LUZ-ARDIDEN, FRANCE, JULY 17 -- Suddenly, the leader's yellow jersey in the Tour de France is within easy reach of American Greg LeMond, although he is not ready to claim victory.
LeMond, who started today's 16th stage almost 2 1/2 minutes behind overall leader Claudio Chiappucci, cruised over the finish line today just six seconds behind winner Miguel Indurian and vaulted into second place overall, a mere five seconds in back of Chiappucci.
Tired but happy after the race of more than seven hours, LeMond wore the confidence of a winner as reporters and photographers swarmed around him. But LeMond, who wears No. 1 as last year's tour winner and a striped jersey as world champion, knows this race isn't over, with five days still to go.
Asked if he felt he had wrapped up the Tour de France, LeMond only laughed.
"I hope so, but I know you can't say you've won it until the Champs Elysees," he said, no doubt recalling last year, when he was written off and came back to breeze past Laurent Fignon and win on the final day. But as his ride today moved him into second place, the racers he had feared most dropped farther and farther behind.
Pedro Delgado and Eric Breukink are in third and fourth place, respectively, 3 1/2 minutes back, and Marino Lejarreta is fifth, more than five minutes back.
LeMond was delighted with his gain on the others, saying, "I think I'd have to have a very bad day for Delgado or Breukink or even Chiappucci to pick up time on me."
He also said he did not necessarily mind not putting on the yellow jersey, because he knows the pressure that goes with it.
"In a way, it's good not to have it," he said. "If I'm the guy five seconds in front, then I have the pressure. I can wait until the time trial on Saturday to go after it all. Maybe Chiappucci will lose energy if he keeps watching me."
After the race, Chiappucci was on the podium with the yellow jersey once again, smiling but seeming to know that the jersey may not be his in Paris. He said he felt good today and took off on the second climb "just to see what everybody had."
This was one of the most difficult days in the three-week race, which is why all eyes were on the leaders. Would they come through on the 215-kilometer course or would they crack on the three tough mountain climbs?
The poplar tree-lined road and fields full of sunflowers provided a peaceful setting as the riders left Blagnac, just outside Toulouse, and headed south, almost touching the Spanish border and moving up into the Pyrenees.
For the first 125 kilometers, or all of the flat part, the pack stayed together. Then Chiappucci took over and rode in front over the first climb. That portion was classified as a "First Category" (out of four categories) and the last two were "H.C." which stands for Hors Categorie, or beyond category . . . off the charts, in effect.
Chiappucci was still in front as the riders sat up on their bikes and put on helmets in preparing for the first descent. Fans lining the route did everything to be helpful. On the cool ride down, they handed newspapers to racers to stuff inside their shirts and, on the slow and steep climb, they offered bottles of water.
The heat did not seem to take a toll on LeMond, who rode steadily up and down the next mountain with a group of three others, including Indurian. They caught Chiappucci on the way to the final climb, and LeMond made his move. He darted out and to the right as the others followed, while Chiappucci was left to drop back alone.
Chiappucci rode alongside his team car for a minute, and took any water the spectators offered, but he was unable to chase the leaders up the mountain.
"Every year, it's pretty much the same thing," said LeMond, who won the Tour de France last year and in 1986. He finished third in 1984 and second in 1985.
"I have trouble finding the right physical condition, but when I find it, I have it for a long time."