Cycling: Tour de France: LeMond's overriding ambition: Robin Nicholl in San Sebastian talks with the single-minded American who is hoping the voyage of discovery he starts today will realise his final aim of a fourth Tour victory

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GREG LeMOND, like Christopher Columbus 500 years ago, is in a Spanish port preparing for a voyage of discovery. The 79th Tour de France and its 198 riders are in San Sebastian making ready for a gruelling three-week journey.

The 3,830-kilometre route, which breaks new ground, is the organisers' salute to the birth of the new Europe. It will take the Tour into France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany and Italy with more than 10 million francs ( pounds 1m) in prize- money to be won.

Like Columbus, LeMond has travelled great distances to win fame and is sponsored by foreign cash. It is 89 years since Henri Desgrange founded the Tour and six since the American became the first English-speaker to win it. Now, as then, LeMond is aided by French sponsorship in his efforts to gain a fourth Tour triumph after being considered a failure for finishing seventh last year.

'Many highly paid riders would have loved to have finished where I did. They work all their careers for such a position. I get one, and it is regarded by some as a disaster,' LeMond said.

On this trip LeMond will discover just how much he has profited from the agonies of last year when a blood virus and a tired team left him exposed on crucial mountain stages.

'I want to win again, just one last time. That is truly why I am still racing. Last year was disappointing, but it was a new experience and I learned from it. What happened last year made me appreciate even more my Tour victories, and made me realise the price that has to be paid.'

His sole motivation is the Tour, a single-mindedness that represents one of the breaks with tradition the die-hards will not forgive him for. This will be his seventh Tour, and at 32 LeMond does not feel finished. 'Everyone puts an age limit on us, but Bernard Hinault and Sean Kelly had some of their best wins between 30 and 35,' LeMond said.

That does not rule out anyone under 30, especially if he is named Miguel, is the nearest San Sebastian has to a local hero, and is thirsting for a double seldom achieved in cycling.

Three weeks ago Miguel Indurain won the Giro d'Italia and began believing that he could emulate Stephen Roche. In 1987 the Dubliner won the tours of Italy and France, and then went on to a treble, achieved previously only by the Belgian Eddy Merckx, in taking the world road race title.

It is a bonus for Indurain that that event is being held in Valencia in September, but for now the Tour demands, as only it can, full commitment. 'It is my main preoccupation, and while I won the Giro it was essential for me to finish it without being tired,' Indurain said. 'The Tour is going to be much harder to win.'

His Italian triumph took him to No 1 in the world computer rankings, dislodging Gianni Bugno. With another Italian, Claudio Chiappucci, third, the top three mirrored the finishing order in the 1991 Tour.

The outcome of the Tour is likely to be decided by the top three and LeMond, although Kelly, Roche, Robert Millar and Sean Yates could offer a significant challenge, but time and tactics will tell.

Racing begins today with an individual time trial over eight kilometres when for the fourth year running Thierry Marie can claim the race leader's yellow jersey for France, even if it is only for a day.

It is the longer races against the clock that clinch Tour victories. LeMond won by eight seconds on a last-day time trial in 1990 to win the Tour from Laurent Fignon, who had been leading at the start of the final event. Mountain passes, too, are often the grindstone of ambition, such as that of Millar in 1984. Then he peaked for Britain, winning the polka dot jersey of best climber via his favourite mountains, the Pyrenees. They are not on the itinerary this year, but the nine Alpine climbs in two days that will take the race in and out of Italy are also likely to see a specialist take and then concede the leader's colours.

First, however, the swashbuckling sprinters will ignite the racing on tomorrow's first road-racing stage, a 194-km leg which starts and finishes in San Sebastian. Djamolidine Abdoujaparov from Tashkent, returns to cross swords with the likes of the Italian Mario Cippolini, Olaf Ludwig, of Germany, and the Belgian rider Johan Museeuw.

Abdoujaparov's over-aggressive finishing technique (he was carried from the Champs Elysees at the end of last year's Tour after crashing) provides an extra peril in a race that bristles with danger, and not all of it from the racing.

France is in the grip of protesting farmers and lorry drivers. They are blockading roads in a fury either at the agricultural policy of the European Community or the imposition of new licencing regulations on drivers.

The question of the Basque nation is a longer and deeper issue, but their militants, like the farmers, truckers and team sponsors, recognise the Tour, with coverage by 1,000 journalists and photographers, 26 television channels and 40 radio stations, as a chance not to be missed.

(Photograph omitted)

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