Cycle Heroes February 12, 2010

International Cycling Heroes - Greg LeMond

Greg LeMond changed the world of cycling. So says Greg LeMond anyway, on his wonderfully self-congratulatory website. But, I am loathe to disbelieve him, and even if I wanted to, the record books would suggest I would be wrong to do so.

 To say that Greg LeMond won the Tour de France on three occasions would be to tell only a small part of an incredible story of struggle, bravery, and triumph. Similarly, to say that, away from the bike, Greg LeMond has got himself into a few scrapes would be to merely scratch at the service of a colourful career. What is without denial is that LeMond’s is a story that lives and breathes cycling, and it is a story well worth telling.

 Gregory James LeMond came into this world in Lakewood, California on June 26th 1961, and would go on be the first American to win le Tour. His cycling odyssey began early, making waves in the junior ranks and catching the eye of the US national cycling team. 1979 saw him pick up gold, silver and bronze at the Junior World Championships, though not in the same race, and he would have graced the 1980 Olympic Games but for the American boycott.

 By 1981, LeMond had made his way to Europe, and was soon racing professionally; finishing runner-up at the 1982 World Cycling Championship and winning a UCI Road World Championships Road Race the next year were the catalyst to move up to the Grand Tours. His first Tour de France was the 1984 race, and LeMond debuted spectacularly, coming in third as the winner of the young rider classification, before in 1985 playing a supporting role under team orders to his injured captain Bernard Hinault, who had played a part in enticing LeMond to Europe, when the American was close enough to challenge for the title himself. Hinault, thanks in no small part to LeMond, secured his fifth title with the American less than two minutes adrift. More on this later.

 1986 rolled around, and the Greg LeMond story exploded in spectacular fashion. LeMond’s own website asserts, somewhat melodramatically, that he achieved the maiden victory of any American in the Tour de France “despite being constantly threatened by his own teammate, Bernard Hinault”, which conjures up an altogether more sinister image, at least to me! The events of the previous year’s race resurfaced in sinister style; Hinault’s promise to ride in support of his teammate, in deference to his contribution the previous year, proved hollow, and he gained a significant lead under the clumsy pretence of drawing out LeMond’s rivals. LeMond, however, got the chance for schadenfreude when Hinault struggled in the next stage’s climb and eventually romped away to victory, though the betrayal was clear.

 However, before the title could be defended, his brother-in-law accidentally intervened, inadvertently discharging a loaded shotgun into LeMond’s back, causing the champion horrific injuries, of which you can find excruciating detail on his website. LeMond was only back in the States to recover from a broken wrist suffered in an early season fall. In danger of never being able to ride again, LeMond set about his recovery with a determination possessed by few, setting his goal to return and win the Tour de France again.

 That he did so, upon returning to the race in 1989 with over 30 shotgun pellets still lodged in various parts of his body, speaks volumes for the man, as his intention was that this race was only a stepping stone to achieving his ambition. Ahead of the final stage, an individual time trial into Paris, LeMond found himself second, 50 seconds adrift of 1983 and 1984 le Tour winner Laurent Fignon, and proceeded to blitz his way to victory by 58 seconds over the leader, at an average speed that was the fastest in Tour history. LeMond reeled in an over-confident Fignon aerodynamically advantaged by novel aero bars, technology that he had involved himself in during his convalescence. Proving the closest victory in the history of the race was no fluke, LeMond followed that up by winning another UCI Road World Championships Road Race for good measure, and capped a reasonable 1989 by becoming Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year”, the first cyclist to do so.

 As if that was not extraordinary enough, LeMond weighed in with a third Tour de France title in 1990, chipping away at a deficit in excess of 10 minutes in the mountain stages before finally overhauling Claudio Chiappucci in the final time trial to become one of the a handful of winners to do so without winning an individual stage. He would complete one more Tour de France, finishing 7th in 1991. LeMond’s last major career victory was the 1992 Tour DuPont, a short-lived American answer to the Tour de France that took place from 1991 to 1996. He retired in 1994, citing mitochondrial myopathy for his deteriorating performance, before, in 1997, changing his mind and blaming over-training.

Is that the complete story of Greg LeMond? Don’t be silly. Despite the outstanding feats of his cycling career, there are many who are more familiar with the man for his business interests, his commitment to advancing cycling technology, and his penchant for revelations and controversy.

The Hinault/LeMond saga (I did say there was more) would be one of the many things that LeMond would later reflect on in a revelatory fashion; LeMond later asserted in an interview that the team management and coach had misled him, allowing him to think that Hinault was hot on his tail when he was more than three minutes adrift, an episode that, along with the tours missed after the shotgun mishap, denied LeMond the chance to win the five tours he believed he was capable of.

As well as this, LeMond’s verbal handbags with Lance Armstrong has rumbled on since 2001, with claims, apologies, counter-claims, alleged threats, and accusations flying around on a consistent basis, predominantly from the LeMond camp.

LeMond also waded into the Floyd Landis doping hearing 2007 in grand style, testifying about phone calls between himself and Landis, and Landis’ manager and making some significant personal revelations, before, in 2009, casting doubt on the performance of Alberto Contador’s Tour de France performance in the mountain stages in a newspaper article. Whether LeMond’s continued interventions are down to a desire to protect the sport he loves, or a commitment to maintaining a profile in the public eye, I’ll leave to you to decide. His self-publicity hints at a near desperation for recognition, but this seems a shame to me when his achievements speak far louder than anything you can say, write, or post.

I’ll let his website have the final word. Or paragraph. “In sport, there are those who make their mark and those who mark their time. Greg LeMond's career is one of the most incredible stories in cycling history, a saga of arguably the most talented rider of his generation. Very few athletes have transcended sports and Greg is one of the exceptional few. LeMond's legend is measured not only by his stunning cycling feats, but also by his historical and inspirational impact. Greg LeMond remains, as ever, friendly and accessible, charming and unpretentious; a true gentleman champion.” Quite.



Thumbnail photo credit - Chris Timm, 1990 Tour de France 

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