LeMond's Mental Toughness

As Greg approached 14 kilometers, the Eiffel Tower rose into view ahead. Fignon's deficit had risen to 24 seconds. Greg still was not gaining time quite fast enough, but as hard as he was pushing himself, he still felt strong, whereas Fignon's shoulders had begun to rock, a telltale sign of encroaching weariness. A clear difference in the relative speeds of the two men became apparent to cycling fans watching the battle on television at home. Every 10 or 15 seconds, the coverage jumped from Fignon to Greg, and when it did, the passing scenery accelerated noticeably.

The last part of the course skirted the famous Jardin des Tuileries—Paris's Central Park—and dumped riders onto the Champs-?lys?es for the homestretch to the finish line. Tens of thousands of spectators lining the streets there erupted when Greg came into view. (His French surname, French language skills, and all-American charm had won him many admirers in the Tour's host nation.) He passed under a banner marking 4 kilometers to the finish line. His advantage was now 35 seconds. Greg had stolen exactly 2 seconds per kilometer from Fignon over the last 6.5 kilometers; he would have to nearly double that rate of separation on the Champs-?lys?es to win the Tour.

Greg's last best chance to gain that separation lay just ahead of him, at 3 kilometers to go, where a false flat rose gently from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. It wasn't much of a hill by Tour standards, but to an exhausted rider—as Fignon was quickly becoming—it would feel like a Pyrenean switchback. Greg attacked it hard, telling himself that his career depended on it. As he neared the top, his torso began to pump up and down like an oil horse. Any consideration of good form had gone out the window—all that mattered now was effort at any cost.

At the Arc de Triomphe, Greg made a hairpin right turn and entered the final straight to the finish line. Moving down the same false flat he had just ascended, he hit 40 mph, approaching the motor vehicle speed limit on the Champs-?lys?es. He passed under the 1-km banner. Over the race radio came word that Greg still needed 10 seconds.

Ahead on the road, Greg saw the rocking posterior of Pedro Delgado, who had started 2 minutes before him. Greg felt a magnetic pull, and he used it to raise his effort level one more excruciating notch for the final drive to the finish line. He crossed at 26:57, beating the previous best time of the day by 33 seconds. Greg hung his head like a recipient of bad news as he coasted to a stop. A moment earlier his legs had felt as though they were going to explode. Now they suddenly felt capable of going another 10 miles. Had he done enough?

The waiting began. Greg dismounted and turned back toward the racecourse and the finish line clock, understanding that if it displayed the number 27:47 before Fignon finished, he had won the Tour de France. The anticipation was unbearable. When Fignon came into sight, Greg reflexively shaded his eyes and looked away—but only briefly.

Fignon was shattered with fatigue, no longer able to hold a straight line and nearly drifting into a barrier of scaffolding at the outer edge of the 70-meter-wide road in his flailing efforts to drive his machine toward the line. The seconds ticked by with surreal slowness. But the magic number finally appeared, and when it did, Fignon was still 100 meters from the finish. He stopped the clock at 27:55. Greg LeMond had won the Tour by 8 seconds.

Greg's average speed for the 24.5-km time trial was 33.89 mph— an all-time record for Tour de France time trials, by a long shot. Greg (who would win his third and last Tour de France in 1990) could not have known it, but at that moment his sport was on the threshold of an era of unprecedented technological advancement. In the coming years, bikes would be completely transformed with stiffer, lighter materials, computerand wind tunnel–assisted aerodynamics, and more efficient and reliable components and accessories. The sport was also entering an era of rampant and sophisticated doping. Most of the top riders of the 1990s and 2000s would gain a tremendous performance advantage from drugs such as erythropoietin (EPO). Yet none of these pharmaceutically enhanced athletes on space-age bikes was able to better Greg LeMond's time trial speed record until 2005. And to this day, no Tour rider has ridden faster than Greg except in shorter time trials undertaken on fresh legs on the first day of the race instead of the last.

It would seem that, in the right circumstances, an old-fashioned stopwatch—properly used—can affect endurance performance more powerfully than either the finest equipment or the most potent chemicals—not to mention lift an athlete to his finest hour even after his best days are behind him.

Republished from How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald with permission of VeloPress. Learn more at www.velopress.com/howbad.

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