he screamed. "I'm never going to ride again!" After waiting for help for 45 minutes and losing two pints of blood, LeMond was flown to University of California-Davis Medical Center, where 20 pellets were removed. He still carries the rest, including three in the lining of his heart. "Had his injuries not been treated promptly, they would have been fatal," says LeMond's surgeon, Dr. Sandra Beal, who credits his extraordinary recovery to his physical strength—and the fact that he had "all the determination in the world to get better."

Starting over wasn't easy. Four months after the shooting, he had an emergency appendectomy. After he began training again last year, he underwent surgery for tendon problems in his right leg. Throughout this spring, victories in major races continued to elude him—he lacked stamina and couldn't get his breath on climbs—and in June's Tour of Italy tune-up race for the Tour, LeMond discovered he was anemic. But his resolve never faded—thanks to his faith in himself and the unwavering support of his wife, Kathy. "This accident that almost destroyed me forever has been beneficial. It motivated me to become even stronger than I was before," he said. "It's due to training like a madman and to Kathy's continual assistance that I was able to climb back up into the light of day."

His second Tour de France crown will also boost his net worth. He received $250,000 and 26 invitations to ride in celebrity races around Europe, each one offering at least $10,000 for him just to show up. Combined with his commercial endorsements and racing contracts, he will easily make more than $1 million this year. That should make for a lush life with Kathy and their two sons, Geoffrey, 5, and Scott, 2 (a baby is on the way). They divide their time between homes in Belgium and, during bike racing's off-season, in Wayzata, Minn.

Despite his 1986 victory, LeMond has not been much of a celebrity at home. But maybe now his neighbors will recognize him when he trains near Lake Minnetonka. For the moment, LeMond's low profile doesn't seem to bother a champ whose latest triumph has returned him to superstar status in Europe. His Tour de France win, said LeMond shortly after his spectacular finish, "is up there with the legends. Without sounding arrogant, I think I'm one of America's best athletes, and this proves it. It's the hardest sport in the world."

—Cathy Nolan in Paris, Margaret Nelson in Wayzata and Liz McNeil in San Francisco

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