AIX-LES-BAINS, France -- The bright eyes, the broad smile, the charm returned to Greg LeMond's face yesterday. He was still the beaten champion, but he no longer looked beaten or sounded beaten.
He said that, yes, this year's Tour de France had taught him some rugged lessons and had whipped the daylights out of his body. But, just in case anyone had any doubts, he announced that he would be back for at least "two or three more" assaults on the world's greatest cycling race.
"I can't give up," he said, sitting on the step of his team van as a crowd crushed in around him after the close of yesterday's 19th stage.
"This is too important, and quitting would be too easy now. It's possible I will have days as bad as I've had in the next two or three Tour de France [races], and I'll want to come back like I did today."
The day after suffering through one of the worst cycling days of his career, LeMond rebounded to finish fourth in yesterday's 110-mile trek from Morzine to Aix-les-Bains.
Dmitri Konyshev of the Soviet Union won the stage, while Switzerland's Pascal Richard and Spain's Eduardo Chozas were second and third.
Spain's Miguel Indurain held onto the lead for the seventh consecutive day. Indurain still has a three-minute advantage over Italy's Gianni Bugno with three stages left.
LeMond was going for an unprecedented third consecutive Tour victory.
He said he has been searching for explanations for the fatigue that gripped him first in the Pyrenees, then early this week in the Alps. It came unexpectedly, LeMond said, because he had started this Tour on July 6 in Lyon feeling as good as ever.
"When I'm in condition, like I was at the beginning, I never go down," he said. "But I was severely tired the last few days, abnormallytired. My father-in-law is here, and he's a doctor, and he said it could have been a small infection. I've had saddle sores and bad feet, and he said I could have been infected there."
Much was made of a blood test he took last week that revealed a high white-cell count, but LeMond stressed that he did not want to make excuses.
By the time he came through the Alps, LeMond had dropped from fourth to eighth place, where he will likely finish. In the past, he primed himself for victory on peaks such as l'Alpe d'Huez and Col de la Colombiere; this year, he finished 29th overall in the three-stage trek through the Alps, losing 7 minutes, 43 seconds to Indurain.
"I'm trying to keep it low-key, but I'm at a loss to explain the mystery," he said. "I was in very good condition, better than the last two years when I won. Believe me, you don't get second in the time trial [the eighth stage] behind Indurain with
out being in good condition. I'm not saying I could have won the thing -- I don't want to take anything away from Indurain at all -- but I don't feel what you saw [in the Alps] was Greg LeMond."
In yesterday's stage, over a grade-two mountain climb to another postcard setting on spectacular Lake Bourget, LeMond raced anew.
About halfway through the stage, he joined a small group of riders well ahead of the pack, but behind two breaking leaders, Konyshev and Richard. He stayed with the second group as it thinned to four while cresting a 1,418-meter mountain (4,653 feet), then outsurged all but one of those riders to the finish line.
"I've learned I can handle defeat, he said. "I always come to the Tour de France thinking I can't lose. I know I can lose -- no one is unbeatable. But when you suffer like I did yesterday, if you're losing, you hurt a lot more than if you're winning. When you're winning, everything seems easy."