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Cafe Bookshelf: The Ultimate Comeback

New book re-calculates the life of Greg LeMond, champion cyclist and revived legend

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LeMond and Fignon tete-a-tete in 1989
AFP/Getty Images

Title: The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France

Author: Daniel de Visé

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Pages: 432

Order: via Amazon

What it is: The first attempt at a definitive biography of America’s only recognized winner of the Tour de France, not only recounting LeMond’s exploits but tracking his legacy into the present.

Strengths: Detailed, exhaustively reported and, most importantly, takes the story to a whole new plane. The saga of LeMond’s legacy through the Armstrong era is almost as unbelievable as the rest of the story, and taken together it all adds up to something greater than a sports book.

Weaknesses: Pieces of the story have been told enough already that older fans might not want to hear it again. [Read de Visé’s author’s note where he acknowledges that some details are best left to earlier tellings.] The doping chapters back LeMond pretty definitively, which might be hard for some battle-scarred fans to accept.

Have I ever really told my LeMond story? Maybe, or I certainly hinted at some of it in my book (ahem!) but it’s worth a brief re-telling here. I was among the tiny minority of Americans who caught the cycling bug in the mid-80s, a love that germinated during the 1984 Olympics and the amazing performances of Nelson Vails and Alexi Grewal and Connie Carpenter, then came back around full bore for the 1985 season, when I was first introduced by my friend Steve to Paris-Roubaix and the great names of European Cycling. With the televising of the 1985 Tour de France in America (in wrap-up segments on Saturdays and Sundays for four weeks) suddenly Bernard Hinault was more than just a name on the agate page, he was a face and a voice and a personality. And there were others, from Canada and Ireland and of course the traditional countries of Italy, Belgium and France. And an American. Not just another one of the Olympians, an American battling it out in Europe for the sport’s greatest honors.

I didn’t have a lot going on in those first two great cycling summers of my life, but I did have a job that earned me enough money (eventually) to save up for a low-level Bianchi racer, and had my buddy Steve who was bringing me along on the ins and outs of the sport, on TV and on the road. (He bought the first Specialized I’d ever seen, in part because the brand appeared in American Flyers.) The road part was fun if inconsequential, but we nailed our Tour de France watching across 1985 and ‘86. We used VHS machines to tape every CBS Sports segment with John Tesh and a young Phil Liggett; drove into Harvard Square to buy European cycling magazines in languages we didn’t speak; and bought La Vie Claire jerseys for our racing exploits. I don’t know if Greg LeMond is truly the father of American cycling fandom, as he has claimed, but he’s the father of my fandom, for certain.

That was all well and good, and my excitement for it all went through the same ups and downs as everyone else, reveling in LeMond’s historic and excruciating win in 1986, then reeling in shock when he flirted with a tragic death eight months later from a hunting accident. By 1989 my love of the sport was still a mix of watching and riding, only by then I was an emancipated adult with weekend plans, which I cut short regularly (to the horror of my friends) either to race or to watch the Tour.

On July 23 I skipped out on my friends in Cape Cod and dashed home in the middle of a perfect beach day to watch the final Tour stage, having kept the radio off — full media silence — in the hopes of watching the time trial into Paris without knowing what happened. By 1989 LeMond was well known and the progress of his comeback was all over the news in America, and would be again that Sunday by the time it ended, around noon in Boston. I don’t know why I thought there was a chance that LeMond could overturn his 50-second deficit, logic said otherwise, but it felt like there was hope. I drove the two hour trip in 90 minutes, flicked on the TV, and, well, suffice to say I will never forget the delirium of taking in LeMond’s stunning success that day.

My fandom went downhill about the same time LeMond’s career did, he due to factors natural and decidedly unnatural, me due to life getting more interesting but still lacking the media climate we enjoy now where you can watch the Tour live on your phone in a coffee shop in Tunisia. I tracked Indurain’s success indifferently via newspapers in Japan, Oregon, China, and then finally tuned back in from Washington, DC as the next wave of riders took over. [Lance and all that.]

LeMond is only five years older than me, so in a lot of ways his journey through the heart of the sport and my more distant one track each other nicely. His exultations and disappointments were more extreme than mine, rightly so, but in my outsider’s way I think we shared them nonetheless. Still probably do.

Cover of The Comeback

So of course when I heard of Daniel de Visé’s newly published work The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France, I immediately contacted Feargal about writing the review for the Cafe Bookshelf. I don’t do that often, or lightly, and I will note now that here at the Cafe Feargal has written not one but two reviews of books on LeMond, plus an interview with Yellow Jersey Racer author Guy Andrews, plus another review, the day after reviewing the old 1989 Samuel Abt book, of Slaying the Badger, Richard Moore’s story of the ‘86 Tour. Each of these stellar reviews (which I recommend rereading), and the books themselves, covers the story of LeMond’s career from a particular angle — the ‘89 race, the ‘86 race, or the sights and sounds from the inside of these great moments. That’s what you do when you write about something your audience already knows well. You find an angle, or an aspect of the story that is due for some enlarged treatment, and decorate it with detail beyond what we thought we knew already.

