ARLINGTON, Va. -- Greg LeMond got people excited yesterday with an early breakaway and fellow American Greg Oravetz kept them excited by becoming the overall race leader after three stages. But there is little doubt both LeMond and Oravetz are watching PDM rider Erik Breukink with trepidation.
Breukink is evidently the man to beat over the next seven days. He is in top condition. He is just three seconds out of first, riding for the No. 1 team in the world. And he is considered the strongest climber, heading into the grueling mountain stages that begin tomorrow through the Blue Ridge range.
"I'm feeling a lot better than I ever thought I would," said LeMond, who is 2 minutes, 30 seconds behind Oravetz. "I'm still in this race. It's too early yet to tell if I have a chance at winning. But I feel good. Now, when it comes to me and Erik in the mountains, I don't know if I can stay with him. We'll have to wait and see."
As for Oravetz, who finished second to Helvetia's Rolf Aldag in a sprint to the finish yesterday, he admits up front that his time in the yellow jersey is probably limited.
"The real racing is in the hills," said the 24-year-old from Huntington Beach, Calif. "I am not the strongest climber on our team."
Today, Stage 4 will see the Tour Du Pont riders cover an 87-mile road course between Fredericksburg and Richmond, before competing in a 35-mile criterium (closed course race) through Richmond's downtown streets tonight.
But no matter what the future holds, the Tour Du Pont, which bills itself as America's Greatest Cycling Event, is, for the moment at least, exactly that.
LeMond's early breakaway earned him the Most Aggressive Rider award for the afternoon, and Oravetz is the first American to hold the overall lead beyond the prologue in the three-year history of the race.
"Is it true? Are you sure it's true?" said Oravetz, still on his bike, still sweating after the finish. "I'm very happy. I was so excited on the course, when I realized I had a chance to win, I blew it really. I jumped to the front with 350 meters to go. I thought I was closer than I was and yet I thought I had it -- until two feet from the finish Rolf came around me twice as fast as I was going."
This is America's race and yesterday the 45,000 spectators lining the 7.2-mile road circuit that snaked its way around the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery saw a purely American-style race.
"This is what we do," said Coors Light team director Len Pettyjohn. "We make attack after attack after attack, all day long. The Europeans aren't used to it. It wasn't their kind of race and for them, it got out of hand."
A day earlier in Columbia, Patrick Roelandt broke away from the field 102 miles into the 130-mile road race from Newark, Del. It was the first time Roelandt, who rides for Tonton-Tapis, had ever won a stage in a professional race and the victory gave the little Belgian the leader's yellow jersey.
But Roelandt, smiling broadly as he set out to defend the lead yesterday, could not hold on. From the time LeMond made the first breakaway, it became apparent the Americans were on the move. Seven of them finished in the lead pack.
"You never know exactly why someone goes to the front early," said Pettyjohn. "But in Greg's case I think there were two reasons. One he wanted to make the PDM team work harder [in an effort to wear it down before the mountains] and two, I think he looked around the pack, saw everyone just lazing around and felt embarrassed. I think he felt a responsibility to the big crowd that was out there and he wanted to heat up the action."
LeMond does indeed seem ready to heat up the action. He said he still is riding for his teammate Atle Kvalsvall, who is in the best physical condition on the Z team. But he added, "As long as I continue to feel this good, I'll compete. If I'm capable, I'll try to win. I don't know any other way of racing.
"So far," LeMond continued, "I've shown I can be strong on the flats. When the grade gets to 15 percent, it will take a lower body fat. But, who knows, maybe I'll peak. I've certainly tried harder than I ever have to be in shape for this race."