Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Remembering Fignon

(Written in 2000 from 'The Bridge to Venice'.)

By the time I got back from Colorado my bank account was dry, and all I had left was a plane ticket to France. I packed my bag, caught a ride to O’Hare and the next thing I knew Jean Marie was picking me up in Lyon. Back in Buvin my bike was there, my guitar was there and my bed was still made from leaving it the season before.

While I was in Milwaukee I felt like a stranger in my own home. My friends all had jobs and were settling into the post-college life that would take them into their sixties. Once back in Les Avenières I could step back into my shoes and be a circus clown. Nobody knew any different of me nor expected anything else. It was like slipping into a cool lake after a long bike ride.

Sitting at the table when I got there was the world high diving record holder, Randy Dickeson of Minneapolis. At 6'3" and nearly 240 lbs., Randy was the biggest diver I'd ever seen. Normally divers look more like second basemen than Mike Schmidt. Randy, only 30 years old, was already a 15-year show veteran. I was wondering what he was doing at our little park, but he told me right off the bat that he was looking for a low-key environment to save money. He was engaged to a Belgian girl, Renee, and he needed to sock away money for the wedding and the honeymoon. I told him Les Avenières was the place.

I filled my Peugeot's tires and booked into town on my first ride of the young season. I arrived at the Platanes to find a brisk lunch crowd of old friends. The park was opening in a couple of days, and the seasonal workers were just making their way into town. Our thespian announcer Jean Pierre was there, and I told him of the new sketch we'd be doing - the carpenter's act that we'd done in Harderwijk.
He looked over the script and said he'd get it translated. Monique asked me if I'd brought the second edition of my French book so that I could finally learn how to speak French. I told her I had a new advanced book and that I'd be squawking frog speak in no time. I walked out of the bar, and it hit me that I'd just gotten the low down from everybody and I hadn't spoken a stitch of English. The year before it would have been impossible. Throughout the winter I'd kept my internal dialog in French and continued making vocabulary lists. When the words hit me this time, I was ready for them. I wasn't translating Shakespeare, but I was definitely getting business done.

I rode over to the park and found Jeanine Couty, the woman who teased me about tasting French girls at the season opener the previous year. She was getting her haunted house ready with her husband, Jackie.

"Big changes this year," Jeanine said, "We're not Avenir Land anymore."

"What?" I said.

"Nope," Jackie said, "Avenir Land was bought out by a Belgian company. We're now 'Walibi Rhone Alps' - it's not our park any more."

Avenir Land was created in 1978 by a group of carnival workers who were sick of moving around. Jackie and Jeanine Couty moved so often that they were forced to put their two daughters in boarding schools and drive hundreds of miles every Friday and Sunday to pick them up and drop them off. The Avenir Land Cooperative bought out Le Grand Maree, a swamp in the valley just below the Les Avenières ridge. In the early 17th Century Napoleon trained his troops there, but when the carnies bought it out, it was a mosquito-ridden hell. They drained the swamp and put up the park, but all the rides and attractions were privately owned, and they charged a separate fee. A few years later they enclosed the park and started charging a small entrance fee.

Now that the Walibi Corporation had taken over, the fee would skyrocket, as would the size of the park. Over the winter Walibi had already built a huge new roller coaster and a gigantic water ride. My quaint little park was hitting the big time.
The improvements had started, but there were still years of development before it became a major theme park. Serge and Françoise were kept on as directors, and Jean Marie was still chief of security. All the park workers sported brand new orange, yellow and blue uniforms whereas the year before they wore whatever they wanted. Jackie, Jeanine and a few of the original Avenir Land owners were allowed to keep their shops and attractions, but it wouldn't be long before they would be bought out by the new Belgian conglomerate.

Our job, on the other hand, hadn't changed a bit. Except for Randy, our team remained basically in tact. Robert, the acrobatic skier, had taken a job in Germany, but the other two Canadians, Denny and Richard, were back. Jen had to finish her finals at U of I, and then she'd be joining us. Everyone in town had thought that Ted was one of us but he wouldn't be making it back. He'd stayed on in Les Avenières until the end of the summer, but his headaches and double vision didn't go away. He returned to the States, had a couple of operations on his eyes, and started working as an instructor for Outward Bound. The further away from the city the better it was for Ted. I was really hoping John McGhee would reconsider and come back for a full season, but he had to pay off his MBA and had taken a job with a software developer in Houston.

