The ceremony is now familiar. The cyclists gather at the starting line, politicians are introduced, an announcer plugs the race sponsors and Greg LeMond steps forward to receive the loudest cheers.
“It’s nice,” he says. “But it’s also embarrassing.”
The American who conquered Paris is back home, more popular than ever, but struggling to regain the form that propelled him to the 1986 Tour de France title. Clearly, LeMond is the marquee figure of the inaugural Tour de Trump. Plainly, he is struggling.
Monday, he was ill.
LeMond issued a speech of concession while lying on a bed in his hotel room. He was weary from the flu and exhausted after the tour’s third stage, a 116.3-mile leg from Allentown, Pa., through the Lehigh Valley to the Market Square Bridge finish in Harrisburg.
“I had a fever and woke up five to 10 times during the night,” LeMond said. “I’m just not feeling healthy. This is all much harder than I thought it would be.”
After 5 hours, 30 minutes and 45 seconds of pack tactics, Eric Vanderaerden, a Belgian competing for the Dutch-based team Panasonic-Isostar, edged Soviet amateur Viatcheslav Ekimov to win a field sprint involving 54 cyclists. LeMond showed up 71st.
“I’ve got to stick with it,” LeMond said. “I need to race, and it’s important for me to finish.”
LeMond has virtually no chance of claiming the neon pink leader’s jersey. Dag Otto Lauritzen, a Norwegian who competes for 7-Eleven, kept the jersey for the second straight day with a combined time of 15:51:02. LeMond is 6:53 behind.
“It would take a miracle to take that much time off Lauritzen,” LeMond said.
LeMond, of course, is accustomed to performing miracles in cycling. He was the first American to crash the European domination of the sport, living in Belgium and challenging the world’s best racers on their own turf. The pay-off came at the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond finally silenced his European critics and emerged as the first American-born champion.
But he had little time to enjoy his success. On April 21, 1987, LeMond was nearly killed when he was shot by his brother-in-law in a hunting accident.
“We were hunting for wild turkeys,” said LeMond, who still has 30 buckshot pellets in his body. “I was the turkey.”
During his lengthy physical recovery, LeMond said his attitude about the sport changed. Cycling no longer dominated his life.
“It’s kind of like I was hit from the top and knocked to the bottom,” he said. “That’s the way it is in life. I could have been paralyzed. I could have been in a wheelchair. I could have died. I’m lucky to be here.”
Still, LeMond was determined to make a comeback. Injuries curtailed his performances in the last year, and he has enjoyed only nine months of uninterrupted training.
“In Europe, they always write you off,” he said. “Two months after my accident, the writers there said I was finished.”
LeMond is out to prove his critics wrong. He is 27, prepared to enter what could become the best years of his racing career. The Tour de Trump was supposed to be his catapult back to the top. Instead, he has dropped back.
“There are difficult times even now,” he said. “When you’re on top and all of a sudden you’re out, you only remember the good times, not what it took to get there. There are times when you’re impatient.”
Still, he seems to enjoy a good life, splitting time between homes in suburban Minneapolis and Belgium. He plays golf, goes fishing, eats ice cream and drives a Range Rover. He has a comfortable six-figure income from his contract with the newly created Coors Light-ADR team.
But money and fame create pressure. The race is always on to win . . . now.
“We’re not robots,” he said. “We’re not always at our best.”
Despite the flu and the harsh fact that he can’t win the Tour de Trump, LeMond will continue to race. Tuesday’s fourth stage is another difficult test, a 111.5-mile ride from Gettysburg, Pa., through the western Maryland towns of Emmitsburg, Thurmont, Wolfsville, Middletown and Brunswick, and on to a finish in Winchester, Va.