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LeMond - The Incredible Comeback, by Samuel Abt

Greg-lemond-the-incredible-comeback_mediumTitle: LeMond - The Incredible Comeback
Author: Samuel Abt
Publisher: Stanley Paul
Year: 1990
Pages: 206
Order: Look for it second hand
What it is: A biography of Greg LeMond, by one of the best American cycling journalists the sport has seen.
Strengths: Strong on cycling as a business and the difficulties of being a stranger in a strange land.
Weaknesses: Written in 1989, the book was out of date the day it was published: it's high time the LeMond story was revisited, in full detail.

* * * * *

Chambéry. August 1989. The World Championship road race. A hundred ninety riders take the line for twenty-one laps of a twelve kilometre circuit. The eyes of the cycling world are on two men, Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon. A month earlier LeMond had won the Tour de France for a second time, beating Fignon by eight seconds. Being the year of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, one French newspaper turned to Louis XIV to give LeMond a new nick: l'Américain became le Roi Soleil.

The sun is not shining in Chambéry this day. The sky is leaden and dark clouds are coming in over the Alps as the race starts. Four hours into the race, the rain comes down, cold and heavy. An hour of it. The final hour and three quarters of racing are run off in an intermittent drizzle.

Eight laps in, the breakaway goes. Nine riders. In three laps they gain almost five minutes. Then they split in two and four go clear. Thierry Claveyrolat (France). Thomas Wegmuller (Switzerland). Martine Ducrot (The Netherlands). Dimitri Konichev (Russia). Two laps to go and the cell division has happened again, and Claveyrolat and Konichev are away. Twenty-five kilometres to go and they're almost ninety seconds to the good. Steven Rooks bridges across and at the bell they've only got eleven seconds, a group of nine closing them down.

In that chase group. Fignon goes for it, pouring on the power as they surge up the last climb of the Côte de la Montagnole. LeMond covers him. Fignon tries to go again. Only for LeMond again to cover his move. But the two have broken clear. Then Sean Kelly bridges across and the three behind catch the three in front.

Under the flame rouge and it's Fignon attacking again. And again LeMond is on his wheel. Two hundred metres to go, another attack. LeMond's. Konichev, Kelly and Rooks respond. And finish second, third and fourth. Three seconds later, Laurent Fignon crosses the line, sixth.

Le Roi Soleil, Greg LeMond, becomes le champion du monde. Again. Six years since he last won the arc en ciel. Three years since he first won the Tour de France. Twenty-eighty months since he almost died in a hunting accident. One month since he won his second Tour de France. The comeback kid was back in town.

* * * * *

In any tale about Greg LeMond's life, one constant staple is the story of the sixteen-year-old LeMond picking up a yellow legal pad and setting down his career objectives:

"I wanted to accomplish something by the time I was twenty-four or twenty-five. What I didn't want was to be the kind of cyclist who just stuck it out and stayed in the sport for ten years without being successful. So I sat down before the junior world championships and wrote for 1978: 'Place well for experience in junior world championships.' Then I wrote that in 1979 I want to win the junior worlds. The following year I wanted to win the Olympic road race. By the time I was twenty-one or twenty-two I wanted to win the professional world championship, and by the time I was twenty-four or twenty-five I wanted to win the Tour de France."

There's just one item on that list that LeMond was unable to put a tick beside: the Olympic road race. LeMond won the junior rainbow jersey in 1979, the senior in 1983 and the Tour de France in 1986. But, in 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and - in return - President Carter ordered a US boycott of the Cold War's five-ring circus the following year, the Moscow Olympics.

LeMond had come to cycling via skiing - downhill and freestyle - having been advised that a bike was good training in skiing's off-season. Then, like the women speed-skater's who'd successfully crossed-over from the ice to the bike, skiing became LeMond's second sport and he majored in cycling:

"After I got into cycling, for the first five or six years I worked so hard at it that I never did anything else. I worked so hard that I didn't ski, hunt, or fish anymore. Not until I turned professional at nineteen and cycling became a real job did I go back to those sports as a release".

In 1978 he came to Europe for the first time. Two months with a friend, Kent Gordis, and the Gordis family: France, Switzerland, Belgium and Poland. In France, he went for a bike ride one day with his childhood hero, the skier Jean-Claude Killy. They rode into the Tour de France, out near Morzine, up the Joux Plaine. LeMond was awestruck by the majesty of it, the scale if it.

