Last week as the Tour de France got under way, it found itself in a state of some discombobulation. After rolling over 949 miles, through parts of two countries and over one dog, the 74th edition of the world's greatest bicycle race was nearly half completed, yet somehow incomplete, too.
Without the two men who had battled each other so dramatically last summer—America's Greg LeMond, the defending champion, was convalescing from gunshot wounds suffered in a turkey hunting mishap, and his erstwhile teammate and nemesis, France's Bernard Hinault, was newly retired—no one could oblige the Gallic clamor for a front-runner, DESPERATELY SEEKING FAVORITE, the headline in L'�quipe, France's sports daily, implored as the Tour began in West Berlin on July 2. With none to be found, the French seemed thrown for a loop, as if a clock in one of their provincial church towers had just struck 13.
If pressed, most of the Tour's 200-odd engag�s would probably predict that Ireland's Stephen Roche will emerge from their ranks as the race wends its way through the Pyrenees and the Alps over the next two weeks, and that he will eventually take the lead from France's Martial Gayant, the wearer, as of Sunday, of the coveted yellow jersey.
Roche, the winner of the Giro d'Italia in June, leapfrogged to sixth in the overall Tour standings on Friday with an emphatic win in the 87.5-kilometer Saumur-to-Futuroscope time trial. But the Irishman has a history of falling short in the Tour as well as a distaste for heat and height, both of which the forthcoming stages have in abundance. Says 7-Eleven team leader Andy Hampsten, who stood 50th on Sunday, "There's no boss since Hinault is not here, so everyone's looking at Roche. And Roche is wishing they'd look elsewhere."
Look elsewhere and you can find successors to LeMond and Hinault, only they're not heirs, but heiresses. In the fourth women's Tour de France, which began late last week in Sabl�-sur-Sarthe, Italy's Maria Canins, winner of the past two Tours, is again battling to fend off France's own Jeannie Longo, the current world champion and winner of virtually every title in women's cycling—except a Tour de France.
Their rivalry has elements of Chris and Martina—which is to say it's fierce but friendly—with a dash of Mary Decker and Zola Budd thrown in. During the cycling road race at the L.A. Olympics, Longo appeared to be a clear winner with 500 meters to go. At that point, Canins's wheel hit Longo's derailleur, damaging it so severely that Longo had to finish on foot. "[Rebecca] Twigg was immediately in front of me, and I decided to stay there," says Canins, who came in fifth. "Longo tried to cut in between us. Usually I back off when that happens, but I thought, I can't let this opportunity go,' and I didn't budge. Longo's pedal got into my front wheel. Her misfortune was not my fault." Longo remembers the incident differently but says, "I like Maria. She would never hurt me and I wouldn't hurt her."
Canins and Longo come from similar backgrounds, if starkly different circumstances. Each competed originally as a skier—Canins is married to a ski instructor, Longo to a ski coach—and each took up cycling at first primarily to keep in shape. But Longo, who grew up comfortably in Grenoble, has a college education and plays the piano. Canins is the daughter of a street sweeper in La Villa, a simple town in the Dolomites. She left school at 14 to apprentice as a cook at a local hotel. Stop by La Villa, where Canins still lives, with her husband Bruno Bonaldi and their nine-year-old daughter, Concetta, and you might find her specialty, Lasagna Diana.
Longo is forceful and something of a rebel, whether using her influence to effect coaching changes on the French national team or writing occasionally on cycling for L'Humanit�, the French Communist Party daily. "I'm not the conventional type," she says. "I never run with the majority."
But all of France shares her obsession to win the Tour. A former Alpine and slalom skier, Longo is a superior sprint cyclist. Canins, by contrast, won the past two Tours on her climbing ability, honed by years of cross-country skiing. "For this year I increased my climbing training," says Longo, who can usually take advantage of Canins's still-crude tactical sense, even though, at 38, Canins is nearly 10 years her senior. "I'm much better now, but I don't know whether it'll be enough to win. I did the mountain passes even in winter. Patrice [her husband] would wait at the top with the car in the snow to drive me down."
After four of the women's 15 stages, Canins and Longo stood second and third—41 and 53 seconds, respectively behind Roberta Bonanomi, Canins's Italian teammate. The women race according to amateur rules, which limit their daily distances to 95 kilometers, or a little less than half the length of a typical men's stage. This year, perhaps to help one of their own win the race, the Soci�t� du Tour de France has chosen an even shorter and less mountainous route. About that, Canins is philosophical. "If Longo wins this year, it would be better for women's cycling," she says. "I personally find it more interesting when Lendl doesn't win at Wimbledon."