With the ladder moorings already in place and the pool already built, the show went up in two short days. We were ready to rehearse, when from out of the blue, our gregarious announcer, Jean Pierre, quit to work with a theater group in neighboring La Tour du Pin. I begged him to come back, but it was pretty difficult for a man with his background to do amusement park shtick. My next choice was Chanal, the Yul Brenner look-alike who had gotten- his thumb blown off the year before we came to Les Avenières. But Chanal had even more theater credentials than Jean Pierre and was in demand all around the region. Theater in France is like Little League in America. Almost everyone's been in a play. The park put an ad in the paper and Philippe, a carnival hawker from Dijon, joined us.

I spent one afternoon with Philippe and immediately knew he would fit. He was a smart, good-looking guy with a mischievous attitude and a great microphone voice. We took Philippe and his girlfriend, Natalie, to the Platanes the first night in town and got the two of them wrecked on pastis. They were part of the team, and we never had a problem with them all summer long.

Chip, representing the WWP owners, flew in from Hong Kong for the opener, which was a little rough considering we only had one day to rehearse a comedy with a lot of timing and dozens of pratfalls and gags. We were only working weekends and Wednesdays during the opening month so we had plenty of time to smooth things out.
During the first season I had to train all the divers and do most of the stunts myself. But the second season started with five solid veterans who had no ambition to do anything but get in the groove and make money. The four of us who had been there the year before were already established in town, and Randy was just happy if he could finish the day and drop a few Heinekens down his gut.

The scene at the Platanes was as crazy as ever with the old faces still there and the new crop of lifeguards and park workers in town taking the place of those who had moved on. There was no Ted to hang around and do stuff with at home, so I started spending a lot of time in Buvin at Vincent the drummer's house. It was a completely French environment with four really interesting people. Vincent's mother, Rosette, was a French teacher, who at the age of 30 took off with a 17-year-old student, Pascal. Seven years later they were still together. Vincent's 19-year-old sister Cecile, although quite quirky, was probably the best looking girl in Les Avenières.

When I wasn't working or catching up on journal writing, I spent a lot of time with Jackie and Jeanine. Whenever I was too tired to write or too hung over from a big night at the Platanes, I would take a seat next to Jeanine at her ticket booth for the haunted house. They also owned the house of mirrors in the same building. I would man the gate for the house of mirrors, and Jeanine would take the haunted house. Jackie built both of them from scratch and always had plenty of upkeep to do on them. He was also putting the finishing touches on the house he'd built on the highest ridge above Les Avenières. Their two grown daughters, Krystel and Nadege, worked for Jackie's other business, portable food carts that he operated at the market in Annemasse, the French suburb of Geneva.

Jackie and Jeanine took in Jen and me as their long lost American children. Jeanine would do our laundry and have us up to dinner once a week. Every so often she would invite the entire team and cook up six and seven course Savoyarde feasts that lasted long into the night. We would offer to bring something but she always refused. "You wouldn't know what to bring!" she insisted.

It would start with a dry sausage appetizer, then move on to fresh vegetables followed by potatoes au gratin, then steak, then salad, then cheese, then two or three desserts. We started drinking pastis before dinner, then went through bottle after bottle of red wine topping it off with a stiff shot of digestive liquer before rolling home. Jeanine tried to get us drunk, but with that much food to consume, it was impossible. She just got us fat.

The first summer in Les Avenières the team spoke English at the house and backstage, but this year, Randy was the only one not speaking French. His Belgian girlfriend Renee also spoke French, so often we would be laughing hard, and he would get pissed and demand that someone translate. It never came off funny after being translated so he assumed we were making fun of him. Before long we just started making fun of him.

