WILMINGTON, Del. -- When anyone suggests Greg LeMond is the greatest competitor in professional bicycle racing and a favorite in whatever race he is running, his expression is always the same: like that of a deer caught unexpectedly in a car's headlights late at night.
The last thing he needs, as the Tour Du Pont begins with its prologue here this evening, is to be fingered as the favorite.
This, after all, is not his race. It's not even LeMond's time of the year.
"If I could schedule this race, I'd make it two weeks before the Tour de France or a week after," LeMond said yesterday. "Then, I'd come here and say, 'I'm going to win.' But this is May and historically, I'm not good in May."
The 11-day, 1,100-mile cycling race will start with a 3.1-mile individual prologue time trial. The fastest rider will wear the leader's jersey in Stage 1 tomorrow, a 106-mile road race beginning and ending in Wilmington.
LeMond of Wayzata, Minn., is a two-time world champion, a three-time Tour de France winner and the highest paid cyclist in the world. But he hasn't won a stage race in the United States since 1985. That victory came in the now-defunct Coors International Bicycle Classic.
But LeMond contends he has been consistent throughout his career.
"Everyone sees me winning the Tour de France," he said. "The downside of that is that once they see me winning that race they judge everything else by it. If I win, it's a successful race. If I lose, it's a failure. But through my 10-year career I've been consistent. My down cycle is the month of May."
He has illustrated that fact in gut-wrenching detail during this race each of the last two years.
Year one, he was so ill, he held a news conference from his sick bed in Harrisburg, Pa., proclaiming himself out of the running by Stage 3. Only a late stage rally helped him finish 27th overall.
Last year -- with a big screen TV set up at the finish of each race, running and rerunning embarrassing Taco Bell ads that featured LeMond biking out for a bushel of tacos for himself and his friends -- he pedaled through the course overweight and overwrought, finally dragging himself to a 78th-place finish.
Perhaps, this year will be different. He's already off to a different start. Yesterday LeMond showed up at the pre-race news conference. The two previous years he had failed to appear.
"Greg is always a big contender when he is motivated to win," said Canadian Steve Bauer of Motorola. "But in this race there are a lot of very good riders who race well. I think this race is wide open."
It is an opinion voiced by a number of competitors, including Australian Phil Anderson, a five-race winner already this season who is to Australia what LeMond is to the United States -- its best ever.
"There are a lot of riders here who are more dangerous in this event than Greg LeMond," said Anderson, Bauer's Motorola teammate. "His overall objective goes beyond this race, while the objectives of many here are to win this race.
"Greg is under a lot of pressure. He has a lot of critics, all over the world. He has performed so well in the Tour de France and has so many companies sponsoring him, it becomes something of a burden. I guess he deserves to be able to choose what races he wants to [go all out for]."
The 111-rider field has 12 professional teams and four national amateur teams. In addition to LeMond, Bauer and Anderson, Sean Kelly of Ireland, Atle Kvalsvoll of "Z" and Erik Breukink of PDM are among the top contenders.
The amateur squads include seven-rider teams from the U.S., Canada, Germany and the Soviet Union, whose most famous member is Vladislav Bobrik, who turned this tour upside down for 10 days last year when he held the leader's jersey from Stage 3 through 12.
"I think the favorite has to come from among Erik Breukink [PDM], Anderson or Atle Kvalsvoll, who is on my team and was second last year," LeMond said. "I'm a talented athlete, but if I dominated the sport from February through October, it wouldn't be a very difficult sport.