WILMINGTON, Del. -- Four of the best international bicycle racers in the world sat side-by-side yesterday. They were all smiles. They were all friends. They were all painting a very pretty picture for the Tour Du Pont, the 11-stage road race that begins here today and finishes in Washington May 17.
Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and Gianni Bugno, the No. 1-ranked rider in the world, were there. Beside Bugno was two-time Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon, who is probably best known in the United States for losing a 50-second lead to LeMond on the final stage of the 1989 Tour de France.
Sitting between LeMond and Bugno was Atle Kvalsvoll, LeMond's Z teammate, the man who can best relate to Fignon, after having lost a 50-second lead to the Netherlands' Erik Breukink on the final day of the Tour Du Pont last year, to finish as the runner-up for the second year in a row.
Now they are all here for the Tour Du Pont, the 1,000-mile road race that is in its fourth year. The race begins today with a 5 p.m. prologue time trial around Wilmington.
Each of these world-class competitors is being very gracious, trying to speak only of non-controversial subjects.
"I hope the weather is good," Bugno said.
"I am very happy to be here," said Fignon. "The weather is very nice."
But what about the race? What about winning?
"I'm glad Gianni and Laurent Fignon are finally here," said LeMond. "I don't consider any one of these guys my rival. I just want to do as well as I can against whomever is trying to beat me at the time. I just want to use Bugno and Fignon as a gauge and try to come up to their level."
Fignon said through an interpreter that he is not here to steal LeMond's thunder in his homeland, the way LeMond stole his in France.
"I want my revenge in the Tour de France," Fignon said in French, smiling.
"He's joking, I'm sure," said LeMond. "We're not clashing with each other."
"I think I am going to do good," said Fignon.
"I hope we will do very good," said Bugno.
American rider Davis Phinney, who earned the Sprint Championship in this race a year ago, listened to the conversations and couldn't conceal his expectations.
"It's going to be a very interesting race, with all those big dogs," Phinney said. "It's a race that will give the American riders a chance to see how they measure up against these guys. And by putting the hard climbs at the end of each day's course . . . each of these guys is going to have to show his heart.
"It's also going to be interesting to see Bugno and Fignon compete here, because they're out of their element."
In any other year, Bugno and Fignon, who both race for Gatorade, would be competing in the Giro d'Italia that begins May 24. But not this time. The Italian media has been on Bugno, who is off to a slow start this season, and Gatorade team manager Gianluigi Stanga decided to go all out in the Tour Du Pont.
"We've brought our best team to try to achieve the best result," he said, denying Bugno or anyone else on his team might be here to avoid the Italian press.
"I'm really very proud to be in the United States," Bugno said. "Half the people in Italy are upset and the other half are with me here. This race is increasing in terms of importance and not only is this a good race for the team, but it is a good race for my training."
No one doubts Bugno, Fignon and LeMond are favorites. Not only are they individually superior to most riders, but the teams around them are also stocked for success.
Joining Bugno and Fignon is Dirk De Wolf, last month's winner of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic in Belgium. Joining LeMond is Kvalsvoll,who has never come in here as a favorite, but for the last two years has wound up challenging for the winner's jersey.
"I have thought a lot about how much I would like not to be second-best in this race," Kvalsvoll said. "I would like very much to win. We'll see. Last year, 50 seconds was not enough of a lead. This year, the competition has gotten harder. So, it seems I must build a bigger lead if I can before I come to the last day and the last time trial."
When: Today, 5 p.m.
Where: Wilmington, Del.
Outlook: A three-mile prologue time trial kicks off this international bike race, which will travel through four states on an 11-day, 1,000-mile journey for the final time trial in Washington, Sunday, May 17. The race will be televised each day. CBS will carry the race Sunday and May 17, and ESPN will carry half-hour recaps daily. Among the riders to watch: Gianni Bugno and Laurent Fignon of Team Gatorade, Greg LeMond and Atle Kvalsvoll of Team Z, Mike Engleman and Alexi Grewal of Coors Light and American amateurs Lance Armstrong and Bobby Julich of Skittles.