Sometime around the beginning of June, Randy went away for a weekend, and when he returned I realized I hadn't spoken any English in 48 hours. I had a long way to go, but I no longer got stress headaches from conversations at the Platanes. With certain people like Jeanine and Rosette, I could go for hours without any troubles. The temptation to slack off was there, but when I watched TV or read the paper there were always dozens of words I didn't know. The base was set, but my dictionary was still one of my best friends.

From the beginning of June I stopped buying the English-language Herald Tribune and only bought L'Equipe, the French sports daily. The Tour of France was just around the corner, and I wanted to be up on it. Andy Hampsten had held on to the fourth place he captured in Grenoble, and I hoped he would make a run at the title. I'd hate to not know what was going on if an American had a shot at winning it.
The week before the race started, newspaper racks began filling up with Tour de France previews. I bought a few of them and was surprised to learn that Hampsten wasn't even considered a favorite. Even though he'd had a brilliant tour the year before, he was considered a pure climber and not someone who competed in the contra la montre or "race against the clock" stages where the riders do a shorter course one at a time.

The big favorites remained the reigning champion Pedro Delgado of Spain and two-time winner Laurent Fignon of France. Fignon had had a series of setbacks since winning back-to-back titles at the ages of 23 and 24. He'd won the Tour of Italy, however, and appeared to be in great form. Also listed were the great Dutch climbing duo of Stephen Rooks and the needle-thin Gert Jan Theunisse. Each magazine would list their potential top twenty as well as their favorites to take the sprint title and the King of the Mountains title.

The one name that was left out of every publication was that of the 1986 Champion, the American Greg Lemond. Lemond had been shot by his brother-in-law in a hunting accident the year after he'd won the race. Since then he'd bounced from team to team, never getting a result with any of them. Two days before the race, Samuel Abt, the only American reporter who ever got a cycling column printed in the Herald Tribune, wrote a small piece on the trials and tribulations of Lemond. Three years after becoming the world's greatest cyclist, Lemond was struggling with a second tier Belgian Team, ADR.

The only name rider on the team was the great Belgian sprinter, Eddy Plankaert - not someone who could help him climb the monstrous passes of the Pyrenees and the Alps.

Jackie had been a competitive cyclist in his younger days and was a Tour de France fanatic. From the day the race started until the finish in Paris, Jackie sat in the ticket booth of the haunted house and watched every second on a small color TV. The day before the tour started, I slid in behind Jeanine and watched one of the big pre-tour hype shows. Jeanine rigged up the booth so that all three of us could watch. She might as well have loaded up a syringe and shot me full of heroin. I was hooked after the first ten minutes.

I always had difficulty understanding French television, but after reading all the cycling articles I knew enough vocabulary to understand the bike commentators. Dutchman Erik Breukink won the opening stage, but the big surprise was that Delgado was nowhere to be seen when the starter called his number. His trainer had gotten the start times mixed up, and the great Pedro was still warming up on a stationary bike when his time started ticking off. Finally a fan screamed at him to get on the course but by that time he was almost three minutes late. The yellow jersey from '88 was starting the '89 Tour in dead last place.

Hampsten was way back in the pack, but Jackie assured me that he would make up all that time in the mountains. I didn't even think to look for Lemond. The next day two stages took place, a 150 km circuit as well as a 50 km team time trial. In the team time trials, each team takes off three minutes apart and rides over the course at breakneck speed with each teammate taking a turn at the front of the line. They pull for all their worth until the pace slows and another teammate comes to the front and pulls the train. Even a good rider can lose a ton of time if his team rides poorly.

Hampsten's 7-11 team finished in the middle of the pack, but Fignon's Super U Team won the stage, and Delgado's Reynolds team was right behind. I'd been reading all the cycling articles since April, but at that point I couldn't even remember which team Greg Lemond rode for.

