In his fascinating new book How Bad Do You Want It?, coach Matt Fitzgerald examines more than a dozen pivotal races to discover the surprising ways elite athletes strengthen their mental toughness. Each chapter of How Bad Do You Want It? explores the how and why of an elite athlete’s transformative moment, revealing powerful new psychobiological principles you can practice to strengthen your own mental fitness.
In this excerpt from the book, pioneering American cyclist Greg LeMond races against the clock—and his rival Laurent Fignon—in an individual time trial stage of the Tour de France. LeMond has set challenging time-based goals to pace his race.
Chapter Three: Time Is on Your Side
Greg LeMond woke up in a strange bed. For a second or two he knew nothing more, his mind hovering in that narrative-free state of animal consciousness that greets each of us at the threshold of wakefulness. Then it all came back to him. He was in a hotel room in Versailles, France. The date was Sunday, July 23, 1989. At 4:14 that afternoon, he would compete in the final stage of the Tour de France. It was going to be the most important race of his life.
He dressed in a yellow T-shirt and baggy blue shorts and made his way down to the ground floor, where he sat at a long table and ate a hearty breakfast of pasta, bread, cereal, eggs, and coffee with his teammates on the ADR cycling team. An hour later, they were on their bikes, just cruising, loosening up their legs for later. Overcast skies loomed above them as they pedaled away from the hotel, but by the time the ride was complete the clouds had burned off and the air temperature had risen into the low 80s. Greg later told writer Sam Abt what he told his trainer, Otto Jácome, when he returned to his lodgings.
“My legs are good. I’m going to have a very good day.”
There was plenty of time left to kill. As the second-place rider in the General Classification (G.C.), or overall race standings, Greg would start the conclusive 24.5-km individual time trial next to last among the Tour’s 134 surviving competitors, 2 minutes before Frenchman Laurent Fignon, the race leader. A two-time winner of the Tour de France, Fignon stood merely 50 seconds ahead of Greg after 20 stages and more than 2,000 miles of riding. Greg was the stronger time trialist, but he would have to make up an improbable 2 seconds per kilometer between Versailles and Paris to overtake Fignon in the G.C. and claim his own second Tour de France victory. Whichever way it went, it promised to be the closest finish in the event’s 76-year history.
Greg’s many fans in America and around the world considered it victory enough that he was even in this position. Two years earlier, Greg’s brother-in-law Pat Blades had plugged him in the back with a shotgun from a distance of 30 yards. The accident happened on April 20, 1987, on Greg’s uncle Rod LeMond’s property in Lincoln, California. Greg should have been in Europe, racing with the La Vie Claire team and preparing to defend the Tour title he had won the previous July, but a crash in Italy had left him with a broken bone in his left hand and he was sent back to the States to convalesce. Near the end of the six-week recuperative stint, Greg’s uncle talked him into taking a short break from training to hunt wild turkey. Greg remembers every detail of that life-altering morning, and has recounted it publicly many times in interviews and speeches.
Greg and Rod LeMond were both experienced hunters. Pat Blades was not. They set out at 7:30 in the morning, splitting up to cover more territory. Greg went to the left, Uncle Rod to the right, and Blades up the middle, all three men wearing camouflage gear. Greg crouched under a berry bush to wait. After some time had passed, he heard Blades whistle. Wary of alerting nearby game to their presence, Greg elected not to respond. Instead he stood up, intending to creep forward to a new hiding spot. His movements caused the berry bush to quiver. Seeing this, Blades took quick aim and fired, spraying his brother-in-law with buckshot.
Greg found himself on the ground without knowing how he’d gotten there. He saw blood on the ring finger of his left hand, but felt no pain. In fact, his whole body was numb. He tried to stand up, became lightheaded, and fell back to the dirt. He tried to speak but could only croak, a collapsed lung making it a struggle for him just to breathe, let alone call for help. Only now did Greg realize, with cold terror, that he’d been shot.
“What happened?” Blades shouted from his hiding spot.
Greg couldn’t answer. He heard crashing footsteps and then saw his brother-in-law looming above him. Blades’s face showed no surprise, the effect of a reflexive effort to conceal his horror lest he send his accidental victim into a panic. No such luck. Greg began to babble. “I’m going to die! I won’t see my wife anymore! I won’t be able to race anymore!”
