Ready for more Seeking 4th championship jersey, LeMond enters Tour de France in best shape ever

July 03, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

The Tour de France begins Saturday and Greg LeMond i ready, more ready than he has been in years. That is probably a frightening thought to the other 199 riders who already have witnessed what LeMond can do when he is not in the best of shape.

In 1989, he started slowly, but worked his way to the top, finally overcoming a two-minute deficit to win the title for the second time on the last day. Last year, despite rounding into shape only shortly before the Tour, he won for a third time.

Now, he is gunning for No. 4.

"Nobody realizes the pressure of the yellow jersey," he said recently. "Taking the lead or being the favorite or being the past ++ winner. I end up going from sleeping eight or nine hours a night at the start, to sleeping less and less as I get closer to the lead. The last week it is about four hours a night."

It happens every year, he said. The pressure doesn't change. The self-confidence doesn't increase.

"I thought it would," he said. "But it doesn't. You're unsure all the time. Last year, I had a scare of getting a flat. You realize you can be the strongest and get the jersey and then you realize how easily it can be taken away from you. Your whole year can be shot because of a mechanical breakdown. It hasn't happened to me yet, but last year it was close."

One of the obstacles he hasn't been able to pull away from has been his critics.

There are those against whom he competes who rip him for the very success he has achieved. They say the Tour de France is LeMond's whole season.

And then there are the old-timers, like Eddy Merckx, who with Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault are the only five-time winners in the Tour's 77-year history. They criticize LeMond because he has not won the prestigious one-day races in the spring.

LeMond, who turned 30 on June 26, is not as annoyed by his detractors as he once was. He has his own perspective.

"Eddy Merckx only irritates me because he is living in the old days," LeMond said. "I can tell you cycling is much harder than when he raced. Much, much harder. Better trained athletes. In his era he dominated, but it proves cycling wasn't that competitive at that time.

"It's true. You talk to any old coach that raced at that time, he'll tell you the same thing. I don't take anything away from him. But I don't think he would have had the same career, the same victories.

"If I wasn't American, if I was Belgium, Eddy Merckx would love me."

LeMond's whole career has been enhanced and clouded by the fact he is an American. In the United States, he is considered the premier international rider. In Europe, he is considered something of an aberration; a successful American pro.

"My whole career I was just the first American there and they stereotyped me for everything I did," LeMond said. "I still get asked the same stupid questions: 'Oh, you're still eating burgers and ice cream?' "

LeMond believes those who criticize him most are those who canot win the grueling three-week tour through the French Alps and rolling, picturesque countryside.

"Everyone says I specialize for the Tour de France, but it is just the opposite," LeMond said. "Everyone else is specializing for, well, let me put it this way: Everybody peaks for the Tour de France, but they all know there are only four or five guys really capable of winning it. So, they know to save their seasons they have to be in shape by April.

"The Tour is not easy for me. It takes everything I've got. More and more it takes more and more guts."

In the Tour de France, riders are shoulder-to-shoulder on tiny roads. "You're always fighting and pushing. Even if you're not going hard you're spending an extreme amount of energy, nervous energy, just pushing and shoving," LeMond said.

It's a nerve-racking experience because one crash and a man is out of the race. "You've got to concentrate," he said. "If you relax, that's when it happens. You crash, you break your hand."

LeMond won't relax. He says he'll be totally focused when the race begins "because once you win the Tour de France, you realize its importance and everything else becomes secondary." When this race begins, he'll strive to be among the top five or 10.

"I don't see anybody," LeMond said. "I don't look left. I don't look right. I just see where I'm going. That's the way I raced it last year and I found that's the best."

The Tour's reputation is built on its difficulty and that same difficulty contributes to LeMond's fame.

He has ridden in the Tour de France five times and has won three (1986, '89, '90) and finished second and third.

He has been remarkably successful, but his respect for the event hasn't diminished.

"You've got to prove yourself, just to get on a pro team," LeMond said. "Then in order to get to the Tour de France, you've got to be selected within your team and then you've got to go against the 200 very best cyclists in the world . . . there are hundreds of thousands who compete to get into that 200.

"That's what makes it a good sport. If it was that easy to win the Tour de France, it wouldn't have that much value.

"It has to be hard. One rider doesn't dominate every single race he gets into. It just proves that in the world of athletics there are not people who are 20 percent better than anyone else. It's just not that way."

It does appear, however, as if Greg LeMond has that type of an edge on his peers in the Tour de France. He has won three out of five, and this year he is ready.

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