The first couple of days went by with virtually no change in the standings. The opening stages are long flat races in which the pack, or peloton, stays grouped together. There are usually some breakaways, but the peloton travels much faster than individual or small groups and tend to pick up the breakaways, leading to dramatic mass sprints. If a rider finishes in the group he is credited with the same overall time as the winner. That insures the safe arrival of most of the peloton - except for the fierce sprint battle for the prestigious stage wins. The riders in contention for the overall lead are happy just to make it through the first week without ending up in one of the Tour's infamous pileups.
On the fifth day of the Tour came the first contra la montre, a 78-kilometer (48 mile) individual time trial from Dinard to Rennes. The riders take off individually in reverse order of their overall time. The papers expected Delgado to rise up the standings but were mostly looking for Fignon to regain the Yellow Jersey for the first time since his '84 victory. But by the end of the day the cycling world was turned upside down and the sport had changed forever. A former champion was wearing the Yellow Jersey but it wasn't Laurent Fignon. It was the American Greg Lemond.

Lemond had mounted a set of Scott triathlon handlebars on his high-tech Bottecchia frame and the tight aerodynamic body position allowed him to cut through the air and knock seconds off each kilometer. Lemond hadn't even given an interview before that stage, but now the press mobbed him. He took the bouquet on the podium then stepped up again to put on the Yellow Jersey that had been stolen from him by 38 pieces of buckshot. It was an incredible story, but the journalists of L'Equipe called it a fluke. Fignon had been hit by a horrible rainstorm in the middle of his ride, and Delgado, who started at the beginning of the day, didn't have any competitive times to pace himself by. Lemond had lucked out, L'Equipe wrote, and would surely be dropped in the first climbs of the Pyrenees.

Jackie had to agree with the journalists, but he assured me that winning a contra la montre was no small feat. The CLM's are the show of who is the strongest rider, and rarely does a Tour winner go through the race without winning one of them.
"This is a great sign for Fignon," he said. "With Delgado so far behind, the race is his."

That was also the overwhelming response of the crowd at the Platanes. A group of Portuguese men always sat in the back of the bar playing cards, but when someone talked football or Formula One, heated debates arose. I'd never heard them talk about cycling before, but with the Tour in full swing the talk of the Cafe des Platanes turned to the Tour de France.

"The Tour is a long race," my friend Joao told me, "but this year it's Fignon's. And that's good for the sport too. It's good to have a French guy win the Tour de France." I didn't know enough about the sport to challenge them. Apparently they didn't know enough about Greg Lemond. Nobody did.

Sure enough when the race got to the Pyrenees, Lemond had very little team support, and Fignon's Super U team lead the charge up the prickly hot climbs. Lemond was able to hang with Fignon for most of the climbs but on the final ascents, he gave ground. With two weeks gone and the race heading into the Alps, Laurent Fignon was in Yellow.

The first stage in the Alps was a contra la montre heading straight up to the ski lifts in the town of Gap, just a hundred kilometers from Les Avenières. So far Fignon had proved the superior climber, and Lemond, still in second place, was dismissed as burned out and hoping to stay in the top ten. We had to do three shows that day, and I was sprinting back and forth between the ticket booth and the show site to see what was going on. I did the high dive for the second show, but instead of running backstage with the team I jumped the show fence in my Speedo and ran back to the ticket booth to see who was setting the pace. Lemond and Fignon were the last two riders out of the gate and by the end of the day Lemond had again turned the cycling world on its saddle by pulling ahead of Fignon and taking over the Yellow Jersey.

"That's very interesting," Jackie said, "If he's still this strong this late in the race, he's no pretender. These last couple of days are going to be a dog fight." We looked at the remaining stages of the Tour and just ahead was the legendary climb to Alpe D'Huez. Devin from the Casa was coming into town, and I'd already called my day off. We were going to drive up to the top of Alpe D'Huez to catch cycling's equivalent of the Super Bowl. And we had an American in the Yellow Jersey.
After the last show, I picked up Devin and met his girlfriend and future wife, Sharon, in La Tour du Pin. It was great to see Devin on the road again (he had showed up to take pictures in Berlin), and Sharon seemed like she was in the mood to do anything. Sharon had never seen the Alps before, and she was content to gaze at the cliffs and peaks while Devin and I caught up on what was going on back in Cheeseland. They didn't care about the race, but they could tell that I was consumed by it. A friend of mine from Champaign, Don Hannigan, was also passing through and was pretty psyched for the trip.

