Monday, March 3, 2014

Greg LeMond: (Still) America's Greatest

Greg LeMond today, at the Rapha Cycle Club in NYC.
The Rapha Cycle Club Store in New York's cobblestoned meat-packing district has a special exhibit this month featuring the bikes and assorted memorabilia from Greg LeMond -- still America's greatest road racing cyclist. (see Rapha's Site)
To me, this has long been a favorite image
of LeMond -- a rising star at age 15.

Greg LeMond's rise to fame very neatly coincides with my own discovery and interest in cycling, so in a way, I couldn't help but become a fan early on. In the mid-to-late 70s, LeMond was a teenager starting to make a name for himself in the American racing scene, often racing against (and often beating) older and far more experienced cyclists. In 1977, at age 15, he was the Junior National Road Race Champion. That same year, LeMond won two out of three selection races for the Junior World Championships, but shockingly was not given a spot on the team. In 1979, he repeated his National title and also became the Junior World Road Race Champion. Soon after, he was the youngest rider ever selected for the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team -- but never competed because of the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. That boycott was a blow to American cycling which was finally, after many dry decades, becoming a power to rival the Europeans. We would have to wait another four years to show the world what we could do, but the U.S. team would have to do it without LeMond.

After the Olympic boycott, LeMond turned pro in Europe -- something virtually unheard of for an American at the time. Cyrille Guimard, of the Renault-Elf-Gitane team, offered the young American a contract, beginning with the 1981 season. In that rookie season as a pro, LeMond won the Coors Classic stage race, beating the Russian gold medalist of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In 1982, he won the Tour de l'Avenir, which is seen by many as a predictor of future Tour de France success. That year he also came in 2nd in the World Championship road race, a race he would go on to win outright in '83 -- the first American to do so.

With Hinault as a teammate, Greg LeMond
had to prove he deserved a TdF victory.
(Bicycle Guide, Dec. 1986)
LeMond raced in his first Tour de France in 1984, where he finished 3rd overall, behind his team leader, Laurent Fignon. He also achieved the Tour's White Jersey, which is awarded to the best young rider. It was an impressive debut. In 1985, LeMond moved to the La Vie Claire team to support French cycling legend, Bernard Hinault, who was intent on winning his 5th Tour. In that race, LeMond actually was proving to outshine his team leader, and in a particularly difficult stage for Hinault, LeMond was ordered to slow down and wait for his leader to catch up -- thereby sacrificing what would almost surely have led to a LeMond victory in Paris. Instead, LeMond had to settle for second.

Still looking like a kid, the TdF Champion
at age 25.
In 1986, Hinault promised to help his teammate win as a reward for LeMond's sacrifice of the previous year. But there was no gift -- Hinault made LeMond work for it -- made him prove he was worthy of a TdF victory. After a tension-fueled battle of wits, nerves, and strength, LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France. He was also the first non-European and the first English-speaking rider to win. Interestingly enough, no Frenchman has won the Tour de France since Hinault in 1985.

Although LeMond was eager to defend his TdF victory in '87, it was not to be. The American injured his wrist in an early Spring race, then while taking a break to recover from the injury, ended up suffering an accident that could have ended not only his career but his life. While out hunting with with his brother-in-law, LeMond was accidentally shot with a terrible shotgun blast. He nearly bled to death, and the emergency surgery to save his life left behind more than 30 shotgun pellets, some of which are still carried in the lining of his heart to this day.

After the hunting accident, LeMond's comeback was slow and full of setbacks. He had been signed to the Dutch PDM team, which was a powerhouse of the time, but further injuries as well as LeMond's stance against doping led to tensions with the team. He ended up missing most of the 1988 season. For 1989, he joined the Belgian ADR team, which had more modest prospects than PDM, and LeMond's return to his previously dominant form was uncertain.

Watching Fignon's time, LeMond
realizes he's just won his second Tour.
(Winning Mag. Oct. '89)
The 1989 Tour de France turned out to be a historic return to the top. At the start of the Tour, few people considered LeMond a contender. But racing against former teammate and sometimes rival Laurent Fignon, LeMond showed that he really was back and serious. He started out respectably, and saw his form improve with each stage. Surprising many, perhaps even himself, LeMond traded the Yellow Jersey back and forth between himself and Fignon several times. Going into the Tour's final stage, Fignon had a 50-second advantage over LeMond -- a margin most people considered impossible to overcome, and in almost any other year would have been a virtual guarantee for a Fignon victory. Traditionally, the final stage into Paris is more ceremonial parade than cutthroat race -- a contest mainly for sprinters who would duke it out for a prestigious stage-win in the final kilometers while the race for the Yellow Jersey is considered settled. But the 1989 edition of the Tour ended with an individual time trial on the Champs Élysée.

