On his only day off during the 23 days of the Tour de France, Greg LeMond took a hard two-hour bicycle ride in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains.
"It's important to keep your body in the rhythm of racing," LeMond said yesterday. "You want to have some rest, but if you took a whole day off, you would be wrecked the next day."
The next day, today, is the first of the four significant mountain stages in the 74th Tour de France.
LeMond, the three-time champion from Wayzata, Minn., heads for the hills in first place. He is 51 seconds ahead of Soviet sprint specialist Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, who figures to fall back.
LeMond has been comfortably dressed in the leader's yellow jersey for the last three stages. His chances to keep it for the rest of the Tour -- or at least at the finish -- were increased when top challenger Eric Breukink and his entire PDM team dropped out Tuesday with a virus possibly caused by food poisoning.
"I don't think that will take away from the pressure on me," LeMond said.
"The first day in the mountains is always nerve-racking for me. I usually don't do my best until the second day. Even though Thursday isn't super-steep, you have to get in another rhythm of racing after the fast stages on the flat."
There is also some question about LeMond's mountain fitness since he dropped out of the Tour of Italy in the Dolomites. There he complained the climbs were too tough for is state of conditioning at that time, some five weeks ago.
In international cycling, climbs are rated by degree of difficulty, from 4 (the easiest) to something called hors categorie, which translates to "beyond classification." What it means is "extremely difficult."
Of the two stages in the Pyrenees, tomorrow's is by far the more difficult. It includes two "hors categorie" climbs.
Today's stage, which takes the race into Spain, has two No. 1s, a 2 and a 3.
The Spanish connection may provide some inspiration for the two men who could become challengers, teammates Miguel Indurain and Pedro Delgado. They stand third and eighth, respectively, trailing LeMond by 2:17 and 4:30.
Delgado has finished 2-1-3-4 in the last four Tours, during which Indurain has acted primarily as a helper for his countryman.