Something you have to remember is how different things were back then. Cycling outside of mainland Europe was ... well I guess it was weird. It was a secret world. Mostly it was a sport handed down from father to son, mother to daughter. It was in your genes. It was a family thing. Cycling was never on TV. The mainstream media just ignored it. Like, totally. You had to buy foreign magazines, like Miroir du Cyclisme, in order to get your rocks off. Kent Gordis explained some of this to Sam Abt:

"I used to go to the French-American bookstore in San Francisco, where you could buy a three-month-old Miroir. You know how kids find names like 'Bali' or 'Tahiti' exotic? We found all these unpronounceable Flemish names in Miroir exotic. We'd amuse ourselves by repeating the names to each other: Herman van der Slagmolen, Flèche Wallonne, or whatever. Going to Europe for us was not just a trip abroad; it was attaining some sort of exalted state."

The kids put in some racing in time throughout the trip to Europe. And won some. For LeMond, Belgium in particular was an experience:

"I wanted to race in Belgium after the races in Switzerland. In the three weeks I was in Belgium I won three races, but I found what really tough racing meant. The junior races were about sixty miles long, whereas in America the average junior race was twenty to thirty miles long - nothing! I was racing two or three times a week, over cobblestones, into a strong wind. The racing was about twice as hard as the top-level amateur racing in America. Well, I'd said I was looking for competition."

At that time, there was an Aussie kid living and racing in Belgium: Allan Peiper. I guess he was a couple of years older than LeMond at this stage (still is too, I'd guess) and was into his second year of becoming Belgian. Peiper at this stage was ripping up the local races, him and his buddy Eddy Planckaert practically carving them up between themselves. Here's some of what he says about LeMond, in his own book, A Peiper's Tale:

"Greg LeMond was in Belgium for a lot of the Summer of 1978. I can remember seeing him get out of a car full of people at one race. I had ridden there in the rain and was angry he could have it so easy.

"A few weeks later, I went to a race at Ostend, on the Belgian coast, with a new friend, Rudy Dhanens, and his father. Rudy was a year younger than me, and held me in awe. LeMond was there again and I got away with him, but he never passed me once during the race to do his share at the front.

"In the last lap I said to LeMond that I would put him in the barriers if he tried to sprint. At two hundred metres out, he did try, but I moved across the road and didn't give him an inch of space. He was crying out that he'd fall, so I just allowed him breathing space as we rolled across the line with me winning and everybody in the crowd asking why we hadn't sprinted. Looking back, Greg was a good kid; it was me who was the pain in the arse."

In 1980, before the peanut farmer took the Games off LeMond's agenda, Team USA came over to Europe for a couple or three races: the Circuit des Ardennes, the Circuit de la Sarthe and the Ruban Granatier. LeMond won a stage in the Ardennes and finished third overall. At the Sarthe - a pro-am race that has heralded many successful careers - he won, against the big boys. At the Ruban Granatier ... oh Brittany.

Ok, here's the story: LeMond had been doing well, placing in a couple of stages, was high up on GC, and then - I guess this must have been the final stage - was away on his own, bridging across from the peloton to a trio of Russians up the road:

"I was ten seconds behind them and moving up fast when I punctured. The French mechanic who was supposed to be looking out for our team had been sleeping in his car, and he finally came up to me about ten kilometres after my accident; I'd ridden that far on a flat tyre. By the time he got to me, the field was about thirty seconds behind and the breakaway was about four minutes ahead of me. There was no way I could win the race, thanks to that mechanic, and he was insisting that I get back on the bike and try to get third place. I was so mad I couldn't see straight."

He couldn't see straight? Hell, the kid was spitting mad and threw an epic wobbly. He chucked his bike into a hedge on the side of the road. Then he picked it up and chucked it again, this time at the team car. Now LeMond at this stage was junior world champion and was being watched by many directeurs sportifs, wondering if he was as good as that rainbow jersey suggested. One of them was Cyrille Guimard. The man who was directeur sportif of Renault-Elf. The man who'd threatened to drive Lucien Van Impe off the road if he didn't attack on the Alpe in a move that won him the 1976 Tour. The man who'd guided Bernard Hinault to maturity.

