WILMINGTON, Del. -- Greg LeMond, the best known American cyclist and a three-time Tour de France champion, is back.
Defending champion Raul Alcala and his most formidable 1993 challenger, Lance Armstrong, are both riding for Motorola this year.
They are among 112 riders competing in the 1,060-mile Tour Du Pont, America's premier cycling event. The 12-day race begins today in Wilmington with a 2.98-mile prologue. The fastest rider in the prologue gets to wear the yellow leader's jersey during the first stage of the race tomorrow from Dover to Wilmington, a flat 75-mile course.
On Friday, the Tour Du Pont moves to Maryland with a 115-mile course from Port Deposit to Hagerstown. Between Thurmont and Hagerstown, racers face their first major challenge, a 1,000-foot climb over Catoctin Mountain on Route 77.
From Hagerstown, the Tour moves to Fredericksburg, Va., and goes through a series of mountainous stages in Virginia and North Carolina before ending with a 16.6-mile time trial in Winston-Salem, N.C., on May 15.
"It's going to be a difficult race," said LeMond, who won the Tour Du Pont on a much flatter course in 1992. "It looks to be much harder than it was in 1992. The competition is much stiffer."
Five of the top nine-ranked teams in the world are competing for more than $300,000 in cash and prizes, the largest purse in the Tour's six-year history. Cyclists have come from 19 countries.
LeMond, 32, who rides for France's top team, Gan, is coming back from a series of setbacks, including a broken wrist, last year. He skipped the 1993 Tour Du Pont.
"I'm riding fairly well," he said. "I trained well this winter, but I'm a warm-weather rider. As the summer goes on, I feel better and better."
For most riders, the make-or-break stages of the race could come during a 22.9-mile time trial the fifth day and three consecutive mountainous stages afterward.
The 22.9-mile time trial in the Roanoke Valley begins four miles into the race with a 5.5-mile, 1,500-foot climb up Twelve O'Clock Knob. A staggered descent gives way to a 900-foot climb up Mount Chestnut.