Soon Blades was shouting too. Rod LeMond heard the ruckus and came running. The sight of his nephew’s blood-soaked, crumpled body hit him like a sucker punch. Blades and Uncle Rod conferred in tight voices, quickly agreeing that they had to get Greg onto his feet and out of the woods ASAP. But they disagreed on how to go about it. Greg pictured sand draining from the hourglass of his life while the two men debated.
“Just go get the ambulance!” he interjected.
Uncle Rod ran down to the house and dialed 9-1-1. Minutes later, he was back at the scene of the mishap. No ambulance could reach Greg where he lay, so Blades and Uncle Rod tried to lift him, but the movement stirred up an inferno of pain in Greg’s right shoulder, which had taken the brunt of the blast.
“Go get your truck,” Greg said.
Uncle Rod ran down to the house a second time and rumbled back in his pickup. With grunting help from the others, Greg hauled himself into the truck, where he waited for help to arrive. Ten minutes passed. No ambulance. Fifteen minutes. Greg’s shirt was now drenched in blood. Twenty minutes. He was running out of time.
After 25 minutes had gone by, Uncle Rod started up the truck and drove to the edge of the property. They came to a gate, closed and padlocked, with an ambulance, a fire truck, and a police car sitting idly on the other side, as though staging for a small-town Independence Day parade.
A team of paramedics got Greg onto a stretcher, cut his shirt off, and set to work on him. The nearest hospital was 35 minutes away over bumpy roads. Greg knew he’d probably bleed out before he got there. As he reeled from this dark thought, he heard the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. A chopper from the California Highway Patrol that just happened to have been passing through the area had caught the radio chatter and made a beeline for Rod LeMond’s property. Greg was hastily loaded in and taken to the hospital at the University of California–Davis, which specialized in the treatment of gunshot wounds and other traumas. The flight took 11 minutes.
He spent five hours in the operating room. The surgeon was able to remove only half of the 60 pellets that had struck him; most of the rest would remain inside Greg for the rest of his life, two of them nestled against the lining of his heart.
When he woke up, Greg was told that he would indeed have bled to death—at age 26—if not for the miracle of the passing copter, but he could now expect to make a full recovery. It would take a very long time, however, and in the interim he was destined to lose nearly all of the fitness he had built up through 12 years of competitive cycling. His comeback would start at zero.
Greg lost 10 pounds in the first 10 days of his recuperation. His longest workout during that period was a 20-foot walk. Not until six weeks after his release from the hospital did he mount a bike. He started at 5 kilometers and went a little farther in each subsequent ride. Two months after the accident, Greg’s blood volume had finally returned to normal.
By September, Greg was racing again. His results were less than spectacular (he finished 44th in the Tour of Ireland), but this was only to be expected at such an early stage in his return to competition. The point of mixing it up in these late-season events was merely to get his racing legs back and set himself up for an ascension to top form in the 1988 season. Alarmingly, though, Greg’s form was no better in November than it had been two months earlier. He abandoned his last event of the season, the Tour of Mexico, because he couldn’t get up the hills.
Greg’s first race of 1988, the Ruta del Sol in Spain, didn’t go any better. This time his teammates had to push him—literally, with hands placed on the small of his back—up the climbs. A few weeks later, Greg crashed again. He suffered only a minor injury to a muscle in his right lower leg, but when he jumped back into training too aggressively after two weeks off the bike, the problem became chronic. Instead of riding the Tour de France in July, he got an operation.
By the fall, Greg was racing once more, but poorly, and he was straining to maintain his customary rosy outlook. “I’m feeling better but starting over again,” he told the New York Times. “I’m always starting over.”
Greg’s lack of results caused his relationship with his new employer, the PDM team, to sour. The tension became a breach when team management pressured their struggling star rider to receive injections of testosterone, a banned performance enhancer, and he refused. In one form or another, doping had always been a part of cycling, but in 1988 it was on the brink of getting out of control. The previous year, Laurent Fignon had failed a drug test for amphetamines. Weeks later, during that year’s Tour de France, Spaniard Pedro Delgado was caught with a steroid masking agent in his system but was allowed to complete the race—which he won—because the substance had not yet been formally banned. Greg believed, perhaps naively, that such cheating was rare, but it was becoming increasingly common, and the methods more sophisticated.