Kathy LeMond, Greg's wife, told Abt the story of what happened after LeMond chucked his bike at the team car:

"So somebody said to Guimard, 'Do you want a racer like that?' and Guimard answered, 'Now I want him, yes. He's got character.'"

Call me an old fashioned romantic, but that's the sort of chat-up line that puts the butterflies dancing in my stomach and makes my knees go weak.

Guimard courted LeMond. Like, really courted LeMond, the way an older roué might seduce a young ingénue, even flying to the States to pledge his troth, playing cowboys by dressing up in a Stetson and going horse riding with the kid. Ok, yes, so Guimard took a reporter from l'Équipe - Jean-Marie Leblanc - with him to capture it all for posterity and publicity, but please, this is romance, there's no room for your cynicism here. Ok, ok, maybe it wasn't so romantic, Guimard brought Hinault with him too, making it look more like he was asking LeMond to join a harem than a marriage of two minds. But can't you just go with the romance on this one, even for a little bit? Cause LeMond bought it and Guimard convinced the kid that the earth would move if they got together. So LeMond turned pro, signing for Renault before his twentieth birthday.

Ok, that whole thing is bullshit and the contract had already been signed before the US trip and the whole thing was just a 'meet the LeMonds' publicity stunt for Renault and l'Équipe. Reality sucks.

That same year LeMond married the woman - the girl, they were both still teenagers - he'd been dating for a year: Kathy Morris. Together, they took on Europe. The wife's tale is often over-looked in cycling. It shouldn't be, especially not in the story of Greg LeMond. Kathy LeMond was there for her husband during those first tough years in Europe. She was there for him during those two tough Tours tussling with Bernard Hinault. She was there for him during his comeback from his hunting accident. That woman stood by her man. Team LeMond was - and still is - a strong outfit.

Abt quizzed LeMond about this, about family, and it's importance to him:

"For me, there's no purpose if you don't have a wife and kids; there's really no purpose to make money or be successful. I can't imagine being single and working so hard. I've been criticised by some of the European press for being businesslike, and I'm that way because I realise my value to a sponsor. If I were single, I'd take things a lot easier. I'm racing and making sacrifices for my family, making sure we're going to have a nice life when I'm done with cycling. Without them, I know I wouldn't be nearly this successful."

No one - no one - was going to be allowed take that life away from them, on or off the bike. Ever.

* * * * *

In signing that contract with Renault, Greg LeMond became a member of cycling's Foreign Legion. One of the important things about the Foreign Legion years was the different attitude they brought to the sport. Some of them became more European than the Europeans themselves: Sean Kelly became Belgian, Stephen Roche became French. But some of them stayed what they were: Steve Bauer stayed a Canuck, Greg LeMond stayed an American. For sure, LeMond bought into the romance and the myth of cycling, but he didn't buy into all the tradition that comes with that.

This is usually where I go off on one and bang on about doping. I think here I'll save that for another day. Instead, one particular tradition that the Foreign Legion years impacted on: the notion of the man for all seasons. A charge often levelled against LeMond is that he disrespected the sport by focussing almost exclusively on the Tour and the Worlds. LeMond answers that for Abt by comparing cycling in the era of Eddy Merckx and cycling in his own era:

"Cycling has better athletes than it did then, and the riders' mentality has changed. When Merckx rode, he was the boss and everybody else on the team was his slave. It's not that way anymore. Today, if you're on a team, it really is a team, not a collection of guys working for a boss.

"In the big races, everybody on a team realises who the best rider is and they work for him, not just for the designated boss. If the team wins, rather than its leader, it's still good for everybody.

"Only in Italy does a team still ride exclusively for the leader, whether he's in form or not, and that's why Italian teams tend to fall apart when their leader isn't going well. Nobody else dares try anything and so there's no point in working hard every day."

That answer is worth remembering, especially when we turn to Richard Moore's Slaying The Badger and the Tours of 1985 and 1986. The final part of it also puts an added perspective on what happened at the Giro d'Italia in 1987.

