Title: Greg LeMond - Yellow Jersey Racer
Author: Guy Andrews
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sport (UK) | VeloPress (US)
Order: Bloomsbury (UK) | VeloPress (US)
What it is: Greg LeMond, as seen by various photographers and known by friends, team-mates, opponents and support staff
Strengths: By letting a chorus of voices tell the story Andrews is able to paint a broad-brush portrait of not just LeMond but also the era he raced in
Weaknesses: Save for some comments from Kent Gordis this is the story of Greg LeMond up to his retirement from racing in 1994. The rest is a story for another day
Twenty-six years ago an American in Paris - the NYT/IHT's Sam Abt - wrote a book about Greg LeMond. The American cyclist had just won his second Tour de France and capped that off with his second World Championships. LeMond had already been at the centre of three of the Tour's best editions and had come back from a career threatening injury but, at only 29, it seemed a safe bet that more - much more - was still to come. More victories from LeMond, more books about him from Abt and others. But after one more Tour victory the wins stopped coming. And the next book didn't arrive. The years went by and it still didn’t arrive. Not through lack of effort: a decade ago there was an abortive attempt by Matt Seaton to fill the void. Others didn't even get so far as finding someone to tell LeMond's story. Finally, though, the wait is over, with Rouleur-founder Guy Andrews (Bike Mechanic, Magnum Cycling) serving up Greg LeMond - Yellow Jersey Racer, a biography of sorts, in words and pictures.
Yellow Jersey Racer offers a mix of two of the best attempts at cycling biography through photo books: David Walsh's long forgotten A Man For All Seasons, his second stab at the Sean Kelly story; and Herbie Sykes's more recent Coppi. In A Man For All Seasons Walsh got Kelly to tell parts of his story by talking the reader through photographs from throughout his career. In Coppi Sykes told the story of the titular il campionissimo through photos but also by letting a group of people who knew him tell their stories, resulting in a book that was mostly about Coppi but also about the Italian champion of champion's era and the people telling his story.
For Yellow Jersey Racer Andrews has gathered together thirteen people who knew LeMond and let them tell their own stories while LeMond himself, as well as providing a foreword to the book, also supplies occasional comments which add depth to some of the pictures selected by Andrews, giving a book that paints a vivid picture of LeMond and the era in which he rode.
That baker's dozen of voices is made up of friends (Kent Gordis), fellow riders (Phil Anderson, Chris Boardman, Jeff Bradley, Andy Hampsten, Sean Kelly, Ron Kiefel, Johan Lammerts, Robert Millar, Ronan Pensec, and Stephen Roche), and support staff (Otto Jacome and Shelley Verses).
Kent Gordis, who was born in New York but spent the first dozen years of his life in Geneva, before his mother returned to the States with him and his brother, talks about what it was like starting out with LeMond:
"We liked Greg: we admired him. But more than that, he was a family friend. Our main motivation was that he was our friend and to see him succeed was wonderful. When I came back to the US, I had a difficult experience: we essentially moved into a heroin hotel. My brother was six years old, and I didn't go to school for a whole year; we were street urchins. But when you're twelve years old, it's not romantic, it's awful. I had this nostalgia for my life in Europe and a mythologized view of Europe and cycling. And I believe I communicated a fair amount of that to Greg. When Greg got to Europe, he was very open about living there and benefiting from the European lifestyle. A big part of what motivated us was this sense of adventure."
Sean Kelly includes an anecdote about Milan-Sanremo 1986, where LeMond finished second - Mario Beccia had attacked late on, LeMond followed, Kelly was caught behind with Eric Vanderaerden and others but bridged across on the descent of the Poggio:
"I got across to Greg and made the descent with Beccia. Beccia was the one who started riding a bit at the bottom of the Poggio descent, because he realized it was the chance of a lifetime for him to get a result, to get on the podium at a Milan-San Remo. I was always hesitant about riding because Greg can be very strong in the sprint. The three of us made it to the finish and, in the end, I just had a bit more than Greg left in the tank."
Whenever I hear or see Kelly talking of that race I'm always reminded of the bit from Paul Kimmage's LeMond interview for the short-lived 2r iPad-only magazine, where that race is talked about and LeMond says it was the first time anyone had tried to buy him off outside the kermesse/critéirum circuit. And how Kelly never remembers that bit.