After Greg’s break with PDM, his lawyer, Ron Stanko, told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “I explained to them that we were not interested in using chemicals to improve performances. That is Greg’s position, 100 percent.” This stance was based not only on Greg’s distaste for cheating but also on his conviction that he was talented enough to win without shortcuts. After all, he had done it before.
On New Year’s Eve, 1988, Greg signed with a new team, ADR. He had previously derided ADR as second rate, claiming its roster was too weak to support a Tour de France contender. But it was now the only team willing to compensate him as a still-young past Tour winner rather than as a cyclist whose own recent performances were second rate.
Greg opened the 1989 season with some promising results, finishing sixth overall in the Tirreno-Adriatico race in Italy and taking second place in a stage of the Criterium Internationale. But the promise of these performances was not fulfilled. In May, Greg competed in the inaugural Tour de Trump in the United States, an event that, owing to its namesake’s knack for spectacle, attracted extraordinary public attention by the standards of American bicycle racing. It would have been an ideal showcase for the talents of the first American winner of the Tour de France—if only he hadn’t finished 27th.
The next stop for Greg and his ADR teammates was the Giro d’Italia, a three-week “Grand Tour” like the Tour de France. Greg continued to feel not quite right on the bike, and it showed in his results. On the very first big climb of the race, he lost 8 minutes to the leaders. As he slid farther and farther behind in the succeeding days, Greg began to despair. After one stage, he sat on his bed in a crummy hotel room and wept, bitterness and frustration pouring out of him like steam from a burst pipe. He told his roommate, Johan Lammerts, that he was finished as a cyclist. He could not continue to suffer so much to achieve so little in the shadow of what he once was. It was time to quit and move on.
Lammerts urged Greg to at least finish the Giro before he made any sweeping decisions about his future. Greg relented, and the next morning he was back in the saddle and once again bringing up the rear of the peloton. He came into the last day of the Giro more than 55 minutes behind the race leader, Laurent Fignon, who was making a comeback of his own after three consecutive years marred by injuries and other setbacks. But something had changed since Greg’s hotel room crisis: He had been diagnosed with severe anemia—probably a lasting effect of his accident—and had started a course of (perfectly legal, and indeed medically necessary) iron injections. He felt better immediately. The final stage of the Giro was a 53-km individual time trial. From the moment he left the starting gate, Greg knew he was back—or mostly back. Six kilometers into the ride, he caught and passed a rider who had started 90 seconds ahead of him. Fifteen kilometers farther along, he overtook a second competitor, this one having begun with a 3-minute head start. Greg finished with the second-best time of the day, outpacing Fignon, who held on for the overall tour victory, by 78 seconds.
Greg had been so far down for so long that this performance did little to alter appraisals of his prospects for the Tour de France, which would begin three weeks later. All eyes were on defending champion Pedro Delgado and the newly resurgent Fignon. Greg himself said he would consider a top-20 finish a success, as his body was still a bit of a question mark. His mind, however, was not.
The Tour began on Saturday, July 1, in Luxembourg, with a prologue in the form of a 7.8-km individual time trial. Greg stopped the clock at 10 minutes flat, a time bettered by just one rider and matched by two others, including Fignon. Greg’s fine result was overshadowed by a debacle involving the defending champion, who missed his start time and lost 2:40 to the rest of the 198-man field before he’d even left the gate. But while the media overlooked Greg in all the hullabaloo over Pedro Delgado’s inexplicable self-sabotage, at least one of his rivals did not. Upon seeing the results of the prologue, Fignon marked the American as the man most likely to stand in the way of his third Tour victory.
Greg himself was ecstatic about his performance, but he tried hard to tamp down the emotion. For two long years, hope had never amounted to anything more than a setup for crushing disappointment. “I have to be careful not to get too confident too quickly,” he told the press.
The first big test for the ADR team as a collective came two days later with a 48-km team time trial. Greg and the eight nobodies who wore the same uniform surpassed low expectations with a fifth-place finish, losing 51 seconds to Fignon’s Super U team. Greg came away from the stage in 14th place in the General Classification, 11 spots behind the French favorite.
Stage five pitted each man against all in an unusually long, 73-km time trial contested in wet conditions. Greg had felt strong enough in the preceding stages that he dared to dream of winning this one. To better his chances, he tried a new piece of equipment: aero handlebars, or triathlon bars, as they were more often called in those days. More functionally than technically innovative, the device consisted of an elongated U-shaped piece of metal tubing upon which the rider rested his forearms, a position that flattened the back and narrowed the front profile, reducing wind drag. Aerobars had debuted at the Tour de Trump, where they were used by a handful of American riders. The Europeans scorned them, but Greg judged them worth a try.