The next day the three of them watched a day's worth of diving shows, then we piled into the Polski and headed for Bourg d'Oisans just a few kilometers past Grenoble. The sun set while we had dinner at a small café, then we loaded back into the Polski and began the 23-switchback climb to the top of Alpe D'Huez. Alpe D'Huez isn't the longest or the highest climb in the Tour, but it is the steepest and most difficult. Ten-minute leads have been cut to shreds in a matter of a few kilometers. Some of the Tour's climbs flatten out at least a little along the route, but Alpe D'Huez is 18 kilometers (11 miles) of pure hell. We were getting dizzy looking over the side of the mountain along the drive. Climbing it on a bike with the world's fittest athletes on your tail would be insane.

The sides of the road were packed with Dutch cycling fans wanting a stage win from Gert Jan Theunisse, the current holder of the red and white polka dot King of the Mountain jersey. There were so many Dutch cars along the road that the French Gendarmes actually hired a platoon of Dutch police. L'Equipe had estimated that more than 400,000 spectators would line the course with most of them saturating the final few kilometers of Alpe D'Huez. The fans that made it up early had spray-painted the names of their favorites in big white letters across the road. For every 'Lemond' sign we drove over there were 50 'Fignons'. We were on their turf, and the Frenchies were letting it be known. When we got to the top we found a grass parking lot and set up our tents. The city of Alpe D'Huez was packed to the brim but surprisingly quiet. That wouldn't last long.

We woke up to a glorious blue sky supported by dozens of sharp-ridged, snow-covered Alpine peaks. Below the summits were layers of Alpine meadow in full bloom that lined the mountain streams all the way down to our tents. The day's course was 100 miles covering two 2,000-meter (more than 6000 ft.) passes before finishing with the climb to Alpe D'Huez, the most grueling leg in the sport of cycling. As the loudspeakers in town announced the start of the race the temperature was just hitting 70 degrees. In less than an hour the thermometer was pushing 85. That meant that in the valleys between the climbs the riders would be looking at temperatures in the mid 90's.

I'd been riding every day and thought I was in decent shape, but after watching a dozen or so gray-haired tourists climb to the summit of Alpe D'Huez I realized I wasn't even in the game. I'd done a couple of smaller climbs around Les Avenières, but I hadn't even thought of the major climbs I could see from the high dive ladder. I considered myself a fairly avid cyclist, but now I could see I hadn't even started. I was feeling light-headed from the altitude, and people twice my age were topping off a 2,000- meter climb. I never felt so inadequate in all my life.
The four of us ate lunch, then found a stream and doused ourselves with freezing cold water before walking back to town and finding our spot along the road. The finish line was completely packed, so we took a spot at the very top of the hill where the riders would crest before making their final sprint. The overhead speakers were loud and tinny and difficult to understand, but I could make out that Theunisse had broken away and had a three-minute lead entering Bourg d'Oaisan. The pack had completely broken up, and the lead group consisted of Fignon, Delgado, Lemond and the Columbian climber, Alberto Rincon. The superstars had left even the great climbers Hampsten and Rooks far down the mountain.

Before the riders passed through town, the Tour's publicity caravan arrived throwing out water bottles, cassette tapes, hats and anything else a sponsor might be selling. After the caravan came an army of support vehicles carrying hundreds of extra wheels and bikes. Finally the television helicopters rose out of the valley, and we knew the riders were only minutes away. There was so much noise that nobody could understand the loudspeakers.

The Dutch fans, all dressed in red and white polka dot shirts, were tensely awaiting their hero, Theunisse, while the French were dying to see Fignon take some time off Lemond's lead. There was also a cadre of Spaniards hoping for Delgado to avenge his opening error with a great stage win. The American contingent consisted of ... well... the four of us. Not only did Lemond not have a team, he didn't even have a fan base to back him up. We didn't meet any other Americans all day. Our countryman was winning the world's toughest endurance challenge and nobody in America even knew.

