In the next three days both Hinault's strength and his lead began to erode, so that by July 16 his margin over LeMond was down to 3:38, with Roche standing third, 6:14 back. That day's leg, from Toulouse to Luz-Ardiden, was a 209.5-kilometer monster that included three punishing climbs, the second of which, a 17-kilometer trek up the Col du Tourmalet, marked the highest spot on the Tour, 2,114 meters.
Hinault, his eyes blackened and face puffy, labored behind the leaders as the pack inched its way up the Col du Tourmalet switchbacks. He was having difficulty breathing in the thin, chilly air. As if the broken nose were not enough of a handicap, the constant inhaling through his mouth had given him a case of bronchitis. Six kilometers from the cloud-shrouded summit, Hinault fell off the pace. When he finally reached the top, he was trailing the group ahead of him, which included Roche and LeMond, by 1:16. And there were still 35.5 kilometers and a very steep climb left.
It was then that Koechli, a strident Swiss technocrat, drove up to LeMond and told him to stop pushing Roche unless he was certain he could leave him in the dust. Chastened, LeMond never attacked the final climb, hanging just off Roche's rear tire while the Irish rider set the pace. When he crossed the finish line, relatively fresh, LeMond was just 1:13 ahead of the struggling Hinault. Furious and tearful, LeMond pushed past French reporters to get to Koechli, with whom he argued bitterly for several minutes, finally saying, in front of TV cameras, "If Hinault was in my place he would not have waited, that's all I have to say. I have nothing against Hinault, I want him to win the Tour."
So did the team. La Vie Claire, a health food chain, is a French company. The Tour de France is a French passion. Bernard Hinault is a French hero whose final moment of glory was at hand. LeMond's frustration came from finally being forced to face up to the facts of life. The owner of La Vie Claire, Bernard Ta-pie, came over and told LeMond to pipe down, and after a closed-door meeting, LeMond was dutifully contrite. "If I'd raced my own race I might have pulled Roche with me and put the team slightly at risk," he said the following night. "But I also might have won the Tour de France. I had to make a big sacrifice. When you're in the heat of competition and you see one of your life's dreams slip through your fingers, it kills you."
Hinault had no hard feelings. "Greg is like a twin brother of mine," he said when asked about the incident, which he had not seen because he was still pedaling toward the finish through the fog. "He could have won if he didn't have to take care of me in the Pyrenees. It's the sign of a champion not to be satisfied with second place."
The next morning, before the final stage in the Pyrenees, Roche, who represented a rival team, said to LeMond at the start, "Come with me when I break and I'll get you the yellow jersey. I'd rather see you win than Hinault." By pacing and alternately drafting for each other, two cyclists working together can go faster than one. But LeMond stayed loyal to his teammate, and when Roche broke ahead, the American stuck with Hinault. Roche, working alone, was able to take a minute and a half off Hinault's lead, but still trailed Le Breton by 3:33 in the overall standings, with the mountains now finally behind them. LeMond was in second, 2:13 back. "The race is over with, really," LeMond said that night, noting that Hinault had finally recovered his strength. "Second place is a good place to finish in the Tour de France."
Still, LeMond had one final hurrah, winning the 45.7-kilometer individual time trial in Limoges on Saturday in the next-to-last stage of the race. In so doing he beat Hinault, who finished second by just five seconds. It was the first "race of truth" LeMond had ever won in a major event, and he was ecstatic. "You can't win the Tour de France if you can't win time trials," he said, looking ahead to next year. "This is a great victory for me." As he was joining Hinault for a television interview, a few reporters suggested to LeMond that Hinault, who had led the early stages of the time trial, had allowed him to win as a kind of thank you for LeMond's help in the Pyrenees. "I hear you gave me a present," LeMond said upon greeting his teammate.
Hinault spat out this reply: "You can win with your own legs. I don't have to give you a gift. The truth is I didn't pace myself right."
Perhaps. But possibly it was, in fact, a gift from a grateful champion to the man being groomed to become the first American to win the greatest cycling test in the world. Asked if he would return next year to try for a record sixth victory, Hinault said, "Normally, this would be my last victory. There is a new generation coming, and it is time for the team to go on. But I will race one more year, and if I am in the Tour de France, I shall only compete to help one of my teammates win. It should be Greg LeMond."
Then Hinault, the dashing Breton, flashed his killing smile. "Next year, I will make Greg LeMond win."