They were. Greg won the time trial, beating Delgado by 24 seconds and Fignon by 56. The latter margin was sufficient to lift Greg to first place in the G.C. At a ceremony held after the race, he donned the yellow jersey of the race leader for the first time since he had won the Tour in 1986. He told the crowd, “This is the most wonderful moment of my life,” and he meant it. Being on top, he discovered, was that much sweeter when you’d come up from the very bottom.
When the Tour entered the mountains in stage 9, Delgado, still paying for his late start in the prologue, had little choice but to go on the attack. On the first of two tough days in the Pyrenees, the Spaniard gained back 29 seconds on Fignon and Greg, who were more concerned with marking each other. The next day, Delgado took fuller advantage of his rivals’ distraction, crossing the finish line at the summit of the Superbagnères ski resort nearly 3.5 minutes ahead of Fignon, who used a late attack to beat Greg by 12 seconds and reclaim the yellow jersey.
The next few stages were uneventful. Mostly flat, they featured bunch sprints to the finish line and breakaways by cyclists who were not threats to the top riders in the General Classification. Then came stage 15, another individual time trial. Greg again used the triathlon bars, but he spent little time in them because the 39-km course was largely uphill, removing aerodynamics from the performance equation. He finished fifth, losing 7 seconds to Delgado and gaining 47 on Fignon. Greg was back in yellow.
After a rest day, which Greg spent with his family, the Tour entered the Alps. By this time, three of Greg’s teammates had abandoned the race. The remaining ADR riders were not strong climbers. This left Greg exposed on the major climbs of stage 16, a vulnerability that the other contenders exploited by taking turns attacking him. As the wearer of the maillot jaune, Greg had to answer each new assault, and he did so successfully, finishing the stage with Delgado and 13 seconds ahead of Fignon to increase his overall lead on the Frenchman to 53 seconds. Afterward, Greg spoke openly to reporters for the first time about the possibility of winning the Tour.
“If I have another good day tomorrow,” he allowed, “I’d say I was in a strong position to win.”
Alas, he did not have another good day. Greg cracked on the final climb of stage 17, hitting a wall on the fabled switchbacks of L’Alpe d’Huez. Delgado and Fignon pedaled away to steal 69 seconds from the American. The yellow jersey belonged once again to Fignon. In stage 18, the new leader dropped Greg and Delgado on the approach to another summit finish, padding his lead by 24 seconds.
The mountains had taught Greg that, despite his high hopes, he was not quite as strong as he’d been when he won the Tour in 1986, nor—as he would confess after his retirement—would he ever be. He was riding with 30 shotgun pellets in his body, after all. What’s more, he was up against two past Tour winners who’d been caught doping and perhaps were cheating still. If Greg was to beat them, his mind would have to find a way to do more with less—to become stronger to the same degree that his body was weaker.
There was one more mountain stage left to survive. Greg knew that he could not afford to lose any more time to Fignon, or all hope of overtaking him in the final showdown of stage 21 would be gone. Fignon, Delgado, and Greg showed all their cards in stage 19, a 125km race from Villard de Lans to Aix les Bains that passed over three major climbs. The three rivals formed a “royal breakaway” with the fourthand seventh-place riders in the General Classification, leaving the rest of the field far behind as they traded attacks. Greg won the stage in a sprint with Fignon. He recovered no time, but gained a moral victory.
Stage 20 was flat and relatively easy, leaving the overall rankings unaffected. It ended at L’Isle d’Abeau, where the competitors boarded a train bound for Versailles, site of the start of stage 21. The following afternoon, Greg would have one last chance to make up 50 seconds on Fignon. If he fell short in the 24.5-km individual time trial—and if he did, it would likely be by a few ticks—he would be crushed. He was no longer the same man who had said he would be happy to crack the top 20.
Despite the daunting challenge he faced, Greg was his usual congenial self during the train ride to Versailles, chatting casually with journalists the whole way. Meanwhile, Fignon, also true to form, cursed and spat at a Spanish camera crew that tried to approach him. Perhaps both men felt, in their heart of hearts, that what seemed impossible was not.
