LIMOGES, FRANCE, JULY 20 -- Greg LeMond has had his problems in this year's Tour de France -- a small fine for signing in late at the start, another fine for not wearing his team hat during the race, even saddle sores.
But all that is nothing compared with the hurdle he faces Saturday when he tries to eliminate the five-second deficit between him and overall leader Claudio Chiappucci.
Most people believe LeMond will be wearing the yellow jersey Sunday in Paris as winner of the Tour de France -- for the third time -- and the American wants to make sure he sounds confident. But not too confident.
"I feel good. I feel very good," he said after today's 19th stage. "But nothing's 100 percent."
After all, he does have those five seconds to pick up on Chiappucci, and he'll have to do it in Saturday's 28.5-mile individual time trial. But time trials are his forte. This season, he's beaten Chiappucci in time trials by as few as nine seconds and by as many 38.
The French newspaper "L'Equipe" declared in a front-page headline that the final days of the Tour, in which LeMond has remained five seconds behind Chiappucci, have become a "war of nerves" between the two. The time trial, in effect, becomes a two-man showdown. In fact, the French call this form of racing, in which each racer goes on his own from point A to point B, the "race of truth."
As the riders set out at two-minute intervals in reverse order of the standings, nothing will really matter until LeMond starts at 3:55 p.m. and then Chiappucci. If LeMond can finish just seconds better than the Italian, then the sprint to Paris should become a given.
But the defending Tour champion did not guarantee a win.
"Five seconds doesn't worry me," he said. "Five seconds is five seconds. But I do know you can't predict anything in cycling. I could have a breakdown, or I could have a bad day tomorrow for the first time."
LeMond, in his rainbow jersey as world champion, and Chiappucci, in his yellow jersey, often were seen riding next to each other in the pack during today's race. But LeMond denied he was keeping an eye on the leader.
"No, no, he's the one staying very close to me," LeMond said with a laugh. But he admitted there's a battle of wits that goes on in every race.
"It's normal. He doesn't want me to take any time and I don't want him to take any time," he said. "But it goes on in every race. We do this all year long. Nobody wants anybody to get away."
The leaders let the riders farther down in the standings expend all their energy today in the 180-kilometer stage from Castillon-la-Bataille north to Limoges. During the first flat 100 kilometers, Frederic Brun stopped in his hometown of Riberac to kiss his grandmother -- such are the niceties allowed on an otherwise meaningless leg of the Tour.
Then, a few miles down the way, sheep farmers protesting woolen imports from New Zealand threatened to stop the race, but all they managed to do was re-route the publicity caravan and some of the press entourage. By the time the riders arrived, the hay wagons had been moved off the road.
But some riders did have a win in mind, as 20, including 7-Eleven team members Steve Bauer and Dag-Otto Lauritzen, broke away from the pack halfway through the race. Italian Guido Bontempi surged ahead with 12 miles to go and crossed the line in 5 hours 16 minutes 4 seconds, almost 1 1/2 minutes ahead of second-place Lauritzen.
LeMond and Chiappucci finished in the pack that came in six minutes after Bontempi. Davis Phinney of 7-Eleven crossed the line in last place, surviving despite sunstroke he suffered the day before.
But Saturday, the focus will be only on the top two riders, as memories flash back to the last time trial last year.
LeMond rallied from a 50-second deficit on the last day of the 1989 Tour to beat Laurent Fignon and win the Tour by eight seconds. The American said the pressure this year hasn't affected his confidence.
"Oh, I'm certain I have the capability to put everything together and I'm sure I can," LeMond said. "But you can't count on it until it's over, until Sunday night on the Champs Elysees."
Speaking to a swarm of media after today's race, LeMond said the heat during the past couple of days hasn't affected him.
"But I hope it's taking a toll on somebody else," he said.