With only three stages remaining, American Greg LeMond might have to settle for a second-place finish in the 76th Tour de France.
Frenchman Laurent Fignon has proved remarkably resilient in the Alps, winning the 18th stage Thursday with another dramatic uphill charge that defied his critics and devastated his pursuers.
Fignon, who has begun to ride with the confidence of a three-time champion, which he will become if he is still wearing the leader's yellow jersey after the 21st stage, leads LeMond by 50 seconds, a potentially decisive margin.
LeMond, who in 1986 became the only American champion of cycling's greatest race, could reduce that by as much as 30 seconds in the final stage, Sunday's 15.2-mile individual time trial from the Palace of Versailles to Paris' Tuileries Gardens.
But to be in position to win, he probably would have to cut into Fignon's lead by 20 seconds or more during the next two stages, a 77.1-mile ride today that ends with a descent from the Alps at Aix-les-Bains and a flat 73.3-mile ride Saturday to L'Isle d' Abeau.
Such a gain by LeMond doesn't appear likely, however. It was only three days ago that Fignon appeared spent, trailing LeMond by 53 seconds entering Wednesday's most demanding stage of the 2,030-mile race.
But in the final 2 1/2 miles up l'Alpe d'Huez, a climb so steep that it is beyond rating, Fignon, 28, found the strength to pull away from LeMond and his other challenger, defending champion Pedro Delgado of Spain. When the day ended, Fignon led LeMond by 26 seconds and Delgado by 1:55.
Fignon, 28, was expected to go gently into the 18th stage, protecting his lead but also conserving his energy for the final three days. Instead, he attacked. His pursuers were stunned as they watched him speed away two miles from the top of the Cote de St. Nizier de Moucherotte, 15 miles from the finish line.
No one responded as Fignon won the 56.9-mile stage in 2 hours 31 minutes 28 seconds. LeMond was in a group of five that finished 24 seconds later. Delgado lost another nine seconds, and, while he remained in third place, he is 2:28 behind Fignon and appears out of contention.
The victory was Fignon's first in a stage this year. Critics had claimed that he depended too much on his powerful Super U team and had not done enough individually to deserve the championship ahead of LeMond and Delgado.
"We decided before the race to take every opportunity to make up time on LeMond," said a relaxed Fignon after Thursday's stage. "I wanted to get as much time as possible before (Sunday's) time trial. LeMond is better than me in the time trial, but I am better in the mountains. Something could still go wrong, but it should be a lot easier now. It's not too much, but it's a nice safety margin. Unless there's an accident, there's no way I can lose 50 seconds."
Said LeMond after Thursday's stage: "Leave me alone--leave me in peace."
Later, in a television interview, he said: "It will be very difficult to win now. The time trial is just too short. I did my best today, but I just wasn't strong enough. I'm surprised how strong Fignon is now after being so weak before. He deserves to win if he carries on this way. He's having a great finish."
Felix Magowan, publisher of VeloNews of Boulder, Colo., said that LeMond might now concentrate on maintaining second place. LeMond said when the tour began on July 1 that he would be satisfied with a top-20 finish.
Since winning in 1986, LeMond, 28, has been plagued by misfortune, including a gunshot wound suffered in a hunting accident that almost took his life, a broken wrist, an emergency appendectomy and tendinitis.
His results were so poor during the last two years that he lost his contract with one of the best teams, PDM of the Netherlands, and is now riding for upstart ADR of Belgium. That is not unlike going from the Lakers to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"Making up 50 seconds on Fignon would be unbelievable," Magowan said. "If LeMond is going to win, he has to do something (today). He has to cut the lead in half to be able to realistically come back. He may try something, but the problem is that everyone knows he has to try something. They will be watching him closely.
"I suspect LeMond may give up trying to catch Fignon and settle for second. He's going to finish strong in the time trial. To finish second, less than a minute behind Fignon, that's phenomenal considering what he's been through the last two years. That's like returning from hell."
France's Jeannie Longo won her fourth consecutive stage to increase her lead in the women's Tour de France.
Longo won the eighth stage, 31 miles from Vizille to Villard-de-Lans in the Alps, in 1 hour 43 minutes 20 seconds.
For the fourth straight stage, Maria Canins of Italy was second, five seconds behind Longo. Susan Elias of the United States was third, six seconds behind.
Overall, Longo has a 7:09 lead over Canins. American Inga Thompson is third, 10:49 behind.