A 24.5-km cycling time trial is an exercise in pacing. So are all races that last longer than 30 seconds. In races that last less than 30 seconds, competitors go all-out, pedaling, striding, or stroking at absolute maximum intensity from start to finish. They hold nothing back and utilize their full physical capacity. In races that last longer than 30 seconds, competitors do hold back. They pedal, stride, or stroke at less than maximum intensity at all points of the race except perhaps the very end. Instead of going all-out, they maintain the highest intensity they feel capable of sustaining through the full race distance.
Why 30 seconds? Because humans cannot sustain maximum intensity exercise longer than about 30 seconds without exceeding the highest level of perceived effort they can tolerate. Athletes are conscious of their effort in shorter races, of course, but because they know their suffering will end quickly they do not use this perception to control their pace, which is constrained only by their physical capacity. But when an athlete starts a race that he knows will last longer than 30 seconds, he holds back just enough that his perceived effort limit is not reached until he is at the finish line. That is the art of pacing.
What happens when an athlete tries to sustain a maximum intensity of exercise longer than 30 seconds? Anna Wittekind of the University of Essex answered this question in a 2009 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Nine subjects were asked to ride stationary bikes outfitted with power meters as hard as they could for 5 seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, and 45 seconds on separate occasions. When she reviewed the results, Wittekind found that the subjects had generated slightly less power during the first 15 seconds of the 45-second test than they had in the 15-second test. In other words, they had not pedaled as hard as they could at the start of the longest test ride, even though they had been instructed to do so. Instead, they had unconsciously paced themselves.
Wittekind speculated that, on the basis of past experience, the subjects recognized that they could not sustain a true maximal effort for 45 seconds without exceeding their maximum tolerance for perceived effort, so they held back just a little without even realizing it. These results suggest that the limit of maximum perceived effort tolerance is so impenetrable that athletes are not psychologically capable of even trying to sustain a maximum exercise intensity longer than approximately 30 seconds.
The fact that pacing is required to maximize performance in all races lasting longer than half a minute has some interesting implications. A sprinter finishes every race knowing he went as fast as he could (technical errors notwithstanding). Longer races are different. Because it is necessary to hold back to some degree at almost every point in these races, it is impossible for the athlete to know upon finishing whether he might have gone faster—if only by a second or two—if he’d held back just a bit less somewhere along the way.
Many automobiles have a “range” feature that displays the number of miles the vehicle can travel before it runs out of gasoline. This number is not open to interpretation. If the range display says 29 miles, you’d better find a gas station within the next 29 miles. The mechanism of regulatory anticipation that athletes use to control their pace in races is different. It’s not a number but a feeling, and like all feelings it is open to interpretation. One of the most important and valuable coping skills in endurance sports is the ability to interpret the perceptions that influence pacing decisions in a performance-maximizing way. As an endurance athlete, you want to get better and better at reading these perceptions in such a way that your internal pacing mechanism functions more and more like an automobile’s range display. You want to be as correct as you can possibly be when determining the swiftest pace you can sustain to the finish line without exceeding your perceived effort tolerance.
Setting and pursuing time-based race goals is very helpful in the process of calibrating anticipatory regulation. This practice enables athletes to interpret their effort perceptions in a more performance-enhancing way by transforming the racing experience from an effort to go as fast as possible into an effort to go faster than ever before. Validation of this approach comes from a 1997 study done by researchers at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University and published in the Journal of Sports Science. High school students were subjected to a test of muscular endurance and then spent eight weeks training to increase their time to exhaustion. Some of the students were given a nonquantitative goal to “do their best.” Others were given a quantitative goal to better their performance in the initial test by a certain percentage. Even though all of the students did the same training, those who pursued quantitative goals improved their performance significantly more when the muscular endurance test was repeated after eight weeks.
More recently, a team of researchers led by Eric Allen of the University of California found that finish times in marathons tend to cluster near the round numbers (such as 4:30 and 4:00) that runners typically pursue as goals. This pattern would have carried little significance if Allen and his colleagues had not also noted that those runners who end up closest to these round numbers at the finish line slow down less than other runners in the final miles of a marathon— evidence that the pursuit of these round-number goals enhances performance. Regardless of how an athlete chooses to train, her training will yield greater improvement in race times if improving race times is the explicit goal of the training process.
