Defending champion Greg LeMond shook off a winter full of distractions and a spring full of question marks with an impressive opening performance Saturday in the Tour de France.
LeMond finished a driving second in the four-mile prologue, only four seconds behind French short sprint specialist Thierry Marie on the first day of the 2,112-mile bicycle race around France.
“There were some questions whether I would come back,” LeMond said. “But I’ve been confident for two weeks.”
He should be. In only four appearances in the Tour, he has won twice. The other times, he finished second and third.
Saturday, Marie won the opening sprint around the high-tech theme park called Futuroscope in 7 minutes 49 seconds. But LeMond, rigged up again with special handlebars, was right behind the winner.
More important, LeMond gained valuable seconds on his chief competitors, all former Tour de France champions.
Stephen Roche, the 1987 winner, was 10th, 14 seconds behind LeMond.
France’s Laurent Fignon, who lost to LeMond by eight seconds in last year’s final time trial, was 15th, dropping 15 seconds to the American. Fignon won in 1983 and 1984.
The 1988 winner, Spain’s Pedro Delgado, was 26th, 20 seconds behind LeMond.
Third went to Mexico’s Raul Alcala in the same time as LeMond. Another six seconds back was Francis Moreau of France and Belgium’s Eric Vanderaerden was sixth, 12 seconds behind.
All the main competitors used the special triathlon handlebars that force the rider into a more aerodynamic position. LeMond used these last year.
But Saturday, LeMond came out with a new, improved model, which looks like an upside-down Y, developed by a former ski coach to simulate the downhill tuck position.
“I am extremely pleased with the time,” LeMond said. “I was hoping for the top three, and it’s my best performance in a Tour de France prologue.”
Last year, LeMond was fourth in the opening time trial, giving the first indication that he was back from two years of ailments.
Now, after publicity demands and a virus cost him valuable training time over the winter, he had to rush to get into shape for the one race he pointed for all year.
“There is a point I have to go past from bad to good,” LeMond said. “Sometimes it takes longer than you think. But now I feel good.”
He has another week of relatively flat racing during the next seven stages before the mountain stages begin.