Greg Lemond took the bicycle racing world by storm, but he has had to slow down and wait in line for his run to the top.

Lemond, the only U.S. athlete at the heights of a European-dominated sport, may someday win its most prestigious event, the Tour de France. But with the three-week-long race finishing today, Lemond, 24, is running an obligatory second, close behind his team captain, French star Bernard Hinault.

The 2,500-mile-long race -- run in daily stages, or "legs" -- swung from Hinault's native Brittany through northern France and the Alps and south to the Pyrenees. Today, the 144 riders will start in Orleans and finish 121.8 miles later on the Champs Elysees here.

The race dominates sports pages and cafe conversation in much of Europe, and draws massive crowds along its route as fans try to glimpse the heroes of France's most traditional popular sport.

Hinault's cumulative time after 21 stages is 1 minute 54 seconds better than Lemond's. Irishman Stephen Roche is third, 4:29 off the pace, and with only one stage remaining, the leaders are likely to finish in that order.

Hinault took the overall lead in the race in its eighth leg and has worn the leader's yellow jersey ever since, although Lemond won yesterday's stage by five seconds over Hinault, the first time an American has won a tour leg.

Hinault, 30, is trying for his fifth victory in the tour, something only two men -- Jacques Anquetil and Eddie Merckx -- have managed in the 72 years of the race. Lemond, who has a $1 million contract to ride for the French team la Vie Claire, gave up whatever chance he had to win the event himself by dutifully sticking close to Hinault when the Frenchman faltered early last week.

A week ago Saturday, Hinault broke his nose in a spectacular fall from his bike, and then a case of bronchitis left him wheezing up the switchbacks of the Pyrenees.

Hinault struggled to finish Tuesday's 130-mile leg more than 4 minutes behind the leader. Protecting his struggling captain, Lemond was unable to take the initiative, and could only sprint in response to a move by the Irishman, Roche.

After the stage, Lemond showed his frustration in a public outburst at his team managers. "I could have made my move," he protested. "I'm racing not against Hinault, but against Roche. But I can't take the initiative to attack."

Still, Lemond continued to protect Hinault until he began to strengthen in the afternoon half of Wednesday's two-part stage. During the two days in the Pyrenees, Lemond closed in on Hinault by 1:25, and Roche by 2:41.

Celebrating Hinault's recovery, the Paris daily Le Matin declared in a headline: "Hinault Bends But Does Not Break."

Hinault -- nicknamed "the Badger" for his tenacity -- had knee surgery in 1983, but finished second in last year's Tour de France, behind 24-year-old Frenchman Laurent Fignon. This year, it is Fignon who is out for surgery.

Hinault and Lemond have spent most of the past five years as teammates, and Hinault has proclaimed that the American will inherit his mantle as the dominant athlete in the sport. "Only Lemond is up to my level," he said before the start of the current race.

Indeed, before the race began last month, Hinault said he was ready to let Lemond try for the victory if he seemed the stronger -- a statement that may have helped fuel Lemond's anger earlier this week. Lemond is frustrated at not having won a major race since the the 1983 world championship.

But Lemond's real job is as Hinault's second. In this spring's Tour of Italy, Lemond took third place, helping pace Hinault to the championship. After his latest outburst and a session with his team managers, Lemond seemed more comfortable in his role.

Lemond's job description was written last fall when the main supporter of the Vie Claire team, French entrepreneur Bernard Tapie, lured the American away from the Renault racing team with a three-year, $1 million contract.

That contract, which other top racers openly have envied, symbolizes the new character that money and technology have brought to the sport. During some stages of this year's race, some riders used advanced and expensive tires in which cymbal-shaped discs connect the hubs to the rims, replacing the spokes that create wind resistance.

Corporate-sponsored teams -- such as Panasonic, Skil and Peugeot-Shell -- have replaced the old national teams. And this year, Coca-Cola replaced Perrier as the tour's official drink.

This year's second women's tour, run in shorter stages alongside the men's race, displays less high-spending and more Americans. There are 12 national teams, including two from the United States.

The U.S. "B" team, composed of the North Jersey Bicycle Club of Ridgefield Park, N.J., holds third place overall. Its leading rider, Janelle Parks, is seventh in the overall standings. The team's other top scorers are Deborah Shumway in 33rd place and Patty Peoples of Gaithersburg, Md., in 35th.