As leaders approached, the roar was deafening. The crowd squeezed so tightly into the road that there was barely enough room for the TV motorcycles to pass through. We saw the army of Dutch fans go wild on the switch back just below us, so we knew that Theunisse had kept his lead. A few seconds later he blew by us looking like he was on a morning stroll.

Now it was time for Lemond to pull over the top. We were screaming our lungs out as we saw the crowd make way for the second group. But when they came up to us we saw only the pony-tailed Fignon and the handsome Spaniard Pedro Delgado. No Lemond in sight.

A minute passed and the crowd began to cheer another rider. This time it was Delgado's teammate, the tiny Columbian Rincon. A minute after that an exhausted Greg Lemond powered up the hill and dug for all he was worth. He looked tired and dehydrated, but he was digging up the switchback trying to recapture all the precious seconds he'd lost. We found out later that he'd missed his food bag at the feeding station and had been running on empty ever since the bottom of the climb. He was driving hard for the finish, but on this day it wasn't enough. At the end of the day, with only one day of climbing and a short contra la montre in Paris, Greg Lemond was 33 seconds behind Laurent Fignon.

We'd had a brilliant day on the mountain, but as we sat in the three-hour traffic jam on the way back to Grenoble we all had the look of defeat on us. We were tired and sunburned, but seeing a Yellow Jersey on Lemond at the end of the day would have soothed everything. I wasn't looking forward to the trash talking at the Platanes the next day.

The four of us spent the night at Jean Pierre's new house in Virieu high above the Bourbe River valley, just a few kilometers from Grenoble. In the morning I dropped Don, Devin and Sharon off at La Tour du Pin and drove the Polski back to Buvin to pick up the divers. When I saw Jackie at the ticket booth he was happy with the result, but he said it was far from over. "Thirty-three seconds isn't much," he said. "The way Lemond's been racing against the clock he could still do it."
That day we watched the last mountain stage that ended at Villard de Lans - the same place where Ted and I had watched Delgado take the tour lead the year before. Theunisse was cooked from his incredible climb to Alpe D'Huez, leaving Lemond, Fignon, and Delgado once again on the final climb. A few kilometers from the top, Fignon, now in Yellow, took off from the front of the pack catching Delgado and Lemond by surprise. Lemond urged Delgado to join him on the counter attack but Delgado was cooked. Pedro had raced himself from last place back to a spot on the podium in Paris, but the Yellow Jersey was out of his reach. Lemond had to get Fignon himself. He made an impressive charge but Fignon held off. The 33 seconds that would be difficult to make up in Paris had now turned into an all-but impossible 50 seconds. The Tour was over. Lemond's valiant comeback from the hunting accident was falling one step short. Laurent Fignon had sewn up his third Tour de France title.

"C'est fini!" Jackie said. "Lemond was incredible, but you can't be gone from racing for two years and hope to win the Tour de France. Other races, maybe, but not this one. It's just too damn demanding."

I did my last show then rode disconsolately back to the Platanes. The Portuguese were trash talking and reassuring me that I didn't know shit about the sport. The kinder of the bunch told me that nobody had ever ridden from out of nowhere like Lemond. He had no reason to hang his head. Second place in the Tour de France isn't a bad feat by anyone's standard.

Stage 19 finished in Aix Les Baines, just past the first Alpine ridge from Les Avenières. Right before I had to leave the ticket booth for the last show, I saw Lemond break away from a pack of favorites and outsprint Fignon for his second stage win of the Tour. He was happy with the win, but when a French reporter asked him if it made up for losing the Tour he got pissed. "I've still got two days to race!" he said.

The riders started Stage 20, the last mass start of the Tour, in Aix Les Baines, and then followed the Rhone toward Lyon. We pushed our 1:00 show back so we could drive out to the river and watch the riders go by. They passed along a tiny road just below the Ranch Marin in Buvin, but they were riding very slowly and maintaining the peloton. It was a day for the sprinters as the race stayed grouped up all the way to the finish in L'isle d'Abeau. Only the final day in Paris remained.

