Greg Lemond yesterday became the first U.S. cyclist to earn the yellow jersey of the Tour de France when he took over the lead as the tour's 17th leg ended in Briancon, France.

Eduardo Chozas of Spain won that leg of the cycling classic in 5 hours 52 minutes 52 seconds. Bernard Hinault of France, Lemond's teammate on the Vie Clair squad, fell back in the overall standings.

The rivalry between Hinault and Lemond has become the major interest of the 73rd Tour de France. The 23-day race will end next Sunday on the Champs Elysees in Paris.

Urs Zimmermann of Switzerland finished second yesterday, 6:26 behind Chozas on the 118-mile course through the French Alps, which included three difficult climbs and ended 7,917 feet above sea level at the Col du Granon near Briancon. Lemond was third, also 6:26 off the pace.

Zimmermann moved into second place in the overall standings just ahead of Hinault, who finished in 13th place in yesterday's leg, nearly 10 minutes behind Chozas, and dropped to third place in the overall standings.

Lemond and Hinault were interviewed on television after the race and said they had talked about strategy yesterday morning and patched up any differences. "In a good marriage there are always quarrels," Hinault said.

Lemond, who speaks fluent French, told the interviewers he "panicked" Saturday, when he said he was upset by jealousy within the team and would like to drop out if things didn't change.

In the women's tour, Maria Canins of Italy easily won the ninth leg and extended her overall lead. She was timed in 2 hours 48 minutes 1 second. Jeannie Longo of France was nearly six minutes behind in second place. She's second overall, too, but far behind.