THE BICYCLE RACE known as the Tour de France has never been entirely the preserve of Frenchmen, but not until this week had someone from outside Europe won it. Greg LeMond, an American, finished the 23-day race ahead of his French teammate and rival, Bernard Hinault, by 3 minutes and 10 seconds -- this after a race covering more than 2,500 miles.

In an era when athletic entrepreneurs seem to be competing to dream up insanely exhausting events, it's still hard to think of one more grueling than the Tour de France. It has been likened, by Mr. LeMond and others, to running 23 marathons in as many days. The course changes each year, but it always includes a number of steep mountain roads, which the riders ascend in lung-bursting assaults and descend at terrifying speeds. The pressure all through the race is intense, and the degree of riding skill impressive. It's possible that America's finest athlete is the 25-year-old Californian who won the big bike race that ended Sunday.

Finest, but certainly not its most well known. Pro bicycle racing is still something of a mystery to Americans, as is the appeal it holds for Europeans. In the Tour de France, most of the people who actually go out to watch the race wait for hours in one of the many French Podunks through which the riders pass. What they finally see is little more than a blur and a whir of barely recognizable racers. It's true that TV coverage of the race is now excellent, but that hardly accounts for the fact that the Tour has been a hit since it was begun in 1903.

Our own theory is that its main appeal lies in its excellence as a Gallic soap opera. Consider this year's race: M. Hinault, who had been aided in winning his fifth straight Tour last year by the sacrifices of Mr. LeMond, pledged that this time he would help Mr. LeMond win. But once M. Hinault took the lead, he did his best to hold it, and even when Mr. LeMond passed him, M. Hinault continued to press him almost to the end. Most of France was pulling for M. Hinault, and so, it appeared, was most of the rest of the team for which both rode. "I'm very paranoid, I tell you," Mr. LeMond said to a TV reporter last Thursday. "I've had some sleepless nights. I'm afraid someone will push me off my bike. I'm afraid someone will poison my food." Perhaps one of his teammates. At the end of the race, M. Hinault mounted the victory stand first and ignored Mr. LeMond until the latter leaned over and kissed him. M. Hinault later declined to join in a raised-hands salute with Mr. LeMond.

This, we think, is why the French love the Tour de France: because it is "Dynasty" with pedals. Now it has an American leading man.