Paying attention to the clock reduces the uncertainty associated with reaching beyond past limits and in this way facilitates effective pacing. While it may be impossible for an athlete who completes a race of a certain distance to know if he could have tried harder, it’s relatively easy for an athlete who completes a race of a certain distance in a certain time to aim to cover the next race of the same distance a second or two faster than he did the last time.
According to Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of endurance performance, the amount of effort that an athlete puts into a race is influenced by her perception of the attainability of her goal, a concept borrowed from Jack Brehm’s theory of motivational intensity. If the goal seems to fall out of reach at any point during the race, the athlete is likely to back off her effort. If the goal seems attainable, but only with increased effort, the athlete is likely to increase her effort, provided she’s not already at her limit. By keeping track of, and aiming to improve, personal best times for specific race distances, athletes can exploit this phenomenon to try harder than they would otherwise be able to. The goal of improving your time for a certain distance by 1 measly second almost always seems attainable. And if that goal is attainable, then the very slightly greater level of perceived effort that an athlete must endure to achieve it is likely to seem more endurable than it would seem if the athlete were going entirely by feel. It’s not the time goal itself that enhances performance but the effect that the goal has on how the athlete interprets her perception of effort.
Setting time-based goals that stretch you just beyond past limits is like setting a flag next to a bed of hot coals to mark the furthest point reached in your best fire walk. That flag says to you, “This is possible, and you know it. So why wouldn’t it be possible for you to make it just one step farther the next time?”
A real-world example of this process of using time-based goals to recalibrate perceived effort in a performance-enhancing way is South African runner Elana Meyer’s career progression at the halfmarathon distance. In 1980, when she was 13 years old, Meyer took her first shot at 13.1 miles, winning the Foot of Africa half-marathon in a mind-boggling time of 1:27:10. Nine years later, Meyer made her professional debut at the same distance, running 1:09:26 in Durban. In 1991, she smashed the half-marathon world record in London, clocking 1:07:59. Between 1997 and 1999, Meyer broke the record thrice more, running 1:07:36, 1:07:29, and finally 1:06:44 in Tokyo at age 32.
Obviously, Meyer’s development as an athlete was responsible for much of this improvement. But her pursuit of time goals also played a role. It is interesting to note that her margins of improvement tended to get smaller as her career advanced. Her big leaps from 1:27 to 1:09 and from 1:09 to 1:07 were undoubtedly fueled principally by gains in fitness. Meyer probably wasn’t even thinking about her first half-marathon when she made her pro debut, so much stronger was she by then. But her last two world records were set on familiar courses on which she had already posted fast times, and in each of these cases she set out deliberately to run faster than ever before. It’s likely that Meyer was not any fitter at the 1999 Tokyo Half Marathon, where she ran 1:06:44, than she had been a year earlier in Kyoto, where she ran 1:07:29, but she had the crucial advantage of having run 1:07:29 already.
But wait: If Meyer was just as fit (not to mention a year younger) when she ran the slower time, then can it not be said that timekeeping held her back in the 1998 Kyoto Half Marathon, even as it pulled her beyond the world record of 1:07:36 she had set on the same course in 1997? There is indeed evidence that the influence of clock watching on endurance performance is two-sided. The same time goal that enhances performance when it is perceived as a target constrains performance when it is perceived as a limit.
The potential for time standards to become performance limiters is most apparent at the elite level of endurance sports. There have been many noteworthy cases in which a performance breakthrough by one athlete triggered a widespread revolution in performance and thereby revealed that previous standards had been holding the sport back. Between 1994 and 2008, for example, the women’s world record for triathlon’s Ironman distance was stuck at 8:50:53. Only seven women recorded times under 9 hours in that 14-year span. When Yvonne van Vlerken finally lowered the Ironman world record to 8:45:48 in July 2008, the floodgates were opened. Six other women dipped under the 9-hour barrier in the next few months. Van Vlerken’s mark lasted only one year, as did the subsequent record. By the end of the 2011 season, the Ironman world record for women stood at 8:18:13, and sub-8:50 performances had become commonplace. Was the new generation of female triathletes that much more talented than the previous one? No. These women just weren’t held back by a tendency to regard the time of 8:50:53 as an unsurpassable human limit.
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 José 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 José 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 Sèvres, 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 Sèvres, 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.
