It was a day Greg LeMond had waited for since childhood, a day on which it became nearly a foregone conclusion he would become the first American to win the Tour de France, the world's toughest and most prestigious bicycle race.

It should have been a time of tremendous exhilaration. Instead, the 25-year-old Californian was angry and depressed because he had finished a few seconds behind French star Bernard Hinault in individual time trials Thursday.

It was true he had established a seemingly unbeatable overall lead in the 2,500-mile race that will end with a sprint up the Champs-Elysees in Paris Sunday. And it was true he probably would have won the time trial -- regarded as the prime test of a cyclist's ability -- had he not fallen and lost at least 30 seconds. But that did not lessen the disappointment.

"Everybody has been saying that I will win the Tour de France, but not that I deserve to win it. It would have been nice to prove I'm a real champion," LeMond said.

The disappointment at coming in second in what was, after all, just one race in 23 days of racing, reflected the personality of the new top dog in world cycling. But it also provided a glimpse into the psychological pressures facing an American in a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans.

LeMond has, in effect, been competing in two races. The tour began, symbolically enough, on July 4 in the suburbs of Paris. It wound its way around France from Brittany to the Pyrenees to the Alps over a course designed to stretch 210 of the world's finest athletes to the limits of endurance. It was, in LeMond's words, the equivalent of running a marathon every day for three weeks.

The other race was largely mental, but just as real. It consisted of convincing himself and 15 million French cycling fans that an unassuming American could be a worthy successor to the likes of Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil -- all legends in Europe as five-time winners of the Tour de France.

If LeMond triumphs Sunday on the Champs-Elysees, he will enter an exclusive sporting pantheon. During the 73 years the tour has been run, it has never been won by a non-European.

Guido Bontempi of Italy won today's leg, but LeMond went into the final 158-mile leg with a 3-minute 10-second overall lead over Hinault.

"An American winning the Tour de France! It's like taking a Frenchman and making him the most valuable baseball player in America," mused LeMond in an interview Friday in a hotel room in the central French town of Clermont-Ferrand.

LeMond's task has been made all the more difficult by the rivalry within his own team, La Vie Claire, which pitted him against his 32-year-old teammate, Hinault. LeMond discovered that even after he donned the yellow jersey worn by the overall tour leader, many of his teammates were still rooting for Hinault, who is due to retire this year.

"Greg hasn't had the loyalty of all his teammates," said his father Bob, a competitive cyclist who takes time off every year to follow the tour with other members of the LeMond family. "It's twice as hard for him as for a French rider. He's having to fight not just the pack, but his own team."

In normal circumstances, weaker team members are expected to devote themselves to helping the wearer of the yellow jersey consolidate his lead. This they can do by blocking rivals, breaking away from the pack or setting the pace up a difficult mountain and thereby removing the pressure.

Having played an important role in helping Hinault win the tour last year, LeMond believed the favor would be returned this year. However, Hinault kept the pressure up right until the end of the time trial, later explaining he had acted in his teammate's best interests.

"I pushed Greg to the limit. I didn't spare him anything: aggressive words, provocative declarations. The fact that he resisted all this pressure means that he is a champion who deserves to remain one," Hinault told journalists.

Asked about Hinault's remarks, LeMond smiled. "He may say he did it for my own good. I think he did it because he wanted to win the tour a sixth time."

In the macho world of European cycling, LeMond is an odd man out. The fact that he is accompanied on the tour by his family is somewhat mal vu, despite the fact that this is the only time his relatives get to see him. His virtues are consistency and diligence; he has little of the dramatic flair that such French sporting heroes as Hinault exhibit. And LeMond is frequently criticized as being "too nice," a way of saying that he lacks ruthlessness and aggressiveness.

"It's true that Greg takes people at face value and perhaps he is too soft," said Bob LeMond. "But when it comes down to it, now that he is going to be the champion, anyway, I would prefer my son to be the champion he is rather than the champion the French would like him to be."

Becoming champion has taken LeMond six years of extraordinary dedication. Lacking opportunities to become a professional cyclist in the United States, he came to Europe in 1980 at the age of 19. He was snapped up by the Renault team.

Although he won the world road championship in Switzerland at 22, the big victories since have eluded him despite a third place in the Tour de France in 1984 and a second place last year. It seemed his detractors had a point: where was the will to win?

As a leading rider for La Vie Claire, LeMond is estimated to make around $1 million a year in salary and endorsements. This has led to criticism that he is only interested in money.

"It's true that an American cyclist will probably have a bigger sense of business than a French cyclist," LeMond said. "It's also true that I would not be ready to sacrifice 10 years of my life in the most difficult sport there is without making good money. But when I'm killing myself on the mountain, I don't think how many bucks I'm earning. I want to show that I'm one of the finest athletes in the world."

The LeMonds also want to show the United States something about cycling. LeMond's success has attracted considerable attention in the U.S. already -- with CBS airing daily reports of the race and the other networks dispatching news teams to cover the tour for the first time.

Predicted Bob LeMond: "Previously, nobody believed that an American could win the Tour de France. Greg has shown that it's possible. The media exposure that this generates is going to lead to 10,000 new racing cyclists in America in 10 years time and another 100,000 to 200,000 people riding bikes."

Inge Thompson of the United States won the 14th leg of the women's Tour de France yesterday, but Italian Maria Canins maintained a huge lead in the overall standings going into the last day of the race.

Thompson won the 14-mile stage from St. Benin d'Azy to Nevers in 26 minutes 15 seconds.

Canins' overall time is 25 hours 44 minutes 28 seconds. France's Jeannie Longo is second, nearly 16 minutes back.