Looking at the time, I knew it was going to be close. It was July 23, 1989, and I was in a race against time. I had to get home to see Greg win.
Or lose, I had no idea, but in my optimism I probably rated his chances higher than I should have. So I did what I did a lot in those days. As a kid not far out of college, still waiting impatiently for life to take shape — some shape, any shape — my summer weekends were devoted to two things: partying with friends and cycling. One of those friends had a house on Cape Cod, as did my parents by then, and the scene of me fleeing back from one of those places on Sunday morning to make my 8:30 office park crit was one that repeated itself many times over. We’d stay up late, drinking and whatnot, but even if I got to bed at 3:30, the start time wasn’t going to change, and something about my connection to the sport made it worse to sleep in and not race than to get up at 6 and go.
My friends were good people, and didn’t laugh at me at the time for leaving the party to do something none of them, or practically any other Americans, had interest in. Funnily enough, a majority of the dudes involved went on to become cyclists, even racers, stronger than I was. One of them, my good friend Paul, would later move to France, ride like a demon, and marry a French woman who I can assure you knows more about cycling than I ever will. We — men and women -- were the next wave of American cycling fans, but so far only I had caught on.
That one summer day is one I can never forget. Given how unforgettable as the final day of the ‘89 Tour de France was, it’s no surprise that my own experience of it was burned into my brain for good. There was a girlfriend around, albeit in the late stages of a long, slow fade. She knew I was streaking for home to watch the Tour and was on strict radio silence. She was coming from Boston to watch with me. I pushed my VW Rabbit and its one or two cylinders as hard as I could. I flicked on sports radio at one point, but cautiously. [By 1989 LeMond was national news.] I made it home in time, with room to start up the VCR. The TV guys seemed excited, which only amped things up more.
What happened from there doesn’t bear repeating, except maybe that I yelled and screamed about as loud as I had ever done over a sporting event. We both did, and she wasn’t really even a fan. The result was thrilling, beyond belief, and if I’d stopped to think more deeply about it I would have said we were watching history that day. That’s a phrase that gets thrown about a lot, well past nauseum, but in this one case it was certainly true. Greg LeMond was a Tour de France champion par excellence.
Greg LeMond: Racer
In reading Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer, Guy Andrews’ beautifully comprehensive overview of LeMond and the era in which he raced (reviewed by Feargal here), I was struck by how the title is almost a misnomer. LeMond was a star of the classics too — always on the verge of another milestone in races as diverse as Paris-Roubaix, Milano-Sanremo and the Giro di Lombardia, where he scored his top Monument finish (second). My friend and racing teammate Steve and I used to comb the Harvard Square magazine racks for European sports mags — the only way to experience the classics in America before, I don’t even know when. LeMond was always among the usual suspects, with Kelly, Bauer, Criquelion, and numerous other stars of the day. It’s almost strange that he never won a major Classic.
Stepping back a bit, LeMond was and remains the shiniest diamond ever pulled out of the rough of the American cycling wilderness. The story of his discovery, with family photos of young Greg as well as the still-incredible scenes of Cyrille Guimard and Bernard Hinault visiting Reno, Nevada, jump off the page of Yellow Jersey Racer. LeMond’s natural brilliance is incredible to witness in hindsight, step by step. Having since followed so many rising talents, with real-time information, I (and you) know how things are supposed to go: results in the Tour de l’Avenir or the GiroBio or the U23 cobbled classics suggest possibilities, which beget a contract, wherein the talent shows through, or not. Back then, we had quite literally no idea. It was as if LeMond fell out of the sky and onto the Tour podium in 1984.
Were we Belgian or French, we might have noticed a shooting star in 1981, who won stages of the Tour de Picardie and finished third in the Dauphine and the Route du Sud... at age 20. LeMond had joined Renault Elf at about the right age for his development to proceed in a normal way, excepting the results. He rode three years in Europe before taking a start at the Tour, and in that time he served notice of his immense talents. Without the benefit of growing up in the sport, LeMond was strong enough to take second in Lombardia at age 22, while dominating his young peers at the Tour de l’Avenir in 1982 and his senior competitors at the ‘83 Dauphine. He finally took the start in the 1984 Tour — in the World Champion’s jersey, for the love of motherflipping god — and ended that race on the podium, in white.
LeMond was so talented that he earned honorary Belgian status (as a long-time resident of Kortrijk) thanks to his exploits in everything, including, like I said, the Classics. In my book on the cobbled classics I start with my viewing of LeMond in the wonderful 1985 edition of Paris-Roubaix, where he was a primary protagonist. LeMond came of age in an era where the top riders rode everything, and several of them, like Kelly, excelled all over the road. Once he gained leadership in the Tour, LeMond’s interest in the classics seemed to subside, though getting shot will change your approach to a lot of things. Still, it would be a mistake to overlook how great LeMond was at all disciplines, even sprinting, and the breadth of Yellow Jersey Racer does a nice job of driving that point home.
Aftermath: Another Thrilling Comeback
Missing from the book is a story of LeMond’s life after cycling, which is understandable given all that the book does cover. But that phase of his life has provided a fascinating and evolving context for what he accomplished as a rider.
I always say that there is nobody in cycling whose cleanliness I would bet my life on, but if you forced me to bet my life on a single Tour winner’s authenticity, it would be LeMond’s. Growing up in the US he wasn’t exposed to any cheating structure, if only because there was very little structure at all. His career played itself out in a time of modest shenanigans, compared to what came later, and nobody seems to have anything to say about LeMond cutting corners. He did his own thing in notable ways (e.g. nutrition), and his post-cycling career is known primarily for advocating against doping. Whether he was as pure as a Tahoe snowdrift in his racing career is unknowable to me, but it’s telling that he did as much as he could to align himself with the whistleblowers, against the tide of public opinion.
Armstrong’s rule and his efforts to diminish LeMond — his best-known accuser -- put LeMond temporarily on the outside of the sport. But in the end, the loss of his bike business and
Armstrong’s the outing (by former Armstrong deputy Floyd Landis) of LeMond’s history of being sexually abused as a kid ended up telling us more about Lance and his culture than Greg. More importantly, with the sport having sunk so low beginning just seconds after LeMond stepped away, we can see LeMond in a new light. When we were ready to forget LeMond and declare Armstrong the greatest American cyclist, LeMond was up against the ropes like he was as the train sped to Paris in 1989 for that last final stage, almost a formality. But just as Fignon maybe got a bit too arrogant about his 50 second lead, so too did everything about Armstrong and his entire structure, and their stranglehold on the sport. Down came Lance the Great, sprawled out on the ground in agony like Fignon curling up on the cobbles of the Champs Elysees. LeMond remains, improbably, to this day, the last man standing, the American champion we can believe in.
And because of this, my connection to LeMond and his glittering career have only grown in the years since he walked away from the Tour in 1994. I love what he did on the bike, I love his back story and what he overcame, and I love having first experienced America’s return to cycling through LeMond’s exploits, and not Armstrong’s. I can’t profess personal love since he’s a total stranger, but this is my expression of top-level sports love, to a great athlete and his glories, and to my younger days when I lived through them. To buying clunky Look pedals and Oakley shades with the few dollars I had, to getting on the bike and thinking of what I was watching or reading about as I turned my own pedals in something other than anger. Whatever I have made here at the Podium Cafe as a cycling fan with a pen was born in front of a TV screen occupied by Greg LeMond, and I can’t imagine a better source of original cycling inspiration, all these years later.