Fignon, LeMond, and 1988 Champion Pedro Delgado.
Fignon looks disconsolate after losing by just 8 seconds.
(Bicycle Guide, Oct. '89)
Both LeMond and Fignon were excellent time trialists, so it still seemed unlikely, or rather impossible, that LeMond could bring back a 50-sec. deficit over the relatively short 24.5 km course. But LeMond, using the latest aerodynamic bars and wind-tunnel-tested helmet, flew through the course like a man possessed, streaking to a record-setting time, clocking the fastest time trial in TdF history. No cycling fan of the era can forget watching Fignon in the Yellow Jersey, with his blond hair in a ponytail, the last rider to leave the start-house, crossing the finish line 58 seconds slower than LeMond. He collapsed onto the pavement in tears. I'll always remember the look of shock on his face as he stood in 2nd place on the podium, trying to cope with the fact that LeMond had won the Tour by a mere 8 seconds -- still the closest margin in the race's history.

LeMond went on to win his second World Championship Road Race that year, and the following year won his third TdF -- surprisingly without a single stage win. He is one of only a small handful of riders to win the Tour three times. Although he should have had several more good years of racing ahead of him, in some ways 1990 marked the beginning of the decline. He struggled through the next couple of years and failed to shine in the grand tours. His biggest victory in those last racing years was the '92 Tour DuPont. He managed only 7th place in the '91 TdF, and abandoned the race in '92. He could not finish the '93 Giro d'Italia and didn't start in that year's Tour. In '94, he abandoned the Tour, the race that practically defined him for many fans, and retired from racing later that year.

Part of what may have led to LeMond's premature decline is sometimes attributed to the shotgun wounds he suffered in 1987, the effects of which continue to dog him today. But in speeches and statements given in more recent years, LeMond also puts some of the blame on unnatural changes in the competition. While doping in some form or other had been a part of professional sports for decades, the introduction of EPO (erythropoietin) into the pro peloton around 1989 - 90 completely changed the playing field. The use of EPO became so widespread, and its effects so dramatic, that it became almost impossible to compete at the top level without using it. In an article in CyclingNews, LeMond talked about how he was being routinely dropped by riders whom he used to be able to beat easily, and the pressure to perform became all-consuming. He was eventually convinced that it wasn't the training that had progressed to new levels, it was the doping.

Greg LeMond has become an outspoken critic of drug use in bicycle racing, for which he has suffered unfairly -- both personally and professionally. When LeMond began accusing Lance Armstrong of doping, based on the news that Armstrong was a "patient" of the notorious doping doctor Michele Ferrari, he was put under pressure by Trek Bicycles to recant. LeMond had been widely quoted as saying, "If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud." Trek was a major Armstrong sponsor, as well as the licensed manufacturer of LeMond's line of bicycles. When he refused to back off, the results were lawsuits and counter-suits, and eventually the end of LeMond bicycles (at least for a time -- a new line of bicycles made under license with another company has just been released -- see HERE -- and no, they are not in the least bit Retrogrouchy).
One of the new LeMond racing bikes, made by TIME of France.

After the Armstrong affair was settled, LeMond turned his attentions to UCI President, Pat McQuaid. As much as McQuaid and others in the leadership of professional racing wanted people to believe that doping somehow began and ended with Armstrong, LeMond very publicly called for a major shakeup in UCI leadership -- with a completely new attitude towards doping and a real commitment to stopping it. Through the investigation into Armstrong, as well as in other doping cases, numerous allegations were leveled against McQuaid and the UCI about bribes and coverups. Some journalists suggested that Greg LeMond would be a good replacement (I heartily agree), but the UCI and McQuaid were dismissive, and even threatened a defamation lawsuit against LeMond. As far as I know, such a suit against him was unsuccessful, though the UCI did prevail in a similar action against Floyd Landis (see HERE). McQuaid lost a reelection bid in the fall of 2013 and was replaced as UCI President by Brian Cookson, but time will tell if the leadership change represents a new commitment against doping.

In my teens, I was a huge fan of Greg LeMond. Today, given all that's happened in the sport of bicycle racing (not all of it good), the disgrace of Lance Armstrong, and all the related allegations of doping that have plagued the sport since LeMond's departure, I think that if anything, my esteem for him is even greater now than it was when he was actually racing over twenty years ago. If not for the hunting accident in '87, I'm certain he would have been a 5-time Tour de France champion. Perhaps if he'd not waited for Hinault in '85, he'd have been the only legitimate 6-time champion. Perhaps. Perhaps. It's impossible to re-write history, and one can play "what-if" games to no end, but it all comes to the same nothing. But games or no games, one thing that is certain is that LeMond was the first, and officially only, American to win the Tour de France, and in my mind is still the greatest road racer this country has produced.

3 comments:

  1. Nice article on Greg Lemond, but it fails to mention mitochondrial myopathies a muscle disorder that was attributed to his decline. More info: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/03/sports/03iht-bike.html

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    1. Thanks for the comment - you're right that the mitochondrial disorder is worth mentioning. The main reason I didn't was because it's a little unclear to me now if LeMond has or had the disorder. The NYTimes article was from '94, and I absolutely remember similar stories from the time. But in more recent articles, I've seen where LeMond has speculated that he might not have MM after all, and attributed his decline to other sources, such as effects of the lead still in his system -- so it was difficult to figure out the best way to say something that seems a little unsettled. Thank you for the link! -- readers who are interested can follow that and get another useful bit of info.

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  2. Great article Kyle. I have met Greg on RAGBRAI, and I can attest to what a genuinely good guy he is. A very friendly mid-western type of guy. Especially for a three time TDF winner.

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