Ron Kiefel offers this on the story of those infamous tri-bars LeMond used in the 1989 Tour:
"In 1989, at the Tour de Trump, we at 7-Eleven knew about the triathlon handlebars, but we were trying to keep them in reserve for the Tour de France. However, things changed. Dag Otto Lauritzen had started the race with a three minute lead, but every day kept losing twenty seconds, thirty seconds, to Eric Vanderaerden, the Belgian sprinter, at all these different finishes. And so Dag Otto begged the team to use the tri-bars. It was really Andy Hampsten's decision, as he wanted to keep them a secret weapon for the Tour de France, but he relented and we got them out - we'd done a little training with them. I remember being on the start ramp, the boardwalk in New Jersey, and Sean Yates went flashing by and took the lead by fifty-five seconds, and I knew what I had to do: I rode really hard and won the stage. More importantly, though, we realized that those handlebars did make a difference."
Robert Millar offers this comment on peloton politics and the karma bank:
"Panasonic didn't like Hinault that much, so there were a couple of times during the 1986 Tour de France when Greg was isolated and Panasonic did a deal to ride not for him, but not against him either, so they had favors stored up for later. Then, in 1989, when Greg had no teammates left with him in the mountains, [team Z manager Roger] Legeay told me to ride tempo sometimes, to calm things down when Fignon was attacking. Legeay was in negotiations with Greg to come to Z in 1990, as it was announced soon after the Tour."
Nearly 110 years ago now, the great French team boss Alphonse Baugé published a book about the 1907 Tour de France, a series of letters from the road to his sponsor and entries from his journal. In the entry from Nîmes Baugé wrote of employing the services of a masseuse, in one of the earliest references I'm aware of to a woman working with male cyclists. Eight decades pass before you find the next: Robin Morton, bossing America's first Grand Tour squad at the 1984 Giro d'Italia, followed by Shelley Verses, soigneur with the 1985 7-Eleven squad. She was with the Bernard Tapie owned and Paul Köchli bossed Toshiba - La Vie Claire team for the 1987 season, during which LeMond was shot:
"It's not when the great champions experience victory, it's when they experience defeat that they really show who they are. When they have to dig so deep into their reserves, when they have to pick themselves up and push themselves so hard to come back ... The way Greg dug into himself is beyond what any words can say. It's different from the pain of a hard day on the Gavia, or six hours training in the rain, or starting a classic in filthy weather with 200 riders and only 27 finish. I honestly don't know how Greg did it. I have no idea how he came back after what he went through in 1987. When someone is as low as he was, to come back after he was shot and win the Tour de France? Twice?! That's about as deep as you can go. That's the sign of a true champion."
Andy Hampsten talks about his time in the pro ranks, racing with and against LeMond and has the most to say about 1986. But here he is on the subject of Europeans fairing badly outside their home nation:
"Racing in Italy was chaotic - because there wasn't the same pressure from sponsors in the north. Usually, if there was one or two French teams at the Giro, you'd have to be careful, because half the team would be bummed out. They had to live outside of France for three whole weeks ... When I went back to the Spanish team Banesto, it seemed like this ‘superteam,' but they were so horrible outside of Spain, strangely and genuinely uncomfortable, even in Italy!"
Those stories, they show that while LeMond is the focus of Yellow Jersey Racer, the book attempts to paint a much broader picture, tell you not just about LeMond, but about the sport itself during his era. That picture is expanded further by Andrews in a sort of coda to the book, a final section that - unusually for cycling biographies - looks at some of the bikes LeMond rode during his career. It's actually quite odd the way so few rider autobiographies - or even biographies - offer even a passing comment on the bikes raced to victory, especially in an era like the 1980s when those bikes were undergoing a period of massive change.
That LeMond’s era was one of massive change is not just visible in the bikes he rode: it’s clear in the very photographs themselves. Not their subjects, but the pictures themselves. These were the years when colour photography was replacing black and white, when media outlets were better able to cope with the demands of colour photography and demanded more and more of it. LeMond’s story starts in an era of black and white, but ends in colour.
In the same spirit in which Andrews devotes time to the bikes LeMond rode, some comment on the production values of Yellow Jersey Racer is merited. After a while, you can take for granted the changes wrought on cycling publishing by Rouleur and all the people involved in it, particularly Andrews. I know from experience that they take very seriously layout issues, it isn't just a question of chucking this picture on that page and so on. Here, Andrews and his designers have done something somewhat unusual, and used two types of paper to print the book on: the pictures are printed on matt art paper, the stories on uncoated stock. This means that the pictures - particularly the colour ones - stand out more, while the text pages are more subdued, aiding their readability on long winter nights with cold home lighting. Yellow Jersey Racer is a book where someone has clearly stopped and thought about the reader, and I don't get to say that too often in these book reviews.
A book that's been a long time in the coming, Yellow Jersey Racer is worth the wait. All told, Andrews offers an excellent broad-brush portrait of a rider and his era, of America's first Tour champion - and, today, its only Tour champion - and the years in which cycling came of age and served up some of the strongest images and stories in its history.