It was a Saturday night in Les Avenières, and I went into the Platanes with a bit more attitude than usual. After a pile of drinks the trash talking started up again, and I was talking with my beer voice. "Fifty seconds isn't shit," I said. "It's a 26-click (16 mile) race - I'll take on anyone in this bar right now. We'll go 26 clicks and I guarantee I'll beat you by more than fifty seconds!"
Gerard told me that if I tried to ride 26 kilometers after what I drank I'd end up fifty seconds from death. "Look," I said. "If Fignon wins tomorrow I'll buy you all a drink. If Lemond wins tomorrow, I drink next week for free." There were about ten people around and they all eagerly took the bet. I got on my bike and stubbornly swerved the three clicks back to Buvin.

I woke up with a cement block for a forehead and barely made it to the park in time for show call. I launched off a half-loopy gainer double high dive at the end of the first show so I could get it out of the way. I didn't want to think of anything else the rest of the day but the damn race. Normally the finale of the Tour de France is a mass start race ending in ten laps around the Champs Elysees, the most prestigious sprint in the sport of cycling.

This final stage, however, was a rarity. The Tour de France changes its route every year, and in 1989, for the first time in over 20 years, the finish of the Tour would be a contra la montre finishing at the base of the Arc de Triumph. The watch races are usually 50 to 75 kilometers long, but this one, at 26 kilometers, would be one of the shortest in Tour history. Luckily Jackie had picked up L'Equipe because I was running too late to stop off at the Maison de la Press to buy my copy. The headline read "Fignon, King of the Sun," the title the paper traditionally throws on the champ. According to the journalists this thing was over.

The first few riders had already finished and Thierry Marie, a Frenchman known for short time trials, held the day's fastest time. But being more than two hours behind Lemond and Fignon in the standings, he was no threat for the overall title. The announcers were going over the perfectly flat course and explaining how it would be impossible for Fignon, an excellent time trialer in his own right, to lose such a huge gap in such a short time. Based on Marie's time, Lemond would have to ride the fastest time-trial in the history of cycling to make up the 50-second gap. Either that or Fignon, an ice cold competitor who looked so strong the last few days of the tour, would have to collapse on the most important day of his life. It would probably take a combination of the two and neither was remotely likely to happen.

Back at Walibi, we did our second show in front of a packed summer crowd of 2,500 people. Before drying off, Jen and I hurried back to the ticket booth to watch Lemond's ride. In college I would have died to have 2,500 people gasp over a couple of big dives, but after witnessing the challenges that the Tour riders face, I just wanted to be a sports fan.

When we got to the ticket booth and found our seats in front of the 10-inch screen, Lemond was already on the course, tucked away on his brand new aerodynamic triathlon handlebars. Even though he'd won the first time trial using them, none of the riders followed his lead because of the extra weight they added to the bike. Lemond's head was pressed against his outstretched arms, and he was breathing to the side as if he were swimming the crawl. The camera kept pointing to the massive 57-cog gear he was pulling with the ease of a finely tuned motorcycle engine. As he passed the intermediate time he was a good 30 seconds ahead of Marie's mark.
Fignon jumped on the course three minutes after Lemond without even wearing an aerodynamic helmet. His long blond hair was tightly tied leaving his thin ponytail dangling behind. As Lemond blew across the pavement his body was motionless, aside from his piston-like thighs. Fignon was restless, often standing in his cleats trying to crank up extra speed. At the last check point Lemond had obliterated Marie's time and was firing down the Rive Gauche, closing in on the Arc de Triumph with each powerful stroke. He took the last few turns through La Place de la Concorde without breaking stride leaning hard into the pavement. He righted his bike and took only a few more breaths before blasting past the finishing panels faster than anyone in the history of the sport. 200 meters, 150 meters, 100 meters, 50 meters, finally he flew past the Fiat finish sign painted across the Champs Elysees.

When Lemond’s final time stopped on the television Jen and I pounded our fists. He had done his half of the bargain. He had just ridden a stage of the Tour de France at over 54 kilometers an hour (33.5 mph), shattering the existing record. Thierry Marie, who up to that point was considered the best short time-trialist on the globe, was over a minute and a half behind. That in itself was a Ruthian achievement.

