LeMond's Mental Toughness

In consideration of the two-sided nature of time's effect on endurance performance, it is tempting to ask what sort of time goal would have the best possible effect on performance. Such a goal would need to seem reachable, but barely so. (Indeed, in the Ben-Gurion University study I mentioned above, students given a "difficult/realistic" goal improved more than those given either an "easy" goal or an "improbable/unattainable" goal.) This ideal goal would also need to be sufficiently well defined to pull the athlete beyond past limits, yet somehow vague enough that it did not place an artificial ceiling on the athlete's performance.

Greg LeMond's situation at the start of stage 21 of the 1989 Tour de France met these requirements perfectly. Greg had to beat Laurent Fignon's time in the 24.5-km time trial by 50 seconds. But Fignon would start behind him, so Greg could not approach the race with a specific time in mind, such as the 27:30 clocking that Thierry Marie posted early in the day, which stood as the best time in the field when Greg started his ride. Instead, Greg knew only that he had to ride 50 seconds faster than the best time Fignon—one of the world's best time trialists besides Greg himself—could conceivably achieve on his best day.

Greg told reporters before the race that he believed the task facing him lay at the very outer limits of the achievable. He was not certain that he could pull it off even if he gave more than he had ever given before on a day when he had more to give than ever before. Nor was he certain that he couldn't. It is hard to imagine a goal construct that would have elicited a better performance from Greg LeMond in the most important race of his life.

After lunch, Greg checked out of the hotel and made his way toward the Palace of Versailles, a Vatican-like architectural colossus in front of which a comparatively flimsy temporary starting platform had been erected under a white canopy. A massive crowd had gathered there to witness the showdown between the two men at the top of the General Classification. Behind the start line was a small warm-up area. Within its narrow confines a handful of riders traced tight loops. Greg joined them and soon met Fignon head on. Greg averted his gaze. Despite this demurral, Fignon thought the American looked relaxed. In fact, Greg was terrified, his stomach knotted with dread of the suffering he was about to inflict on himself.

At 4:12, Pedro Delgado, who stood 1:38 behind Greg in the G.C., rolled off the starting ramp and accelerated down the broad Avenue de Paris. It was now Greg's turn to mount the platform. Television cameras rolled as a silver-haired race official with black-framed glasses held Greg's bright red Bottechia time trial bike upright and a countdown was intoned over loudspeakers.

"Cinq ? quatre ? troix ? deux ? un ? Allez!"

Greg stood on the pedals and began a hard windup, his feet churning like the steel wheels of an accelerating locomotive. When he hit

100 revolutions per minute, he dropped his butt onto the saddle and settled his forearms into the aero bars. A pair of police motorcycles guided him down the runway-wide boulevard as a flotilla of vehicles, including a white Peugeot containing ADR team manager Jos? de Cauwer, followed behind.

Greg's plan was simple: to ride just a bit faster than he ever had, holding back a little less than he had ever dared in similar circumstances. Greg lowered his head and rode with his eyes cast straight downward, as though indifferent to where he was going, looking up only briefly every few seconds to check his line. His meaty quadriceps billowed with every downstroke.

Greg was already more than a mile down the road toward the Parisian suburb of Viroflay when Fignon set off behind him. With his granny glasses and blond ponytail, he looked more like a high school drama teacher than a professional cyclist as he sprinted away from the starting gate. Fignon had been seen fiddling around with a set of triathlon bars earlier in the day, but he'd elected to leave them behind. His bike did have the advantage of being outfitted with two aerodynamic disk wheels, however, whereas Greg, expecting more crosswinds than he actually would encounter on the course, had gone with spokes in the front.

Just over 2 miles into his race, Greg suddenly swerved, his bike wobbling precariously from left to right for a fraction of a second. On looking up from the road he had discovered that he was taking the long way around an S-curve, started, and gone squirrely. Swerving is not something a cyclist ever wants to do with his arms stuck in aerobars, where the slightest flinch at high speed translates into a sharp veering of the front wheel. But Greg was one of the sport's greatest bike handlers and most audacious daredevils, who sometimes showed off by riding down steep descents with his hands clasped behind his back like a ski jumper. In the blink of an eye he controlled his reflex and transformed the close call into an efficient course correction. The near disaster was instantly forgotten as Greg put his head back down and continued to spin a huge gear on a 55-tooth chainring that would have felt like lifting weights to most cyclists.

Behind him, Fignon felt strong and confident. He zipped through Viroflay and approached Chaville, the crowds thinning as he went. After he passed 5 kilometers, his team manager, Cyrille Guimard, shouted from the trailing car, his words captured by a nearby cameraman's mic.

"Six secondes!" he called out. "Vous avez perdu six secondes!"

He had already lost 6 seconds to LeMond. Fignon turned his head and stared incredulously at Guimard. Greg was not yet gaining the 2 seconds per kilometer he needed to overtake the Frenchman, but given how well Fignon himself was riding, he couldn't believe the American was going that much faster.

Up the road, Greg received the same news from Jos? de Cauwer. Before the race, Greg had asked Cauwer not to supply any such information, and he tersely reminded his manager of that wish now. For the remainder of the time trial, his mind would be focused entirely on the image of creating distance between himself and the man behind him, and on the only number that mattered: 50 seconds.

Passing through S?vres, on the west bank of the River Seine, Greg came to an overpass. He moved his hands to the outer bars and pedaled from a standing position to avoid losing speed as he climbed. If the policeman on a motorcycle cruising close behind him had checked his speed gauge at this moment, he would have seen the needle fixed at 54 kilometers per hour.

Minutes later, Greg crossed the Pont de S?vres, a bridge over the River Seine, at the far end of which he made a sharp right turn onto the Quai Georges Gorse, carving the corner with such bold precision that his right shoulder came within centimeters of clipping spectators leaning against a barrier on the inside of the turn.

At 11.5 kilometers, Greg passed an official time check. His split of 12:08 was the fastest of the day by 20 seconds. Fignon reached the same point 2 minutes and 21 seconds later, having now lost 21 seconds to Greg since the start. If Fignon continued to lose time at the same rate, he would complete the time trial 45 seconds slower than Greg and would win the Tour de France by 5 seconds.

The Quai was as flat and straight as a drag strip. Greg took full advantage, settling into a chugging rhythm that nudged his speed even higher. The drivers of any trailing cars with manual transmission would have been forced to shift into fourth gear to keep up.

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