So I was a bit curious and even skeptical that de Visé could find a unique angle in telling the well-worn story of LeMond. De Visé is a veteran journalist who has transitioned to longer formats, namely books, in recent years, but established himself at the Washington Post and Miami Herald writing about social issues as varied as education stories about underpaid teachers and forgotten grammar rules to the plight of wrongly convicted prisoners. He is not a sportswriter, as far as I can tell, which makes his wandering into this subject even more curious. Those are the obstacles which lay in the path of The Comeback as it tackled the LeMond story once again.

Stepping back though... I mean, what even is the LeMond story? It’s a miasma of hero stories like Rocky 1 and Rocky 3, or maybe Breaking Away, with elements of the tragedy of mankind ripped from the pages of The Great Gatsby, or maybe an optimistic version like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It reads a bit like Forrest Gump, minus the main character’s silliness, as LeMond weaves his way through every major event in modern cycling. It reads a LOT like Bernard Malamud’s classic baseball story The Natural (not to be confused with the inferior movie version). Here are some of the classic themes you can find in this one single individual’s life, presented in chronological order:

  • Coming of Age in the freewheeling American West;
  • Suffering the pain and, in his words, shame of being sexually abused;
  • Falling in love and marrying your high school sweetheart (well, high school-age summer sweetheart anyway — hey! Like Grease!);
  • The great, unsullied talent gets cast into the old, traditional and somewhat cynical world of European cycling;
  • The legendary teams and teammates, the instant greatness, the incredible American milestones;
  • The soap opera of the 1986 Tour, a script almost too wacky for acceptable fiction;
  • The shooting accident, the near-human tragedy turned thankfully into a mere sports tragedy of lost potential, or so we thought;
  • The incredible comeback, the improbability of it all, the lack of a team, the anti-traditional embrace of technology, the randomness of differences so minute (consider that Fignon actually did flirt with aero bars or a proper helmet, and could have very easily said “sure, let’s give them a go”);
  • The repeat milestones of yellow and rainbow, the potential fulfilled;
  • The strange end, later to be understood as the start of the Dark Ages, a career birthed in innocence and euthanized by EPO;
  • The heroic voice from the wilderness crying foul against the sins of the sport, bucking the Omertà;
  • The bullying against the whistleblower, including blackmail (see sexual abuse, above) and cruel business maneuvering;
  • The internal family drama, including his father’s role in business failures, fractured relationships with both parents, major tests to his marriage, and both his son and the brother-in-law (the shooter) scarred for life by LeMond’s near-death experience;
  • And finally, vindication, restoration of his achievements against the receding tide of Lance’s so-called records, maybe even some peace.

I mean, what is all that? Consider this: that 1989 Tour de France victory might be one of the top five sporting stories ever. How can you top it? I don’t know how to formulate a definitive comparison, given that most of the “great sports stories” are mere moments in time, not a three-week seesaw drama building to a stunning, unthinkable, brutally emotional conclusion. In American ball sports, there are a handful of series — the NBA Finals or baseball playoffs or what have you -- that might be worth comparing. In soccer, some cup runs or Champions League campaigns might be up there in the eyes of European fandom, though don’t ask an American to name them. Certainly the US hockey team beating the Russians in the 1980 Olympics — most people here who remember that day would rank it #1.

But the great sports stories are generally straightforward “David vs. Goliath” stuff. The 1989 Tour is more like David coming back from getting shot to beat Goliath whom he’d previously been teammates with, back when they were fighting to succeed a third legendary teammate-turned-tormenter. Also somehow their slingshot fight is now a team sport, and David’s teammates have all run away. Oh, and Goliath, who on closer examination is a fascinatingly complex character, is haunted for the rest of his days by David’s stone-throw, until he tragically dies of cancer. I don’t know if that story exists anywhere outside the 1989 Tour. I don’t know how you could write fiction that is stranger and more exciting and yes, even sadder, than the 1989 Tour de France.

LeMond and Hinault on the podium
1986: the protege becomes the master

So in trying to figure out why we needed another LeMond book, I’d say it starts with the incredible nature of the story itself, one so amazing that it bears retelling more often than, say, the Life and Times of Miguel Indurain. One strength of this book lies in de Visé’s reporter’s skill at finding and conveying detail without losing the plot. The Comeback is easily the most thoroughly-reported book on the American champion, as de Visé visited everyone from the LeMonds (all of them) to Otto Jácome to Greg’s first coaches to Laurent Fignon’s widow and close friends. Whereas other books had detailed insider accounts from the road and told LeMond’s incredible race exploits so well, The Comeback tackles every relevant facet of LeMond’s life, earning its place in the canon by the sheer weight of its meticulous execution.

