Finally back after a hunting accident, the American overtakes Laurent Fignon for his second Tour de France victory.
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 1999
When Greg LeMond in 1986 became the first American to win the Tour de France, the world's most prestigious bicycle race but still the centerpiece of a sport dominated by the other side of the globe, America barely noticed.
This wasn't Australia winning the America's Cup, Boris Becker winning Wimbledon. No national heroism, parades, endorsements.
Three years later, on July 23, 1989, he won it again. This time, America knew his name. Besides there was something heroic this time. LeMond did it after recovering from a near-fatal shooting accident.
After 23 days and nearly 2,000 miles of racing, he did it with the narrowest winning margin -- eight seconds -- in the 76-race history of the event.
The endorsement and contract offers poured in. He did the television talk-show circuit. There was a made-for-TV movie biography. And he was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
In time trials, it is the rider's time, not his position in relation to other riders, that matters. Entering the final stage, a 15-mile time trial, LeMond trailed 1983-84 winner Laurent Fignon of France by 50 seconds.
After 7 miles, LeMond had gained 21 seconds. At the 11-mile mark, 35 seconds. At the entrance to the Champs Elysees, 45 seconds. The crowd roared its approval.
Fignon was desperate. Not even the encouragement of French fans could help him as he flailed his way to the Arc de Triomphe and back, finishing the stage in 27 minutes, 55 seconds. Fifty-eight seconds more than LeMond.
Before the race, even LeMond wasn't sure he'd compete at the world-class level again.
In April 1987, while hunting for turkey in California with his uncle and brother-in-law, LeMond, clothed in camouflage gear, rose up from behind a hedge. Thirty yards away, his brother-in-law saw the movement and fired at it. LeMond was hit by more than 50 buckshot pellets.
By the time a police helicopter air-lifted him to a hospital, estimates were that death was imminent, about 30 minutes away, from shock and loss of blood. Nearly 40 pellets remained in his body. Four months later he was just beginning to ride again when he needed an emergency appendectomy. That finished his chance to race in the 1987 Tour -- and before the 1988 race he fell in a race in Belgium and the resulting infection in his right shin kept him out for a second year in a row.
"There were many moments," LeMond said, "when I had doubts about making it back. ... Not doubts, exactly. More frustration. I was so frustrated. I would train well, do everything I thought was right, and find myself in a holding pattern."
He said he hoped he might win one stage, finish in the top 20. He never believed he would win. "I decided I would have to go for it from the start," LeMond said. "If I blew up after 5 kilometers, too bad. I had nothing to lose."
He would win it again in 1990. Four years later he would retire from competitive racing, but his victories, most notably the one in 1989, would familiarize Americans with the Tour de France. In 1999, Lance Armstrong, a survivor of testicular cancer, would become the second American winner, and do it with the fastest time ever. And America would care.