America's Greg LeMond made sporting history today by becoming the first non-European to win the Tour de France, the world's premier bicycle race.
LeMond, a 25-year-old Californian, clinched his victory on the 23rd and final leg of the 2,500-mile race with a sprint up the Champs Elysees. He finished 3 minutes 10 seconds ahead of his teammate and nearest rival, Bernard Hinault of France, in the overall standings.
Today's final 158-mile leg was won by Guido Bontempi of Italy at the head of a large pack of riders -- including LeMond -- who completed six circuits between the Louvre museum and the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs Elysees.
Describing the Tour as "the most difficult in my life," LeMond said: "It was a great Tour for me. Right to the end, I was a little nervous that something might go wrong. I tried to keep to the front of the pack to avoid the risks of a fall. In the end, everything turned out fine."
LeMond's victory in the 73rd Tour de France breaks a string of French and Belgian victories in what hitherto has been regarded as a quintessentially European sport. It means that LeMond, whose annual earnings from cycling are believed to be about $1 million a year, is assured the status of sporting superstar in Europe, even if he remains relatively unknown in the United States.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" blared out across the Champs Elysees, bedecked for the occasion with the French tricolor, as the champion received his diamond-studded trophy from French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.
Today's triumph was particularly sweet for LeMond because it followed a bitter duel with Hinault, 32, who was trying to win the Tour for a record-breaking sixth time. Even after the American took the overall lead, much of the French press continued to depict Hinault as the decisive personality in the race.
Most of the cycling fans lining the Champs Elysees, however, seemed to think that LeMond deserved his victory. "If an American won, it means he's the best. It's as simple as that," said Louis Gilles, a Paris taxi driver, as he watched the 120 riders left in the race whiz past.
"It's good that an American wins," said Max Guimares, an off-duty policeman. "Hinault is an idol in France, but it's exciting to see someone else win for a change. Perhaps this will make cycling more popular in the United States."
"It's a thrill. It's like a Frenchman going to America and winning the America's Cup," said Bill Desrosier, a student from Maine who had draped himself in the stars and stripes. Added Kathleen Acri, a Californian wearing a Statue of Liberty T-shirt: "It's nice to show the French that, whatever they may think of us, we do have a few qualities."
The Tour is an annual institution in France, drawing millions of spectators a year as it winds its way around the country over some of the most difficult cycling terrain in the world. Towns and villages come out and party for the whole day to watch the cyclists whiz past in a blur, preceded by a noisy advertising caravan.
This year's course was regarded as the most difficult in more than a decade, with particularly grueling climbs in the Pyrenees and Alps rarely attempted even by professional cyclists. The turning point came in the Alps on July 20 when LeMond joined a small group of riders who broke away from Hinault, the overall leader up until that point.
The race assumed a kind of soap opera quality, with reports of fraternal rivalry in the Vie Claire team, to which both Hinault and LeMond belong. Despite an earlier promise to help the American win this year in return for similar help last year, Hinault kept up the pressure on his teammate until near the end of the race.
In an interview tonight with French television, LeMond said that he had been affected by the "tension within the team." He said that he and Hinault had spoken to each other as "rivals" rather than the friends they once were.
Lemond's victory followed a second-place finish in the 1985 Tour de France and a third place in 1984. After turning professional in 1980 at age 19, he had his first major success in 1983 by becoming the world road racing champion in Switzerland.
French riders who have previously criticized LeMond for lacking the determination to win praised him today for maintaining his lead despite the pressure from Hinault.
"There was a real duel between the two of them. Hinault would have definitely liked to win his sixth Tour. This shows that Greg is solid, that his morale is good," said Laurent Fignon, the 1983 and 1984 winner of the Tour.
LeMond was reported by members of his family to have considered pulling out of the race several times because of the mounting psychological pressure. Shy and introspective, he seemed upset by Hinault's masterly use of public relations. The Frenchman managed to create the impression that it was his decision whether final victory should go to LeMond.
Hinault proved unable to whittle down LeMond's lead significantly in a crucial time trial Thursday despite an unfortunate fall by the American. He then promised not to try to overtake LeMond in the final stages of the race, saying that he was "a man of his word."
LeMond's composite time was 110 hours 35 minutes 19 seconds. Behind Hinault in third place was Urs Zimmermann of Switzerland. Andrew Hampsten, a 24-year-old from North Dakota riding in his first Tour de France, was fourth.
The race has been run every year since 1903, with the exception of the first and second world wars. It has been won 35 times by Frenchmen, 18 times by Belgians, and eight times by Italians.
LeMond may have become a household name in France, but he is still relatively unknown in the United States, according to an informal poll conducted by French television. A random survey of Americans interviewed on the streets of New York indicated that less than 50 percent connect his name with bicycling.
Asked to comment on the finding, LeMond shrugged his shoulders and grinned. "America's a big country. If only 30 million Americans know my name, that's fine with me."