As Greg approached 14 kilometers, the Eiffel Tower rose into view ahead. Fignon’s deficit had risen to 24 seconds. Greg still was not gaining time quite fast enough, but as hard as he was pushing himself, he still felt strong, whereas Fignon’s shoulders had begun to rock, a telltale sign of encroaching weariness. A clear difference in the relative speeds of the two men became apparent to cycling fans watching the battle on television at home. Every 10 or 15 seconds, the coverage jumped from Fignon to Greg, and when it did, the passing scenery accelerated noticeably.
The last part of the course skirted the famous Jardin des Tuileries—Paris’s Central Park—and dumped riders onto the Champs-Élysées for the homestretch to the finish line. Tens of thousands of spectators lining the streets there erupted when Greg came into view. (His French surname, French language skills, and all-American charm had won him many admirers in the Tour’s host nation.) He passed under a banner marking 4 kilometers to the finish line. His advantage was now 35 seconds. Greg had stolen exactly 2 seconds per kilometer from Fignon over the last 6.5 kilometers; he would have to nearly double that rate of separation on the Champs-Élysées to win the Tour.
Greg’s last best chance to gain that separation lay just ahead of him, at 3 kilometers to go, where a false flat rose gently from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. It wasn’t much of a hill by Tour standards, but to an exhausted rider—as Fignon was quickly becoming—it would feel like a Pyrenean switchback. Greg attacked it hard, telling himself that his career depended on it. As he neared the top, his torso began to pump up and down like an oil horse. Any consideration of good form had gone out the window—all that mattered now was effort at any cost.
At the Arc de Triomphe, Greg made a hairpin right turn and entered the final straight to the finish line. Moving down the same false flat he had just ascended, he hit 40 mph, approaching the motor vehicle speed limit on the Champs-Élysées. He passed under the 1-km banner. Over the race radio came word that Greg still needed 10 seconds.
Ahead on the road, Greg saw the rocking posterior of Pedro Delgado, who had started 2 minutes before him. Greg felt a magnetic pull, and he used it to raise his effort level one more excruciating notch for the final drive to the finish line. He crossed at 26:57, beating the previous best time of the day by 33 seconds. Greg hung his head like a recipient of bad news as he coasted to a stop. A moment earlier his legs had felt as though they were going to explode. Now they suddenly felt capable of going another 10 miles. Had he done enough?
The waiting began. Greg dismounted and turned back toward the racecourse and the finish line clock, understanding that if it displayed the number 27:47 before Fignon finished, he had won the Tour de France. The anticipation was unbearable. When Fignon came into sight, Greg reflexively shaded his eyes and looked away—but only briefly.
Fignon was shattered with fatigue, no longer able to hold a straight line and nearly drifting into a barrier of scaffolding at the outer edge of the 70-meter-wide road in his flailing efforts to drive his machine toward the line. The seconds ticked by with surreal slowness. But the magic number finally appeared, and when it did, Fignon was still 100 meters from the finish. He stopped the clock at 27:55. Greg LeMond had won the Tour by 8 seconds.
Greg’s average speed for the 24.5-km time trial was 33.89 mph— an all-time record for Tour de France time trials, by a long shot. Greg (who would win his third and last Tour de France in 1990) could not have known it, but at that moment his sport was on the threshold of an era of unprecedented technological advancement. In the coming years, bikes would be completely transformed with stiffer, lighter materials, computerand wind tunnel–assisted aerodynamics, and more efficient and reliable components and accessories. The sport was also entering an era of rampant and sophisticated doping. Most of the top riders of the 1990s and 2000s would gain a tremendous performance advantage from drugs such as erythropoietin (EPO). Yet none of these pharmaceutically enhanced athletes on space-age bikes was able to better Greg LeMond’s time trial speed record until 2005. And to this day, no Tour rider has ridden faster than Greg except in shorter time trials undertaken on fresh legs on the first day of the race instead of the last.
It would seem that, in the right circumstances, an old-fashioned stopwatch—properly used—can affect endurance performance more powerfully than either the finest equipment or the most potent chemicals—not to mention lift an athlete to his finest hour even after his best days are behind him.
In his fascinating new book How Bad Do You Want It?, coach Matt Fitzgerald examines more than a dozen pivotal races to discover the surprising ways elite athletes strengthen their mental toughness. Each chapter of How Bad Do You Want It? explores the how and why of an elite athlete’s transformative moment, revealing powerful new psychobiological principles you can practice to strengthen your own mental fitness.
Pre photo courtesy of Jeff Johnson