LeMond continued on some more for Abt on the issue of targeting races:

"With the big money being spent now, no team can depend on just one leader. A team needs a strong rider just for the classics and a strong rider for the Tours. Today it's impossible to build a team around one leader unless he's an Eddy Merckx - and nobody is."

There's a point not directly addressed by Abt that's worth considering here: by the end of the eighties, Hein Verbruggen had hitched entry into the major races to a team's score on the FICP rankings. Every rider in a team had to have a points value, there was no room for passengers, or dedicated domestiques. Everyone had to win points. That had multiple consequences. One of which was to ratchet up in the level of doping. Another of which was riders picking their targets more carefully.

While the impact of the FICP system is not directly addressed by LeMond and Abt, it's there indirectly, in the way the chase for points encouraged some riders to target the early season races, where the low-hanging fruit was ripe for picking. Here's how LeMond describe the change in the peloton to Abt:

"The problem with cycling is that in the last five or six years it's become so competitive. We're racing at full bore in February, doing races that riders never used to do until April. When I was starting, it was hard in February, but not as tough as it is now. Some riders are piling up more and more kilometres in December and January because they know that the only time they can do well is February, March and maybe April. If you go to Spain in February now, you've got to be in tiptop shape or you'll be blown away."

It's not just Greg LeMond said that. Kelly has echoed him too:

"In my last seasons people would be turning up at the Ruta del Sol saying they'd got six thousand miles in their legs. This is because teams and riders realise they can pick up points at a time when perhaps the big boys aren't going full-on. And their salaries depend on those points."

There is one other issue that needs to be considered when accusing LeMond of targeting only the Tour and the Worlds: he used to ride - and figure - in the classics. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Milan-San-Remo, the Giro di Lombardia, he podiumed in them. And he won the Super Prestige Pernod trophy in 1983. But after his shooting in 1987, he didn't really begin to come good until the late Spring of '89 (he finished fourth in Paris-Roubaix that year). Then, in '90, he was ill again for the first part of the season. Some of those who criticise LeMond for targeting, what they're really doing is criticising him for never winning a classic, for his 'only' major victories being three Tours and three rainbow jerseys (two senior, one junior). You wonder about some people sometimes.

On the issue of targets, a question: of the two major races he won three times each, which rates more, the maillot jaune or the arc en ciel? Here's how LeMond explained that to Abt:

"Even in winning the Tour de France, when you've got the yellow jersey you're so worried about keeping it that it almost takes away the glory of winning. In the world championship, when you cross the line first, you've won. Then it sinks in. Of course the truth is that I'd ten times rather win the Tour de France than the world championship, but somehow for pure happiness that world championship [in 1983] was untouchable. I was twenty-two years old, and it was as if I'd finally made my mark in cycling. My only disappointment was that the victory was totally ignored by the American press and public. Back home hardly anybody heard of it."

As well as helping shake up the European scene, LeMond helped make a major impact on cycling in America. It wasn't him on his own, it was - as it always is - the conflux of events, riders like Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg and Beth Heiden and Eric Heiden and Alexi Grewal and Davis Phinney all popping up at just about the right time. But LeMond was the star attraction, the man the public could identify the sport with, the man bringing international prestige with his victories in Europe.

But LeMond, certainly back then, challenged the role played by the likes of Twigg and Carpenter and the other LA Olympians:

"The people [in the USCF] don't understand anything. My dad was talking to a USCF official who said, 'It's incredible how popular cycling has become in the United States. We've gotten six thousand new licences in the four or five months since August 1986, and I honestly can't tell you why! I don't understand why the sport is so popular now.' He took no account of my victory in the Tour and how much the publicity about it meant to cycling in America. I believe most of its growth in the US comes from my first victory in the Tour."

Not being American. I don't really have an opinion on this one. I'd probably guess that LeMond is partly right, that he's not overvaluing his own role. But at the same time I think he's undervaluing the roles of those others. But, again, being fair to LeMond, there's another issue at play here: back then, LeMond and the USCF didn't quite see eye to eye. Part of his comment to Abt there was simply score settling.

LeMond helped reshape cycling in the US, and he helped reshape it in Europe. He added to the popularity of this sport. And, in two Tours de France, he added to the mythology of this sport. And the story of those two Tours, 1985 and 1986, is the subject of the book we'll get to next: Richard Moore's Slaying The Badger.