Claudio Chiappucci and Greg LeMond cleared the final barrier to their rendezvous in Saturday's time trial of the Tour de France, staying five seconds apart after today's largely meaningless 19th stage.
Guido Bontempi of Italy won the stage after he broke away from the small lead group late in the 113.5-mile leg from Castillon la Bataille to Limoges in central France. Temperatures again were above 95 degrees.Chiappucci and LeMond stayed together for much of the race with barely a bicyle length between them except for one brief moment when LeMond dropped back for a small mechanical problem. He quickly rejoined the pack and hounded Chiappucci's back wheel in the final miles.
They were 6 minutes, 3 seconds behind Bontempi at the end as Bontepi won in 5 hours, 16 minutes 4 seconds.
Overall Chiappucci maintained his slim margin over LeMond, who is seeking his third Tour de France title.
Chiapucci is the latest foil for LeMond.
Last year it was Laurent Fignon. In 1986 it was Bernard Hinault. Both failed to stop LeMond from wearing the yellow jersey on the Champs Elysees after the race ends.
Nearly three weeks and 1,900 miles ago, Chiappucci was part of a four-rider breakaway that effectively gave them a 10-minute head start.
One-by-one they had their time in the spotlight - and one-by-one they were caught. Now it's Chiappucci's turn, as LeMond closed to within five seconds with superior performances in the mountains.
LeMond has been pointing to Lac Vassiviere for the chance to overtake the Italian. On the final day last year, LeMond wiped out a 50-second gap on Fignon on a course about half as long as Saturday's 28.5-mile circuit.
LeMond was unavailable for comment Friday as he cut himself off from the hordes of fans, followers, journalists and others who have been pressing him.
However, another former champion, Stephen Roche of Ireland, doesn't count out Chiappucci. Roche won in 1987 but has battled injuries since.
"It is not going to be easy for LeMond because Chiappucci is in great shape," Roche said. "Even depending on what happens Saturday, I don't think LeMond will sleep very good. I know Chiappucci and when he wants somethings he doesn't let up so easily."
Neither does LeMond when he wants the Tour de France title, the only one that really counts for him.
Publicity demands and his inability to say no to requests cost LeMond training time over the winter. Many questioned whether he would be ready in time. But that was then and this is the Tour de France.
Friday's 18th stage from Pau to Bordeaux on a sweltering day changed nothing in the gap between Chiappucci and LeMond.