Joel Pelier waged a 4 1/2-hour struggle against wind, rain and growing fatigue Friday to become the first Frenchman to win a stage in this year’s Tour de France, but American Greg LeMond retained the overall lead.
The 27-year-old Pelier secured the greatest victory of his career by launching a solo break more than 102 miles from the end of the 161-mile sixth stage.
At one point, he established a lead of more than 17 minutes, which would have given him the overall race leader’s yellow jersey by a margin of eight minutes.
But LeMond, who took over the yellow jersey Thursday with a brilliant time-trial victory, decided enough was enough.
The only American ever to win the world’s most prestigious cycling race prompted his team to start chasing the runaway Frenchman and finally whittled the gap down to about 1 1/2 minutes.
Overall, LeMond remained five seconds ahead of race favorite Laurent Fignon of France.
“I’m not complaining about the stage. Pelier is more than nine minutes behind me,” LeMond said.
But LeMond knows that the flat roads of western France are soon to end.
“In three days there will be the mountains,” he said, referring to the Pyrenees, where the first of the hill climbs is Monday.
But LeMond is still enjoying his lead. He won in 1986 but missed the last two years with injuries and an accidental shooting while hunting.
“I didn’t sleep very well last night; I was too excited,” LeMond said. “I woke up about 3:30 in the morning.”
Friday’s leg went from Rennes to the modern city of Futuroscope. Another long stage is scheduled for today, a 160.5-mile leg from Poitiers to Bordeaux.
Pelier, whose parents were at the finish in the Futuroscope theme park near Poitiers, admitted that he doubted his own chances when he broke away.
Choking back tears of joy, he said: “It was a bit suicidal when I attacked because there was a headwind.
“I think nobody behind me believed I could make it to the finish. They all thought they would see me again before the end of the stage.
“But I was kept closely posted on the time difference and I gave it all I had on the last stretch.”
Pelier rode through several rain showers and had to contend with a heavy downpour over the last few hundred yards, finally being timed in 6 hours 57 minutes 45 seconds.
Eddy Schurer of the Netherlands was second, 1:34 behind, with Eric Vanderaerden of Belgium leading the pack in, another two seconds back.