Next, consider that a second generation of cycling fans came to be in America around the exploits of Lance Armstrong, and I suppose a third wave is happening right now, as the sport recovers from the scandal years — two generations of American fans who weren’t around to fully appreciate LeMond’s accomplishments on the bike. Hardcore fans didn’t need another book; we know all the details, and are sated by versions like Slaying the Badger where one can geek out on a single race. Older fans — again, like me — remember the LeMond story from watching it in real time. Europeans have all their own cycling bookshelves to stay informed. Nearly everyone in the UK associated with the sport seems to not just be reading such books but writing one. These are the segments of the audience which maybe didn’t need de Visé to tell the story all over again. But younger American fans need to learn their own cycling history, and LeMond is the George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt of American cycling history, combined.

For the rest of us older, deeper fans, it’s worth hanging around through the retelling of the great exploits and into the aftermath, where The Comeback takes LeMond’s saga to a new level. Simply by recounting everything LeMond went through in dealing with the doping era, from watching the peloton suddenly speed away in 1991 to Armstrong calling him on the phone to rent his house (translation: you’re a has-been, can you get out of my way now?), to the Texan’s rise and how it triggered LeMond into becoming the conscience of American cycling. And all the suffering that ensued... we know all these stories, us long-time, super-savvy cycling fans. And yet the impact of taking it all in again, the entire story of this man’s life, the mind can’t stop boggling.

It seems remarkable now that this photo exists.
FrontzoneSport via Getty Images

All of the gory details are recounted to de Visé by a typically candid but also rather reflective LeMond — or should I say LeMonds, Kathy is as much a part of the storytelling as she is of the story, being famously present and necessary to her husband’s career. Together they tackle what it all was from the perspective of how the meaning of the story has evolved, and de Visé weaves it together with real skill and impact. There are times where it comes off as one-sided in favor of LeMond, and despite de Visé’s exhaustive reporting it might have benefited from either Armstrong or Floyd Landis giving their side (which they declined to do). Still, even that is on the record somewhere, and de Visé pieces it all together credibly enough.

There is a poignant moment where the book discusses LeMond’s initial attempts at speaking out against doping, prior to 1991 when EPO took over the sport. De Visé defies the caution most of us would feel and asserts that LeMond did not dope. But his support for that is LeMond’s very nature: he would never dope because of the potential shame associated with it, and as a survivor of sexual abuse LeMond already knew too much about the burden of carrying shame. Shame and honor are the undercurrents of The Comeback, from LeMond’s abuse experience to his jousting with Hinault to imploring Landis after the 2006 Tour to come clean, to free himself of the burden of shame, LeMond believing that Landis, unlike Lance, could still be saved. [Spoiler: he was, I suppose.]

The young LeMonds celebrate victory in 1986
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

By the time The Comeback is done it has told the story of a second cycling comeback — itself as amazing the original one. LeMond’s struggles to defend his name and his incredible legacy during the Armstrong years, defending himself from being overtaken by an unapologetic doper and voracious bully, are as harrowing as the deficit he took into the final stage in 1989, or as precarious as his position at the 1986 Tour watching his hopes get snatched away by his immensely powerful teammate Hinault. Armstrong was unassailable, and when LeMond politely tried to interject that maybe cycling was being destroyed from within, Armstrong made sure LeMond suffered as much as possible from the blowback. LeMond’s legacy, his relationships, his business interests, all of these things were pushed to the edge of the abyss during the lonely decade spent fighting this fight. But his honor compelled him to speak out, and just before all was truly lost, LeMond suddenly prevailed outright in both the sport’s ranks and the court of public opinion. How is this any less dramatic than July, 1989?

LeMond’s legacy has now been restored to its full glory, thanks to his belief in what is right and his hard-won unwillingness to give in to the darkness. As big as his struggles and successes were on the bike, that career was bookended by the internal struggles of so many people, struggles with shame and honor and the desire to live freely. LeMond won those battles too. He is not merely a champion of the sport, he’s now one of the heroes of America’s still-evolving cycling redemption saga as well.

All that in a single lifetime. So many great plot twists and turns. And in the end all those stories add up to the greatest story of all: the triumph of of a good guy and a great athlete in what is sometimes a just world. The Comeback is a story that every cycling fan ought to hear and reconsider, even those of us who thought we knew him best from back in the day.

The bittersweet 1989 podium. RIP LF
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images