Now it was Fignon's turn to answer. He was well behind Lemond's time, but surely he couldn't lose his 50 second overall advantage. He'd won several time trial stages over the course of his first two Tour de France victories, and he had to be in better form than those years. All eyes were on him as he struggled to stay in his seat and maintain position. He stood again and again, trying to pick up the tempo, but all it did was push wind against his chest. His bike started to rock, and as he cruised around La Place de la Concorde he stopped his pedaling to maintain his balance. Now he was blasting down the Champs Elysees, with Lemond's time parked in the lower left corner of our small TV. By this time a crowd of thirty people had gathered around the haunted house, and Jackie and Jeanine had turned the TV out so everyone could see. Fignon had long since passed Lemond's time but he still carried that 50 second overall lead going into this final stage. As his clock continued to move against Lemond's frozen figure, I started screaming out the difference to the crowd. If the difference grew to more than 50 seconds, Lemond would have pulled off the impossible.

"Thirty seconds!" I yelled. The formerly confident French faces now turned quiet and stared at the TV. Fignon was visibly suffering, throwing every fiber of his thighs into each pedal stroke.

"Forty seconds!" Jackie stiffened up and pounded his fist on the counter.

"Forty-Five seconds," I yelled. "He's gonna do it!" The Frenchmen looked at the TV - Fignon had just passed the 150-meter marker.

"Forty-Six! Forty-Seven! It's Over!" I screamed, " Forty-Nine! FIFTY!! He DID IT!!! HE DID IT!! HE FUCKING DID IT!!!"

Jen and I hugged each other as the crowd of Frenchman threw their hands up in the air in disgust. Lemond was hugging his wife and son on the Champs while Fignon collapsed in a pile on the finish line. He'd won the 23-day 3,300-kilometer (2,050 mile) bike race by eight seconds - by far the closest margin in Tour de France history. Jackie, always calm, simply nodded his head and said, "Chapeau les Americans - C'est encore le votre." (Hats off, Americans - it's yours again.)
Jen and I jumped out from behind the ticket booth and danced around the park singing, "On a gagne!" (We won!) in our worst American accents. The Frenchies didn't get what we were going off about until they put two and two together. Either they'd seen our show and knew we were Americans or they heard the accent and had to figure out what we meant. Undoubtedly after we passed they would take a second to think about it then throw their hands up in the air and say, "C'est pas vrai!" (This can't be true!)

At that point in the season we were in such a groove that every show seemed the same. But the show after Lemond's victory was a memorable one. I grabbed the mic before the show started and announced the race results to the groan of the overflow French crowd. Every time I had the chance I took the microphone out of Philippe's hand and again shouted, "On a gagne!" I'd always taken pride in not being the loud ugly American, but when your countryman wins the Tour de France it's time to stand up and be counted.

After the show I ran back to the ticket booth and asked Jackie if I could have his copy of L'Equipe. "It won't do me any good," he said. I tucked it into the belt holding my hip sack, mounted my Peugeot and sprinted up the hill towards Les Avenières. Just before I hit the Platanes I pulled the paper out and rode by the cafe with the giant proclamation of Fignon's victory right in their face. I wasn't alive for "Dewey Defeats Truman," but this was much sweeter.

I pulled up a seat at the bar and hoisted my first glass. "To Greg Lemond, the greatest athlete in the world!" I said. "Victory party in Buvin tonight!"
One of the Portuguese sports addicts at the bar filled my glass and raised his for another toast. "To the Tour de France!" he said, "The greatest sporting event in the world!"

Jackie and Jeanine took Jen and me out for a victory dinner, and Gerard brought a case of Champagne from the Platanes to the house in Buvin. We toasted Lemond deep into the night, and I passed out using the newspaper for a blanket. When I woke the next morning, I slowly lifted my head and the first thing I saw was the newspaper from the morning before. I reread the articles announcing the sure victory of the great French champion, Fignon. I felt like shit, but by afternoon my hangover was gone. Laurent Fignon's would last a lifetime.