AUTRANS, FRANCE -- Greg LeMond said before this year's Tour de France that he was in better shape than last year, when he came back from a near-fatal hunting shooting and leg injuries to win with a dramatic last-stage performance.

Midway through the Tour this year, he said it was the easiest one.

Then why wasn't he winning?

"There are still 10 days to go," LeMond said over the weekend.

After a day off on Friday, LeMond cut almost five minutes off the lead of Claudio Chiappucci of Italy, moving from fourth to third behind Chiappucci and Eric Breukink of the Netherlands.

On the final day off last year, LeMond was in first place after the second time trial. He was going to lose the lead again. But he captured an eight-second victory -- narrowest in the history of the Tour -- by making up 50 seconds on Laurent Fignon in the 15-mile time trial.

"Last year was a totally different race from this year," said LeMond, who also won in 1986. "There are now two guys at the head who had a 10-minute head start at the beginning of the race, {Ronan} Pensec and Chiappucci. If they didn't have the 10-minute head start, I would be in second place, about 30 seconds behind Breukink."

Before Saturday, he was fourth, 7 minutes 27 seconds behind Chiappucci and almost six minutes behind Pensec. But both Chiappucci and Pensec, LeMond's Z teammate, faltered in 86-degree heat Saturday. After finishing the 15th of 21 stages yesterday, Chiappucci leads by 1:52 over Breukink and 2:24 over LeMond.

On the first day, Chiappucci, Pensec, Steve Bauer of Canada and Frans Maassen escaped for a 10-minute gap that held up through the first stage. Since Pensec was a member of LeMond's team, there was no reason for him to respond.

"It is the fault of the other teams. Pedro Delgado's team, Breukink's team," LeMond said. "If they were serious about winning, they should have controlled the race on the first day. It just worked out that way."

Bauer used it as a springboard to hold the lead for the first nine days before he faded in the mountains.

Pensec took over for two days before ceding his place to Chiappucci.

LeMond has been steady through it all. He was even kept under wraps as a defensive move on Wednesday in the steep 12th stage over three peaks.

"I got away and rode up l'Alpe d'Huez the easiest I have gone up there," LeMond said. "Only one thing I regret is that I could have had more time on Delgado because he did most of the work. And more time on Breukink and Chiappucci."

Delgado, the 1988 winner, is currently in fourth, 4:29 off the lead.

"If I had been more aggresssive," LeMond added, "Breukink wouldn't have been this close and Chiappucci would have been several minutes behind."

But LeMond could not attack and take the lead to distance himself from his teammate. LeMond stayed behind and Pensec caught up. Pensec lost the lead Thursday, which freed LeMond from team obligations and now the Z team will work to help him win.

"We are going to race a bit differently from now on," LeMond said.

And the field will be a little different from now on. Fignon dropped out in the fifth stage. Stephen Roche, the 1987 winner thought to be a threat, lagged behind in the mountains. Raul Alcala, winner of the Tour de Trump and an impressive victor in the first time trial, faded in the first major climb.

LeMond was second in the prologue and fifth in the two time trials. Other riders had exceptional days in one or the other but LeMond placed high in all three.

"I have had the consistency," LeMond said. "I am more confident in my abilities than anyone in the pack."

There are still mountain phases in the Pyrenees on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"Seven minutes are easily lost in the mountains," LeMond said. "And if I were only 30 seconds behind Breukink with the last time trial and mountain stage to go, I would be very confident of winning. I still am confident of winning."