Paris — The cyclists rode for 26 long days. They covered a phenomenomal 2,500 miles, starting in the confines of West Berlin, passing over the rolling hills of the Vosges, through the golden fields of Champagne and Normandy, up the Pyrenees, then the Alps before finishing Sunday on the Champs Elysees. But at the end, the Tour de France came down to seconds.
Irishman Steven Roche sped by Spaniard Pedro Delgado on the second-to-last day of competition and held on to win by a mere 40 seconds. Roche's lead translated into less than half a mile, and was the second smallest margin of victory in the race, which began in 1903.
Despite its slimness, Roche's victory symbolized a changing era for cycling and its premier event. Until recently, continental Europeans dominated the competition, while a musty image of provincial France began to settle over the tradition-bound tour.
Polls suggest that the tour's audience may be aging. More than 70 percent of Frenchmen over age 50 have attended the race at least once in their lives compared to only 35 percent of those less than 25 years old. Of even greater concern is the fact that the event lost money for several years and is now only barely profitable.
Over the winter, the tour's two long-time directors engaged in a nasty public spat which ended with the resignation of 76-year-old Felix Levitan. The other director, 82-year-old Jacques Goddet, declared that this would be his last tour and brought in a Harvard Business School-educated successor, 46-year-old Jean-Francois Naquet-Radiguet.
''I always thought of cycling as a working-class sport,'' says Naquet-Radiguet. ''I discovered a sport esthetically as beautiful as tennis.''
Naquet-Radiquet wants the tour to emulate the enormously successful French Tennis Championships at Roland Garros. He wants the tour to attract attention worldwide. In the first step towards achieving his goal, he launched this year's event far from France, in West Berlin. Soon, he hopes to sponsor a large world championship.
Success by foreign riders promises to speed the sport's internationalization. Not long ago, French and Belgians dominated, their monopoly broken only by occasional victories by other Europeans. Now riders from around the world are making their mark. Last year, Greg LeMond became the first American to win. This year, Mexican Raul Alcala was voted best rider under age 24, Colombian Luis Herrera finished fifth, and of course the top two places went to Roche and Delgado.
This year's race, in fact, was the most wide-open tour in memory. LeMond was absent because of a hunting accident and long-time French superstar Bernard Hinault had finally retired after amassing five victories.
Through the early part of the race, the leader's yellow jersey went from rider to rider. But Roche and the other favorites were waiting for the mountain stages.
It is on the tough climbs where the tour traditionally is decided, where champions are separated from the mere mortals. In the Alps, some early hopefuls such as American Andy Hampsten rode themselves out of contention. But no one rider could take a commanding lead.
Tension mounted. In the final Alps stages, the two top French riders, Jean-Francois Bernard and Charley Mottet faltered just enough to let Delgado pass them. Roche followed, just 21 seconds behind.
The climax came in a dramatic duel on the next-to-last day in Dijon. The course was short (23.6 miles) and flat, with only one small hill, and the riders competed against the watch in a time trial. In this format, strategy counted for little and brute speed for everything.
Roche sprinted quickly from the starting booth, and the Spanish rider could not keep up. By the end of the day, the Irishman was ahead and the tour was all but over. It is almost impossible for a rider to make up time on the flat ride into Paris. A dejected Delgado told reporters that the last day of the tour down the Champs Elysees ``is little more than a Sunday promenade.''
He was right. With his teammates surrounding him to protect against a flat tire or a fall, Roche kept near the front of the pack and sped around the Champs Elysees six times. When he crossed the finish line, becoming the first rider from his nation ever to win the tour, the 27-year-old son of a Dublin milkman raised his arms and broke into a radiant smile.
``Today, I will savor the victory,'' Roche said. ``Tommorrow or later, I will savor the effects of the victory. I am not yet ready to realize what I have accomplished.''
He has accomplished much. Only one year ago, Roche was hindered by injuries and finished only 48th in the tour. This season has been different. Two months ago, he won the Tour of Italy. His victory in the Tour de France makes him only the fifth rider to record cycling's grand slam in the same year. The others were Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, and Hinault - four of the greatest racers ever.
Will he be ranked among these greats?
``One would have thought that Roche was too fragile,'' commented Anquetil. ``Two years ago, the Irishmen told me that the Tour de France was too long for him. This shows how much progress he has made.''
To win the tour again, Roche will need to continue progressing. LeMond is planning his comeback. Delgado will be gunning for the victory that was so close this time. And of course the top French riders will be going all out to reclaim the championship in their own event.
Only one thing looks sure: the rivalries portend another exciting tour.