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The Comeback, by Daniel de Visé

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Greg LeMond signing autographs after his 1986 Tour victory
Greg LeMond signing autographs after his 1986 Tour victory

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
Year: 2018
Pages: 362
Order: Grove Atlantic
What it is: A biography of Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France
Strengths: It’s a comprehensive retelling of the Greg LeMond story, from childhood through success on the road, the struggle for the truth with both Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis, and on to recent comments about the use of hidden motors
Weaknesses: The use of first names – Greg, Laurent, Lance – may make the reader feel close to the subject but they don’t make up for a lack of heart in the actual story-telling

An earlier review of this book and an excerpt from it can both be found on the Café Bookshelf

Given the vast forests felled so far to tell Greg LeMond’s story in print, and given the many hours of television, radio and podcasts that have been dedicated to the man and his story, let’s start with the obvious question: do we need another Greg LeMond book?

To-date, we’ve had five, three that look at his career and two that look at individual Tours. The first was his own take on the early part of the story, mixed in with a lot of techs mechs and help-the-helpless hints, his 1987 book Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Bicycling, written with (well, mostly by) Kent Gordis. Then there was the dean of American cycling journalism, Sam Abt, with his still wonderful LeMond – The Incredible Comeback, which came out in 1990 and told the story up to LeMond’s 1989 double of the Tour de France and the World Championships, with lots of input from both LeMonds, Greg and and his wife Kathy.

After that there was a long lull, which included an aborted attempt in the noughties at a Matt Seaton-ghosted autobiography, Time Trials – My Life, ending in 2011 with Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger – LeMond, Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France Ever, rightly considered by many to be one of the best cycling books published in the last decade. That focused on the 1986 Tour, but also had to tell the story up to that date, so serves as biography – of both Bernard Hinault and LeMond – as well as race autopsy. Then in 2016 we got Greg LeMond – Yellow Jersey Racer from Guy Andrews, which eloquently told the story of LeMond’s professional career (as well as offering a broad brush portrait of the era he raced in) in the words of people who knew him during it, as well is in photographs, with LeMond offering commentary on some of those.

Most recently we got Nige Tassell’s Three Weeks Eight Seconds – The Epic Tour de France of 1989, a book that drove me to despair but which the British Sports Book Awards somehow decided was one of the six best cycling books published in 2017, making it better than Herbie Sykes’s The Giro 100 - 100 Tales from the Corsa Rosa, Thomas Dekker’s The Descent (My Epic Fall from Cycling Superstardom to Doping Dead End), and Barry Ryan’s The Ascent - Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation. Which it patently isn’t, but that’s things like the British Sports Book Awards for you, half the time they only read the title and the back-cover blurb.

Greg LeMond
Greg LeMond
Getty Images

Three of those books – Abt, Moore, Andrews – are books for the ages, books that can be read and reread, books that can be appreciated not just by the generation that watched 1985, 1986, 1989, and 1990 in real time, but by those who’ve only seen those four classic editions of the Tour on VHS tapes or YouTube. Any new book coming along and wanting to tell LeMond’s story, it’s got to compete with them. So either it’s got to have something new to say, or it’s got to have a different way of telling the story.

Daniel de Visé’s The Comeback – Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France fulfils both requirements. On the first, it brings the story up to date, offering a chronological canter through LeMond’s life, on and off the bike. On the second, it reframes the narrative, running LeMond’s story in parallel with that of the man he twice got the better of in 1989, Laurent Fignon.

LeMond and Fignon, they’re not exactly Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. They’re not even Eddy Merckx and Poulidor. All that binds them so tight is eight seconds. But, a LeMond-Hinault rivalry worked for Moore in Slaying the Badger, why not try for LeMond-Fignon here? Making The Comeback, I guess, Subduing the Professor.

Tour de France 1989, Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon
Tour de France 1989, Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon

Except the other prong of De Visé’s approach – a chronological canter through LeMond’s life, on and off the bike – doesn’t leave room to open the story out the way Moore did. There’s no room for it to breathe. There’s no room to pause and enjoy the scenery, or take in the significance of a moment. And where Moore was willing to take a back seat, act as conductor as his interviewees formed a choir and told the real story, everyone here is – as in Tassell’s Three Weeks Eight Seconds – reduced to canapé-sized sound-bites.

De Visé does work the parallel stories for all they’re worth, right up to LeMond and Fignon riding into the sunset as Gen-EPO leaves them in its dust. But whereas the Anquetil-Poulidor polemica ends in a touching scene with Poulidor at Anquetil’s deathbed, these two supposed arch-rivals are left living independent lives, their paths rarely crossing, even at the end.

So if it’s not Subduing the Professor, then, what is The Comeback? Well, here’s how the author describes it, in a back-of-the-book Author’s Note:

“I set out to write this book in the fall of 2015. Walking around my neighbourhood one day, I realized with a jolt that the 1989 Tour de France was the perfect topic for a book: a great, forgotten story. The parade of events that had erased the story from the nation’s collective memory became the book’s final act. LeMond’s amazing comeback and three historic Tour victories had been eclipsed by Armstrong’s even better comeback and seven historic Tour victories. I knew the uncanny parallels between Armstrong’s comeback and LeMond’s. I wanted to recount the 1989 Tour – not merely LeMond’s finest hour, but the greatest Tour ever staged and one of the most stirring sports narratives of my lifetime.”

A story erased from a nation’s collective memory. That tells you the book’s target audience: Americans, who either never knew or have forgotten the story. Americans who didn’t catch ESPN’s documentary based on Slaying the Badger. Largely, then, a non-cycling audience. So The Comeback has to do a lot of explaining along the way. Like what the Tour is (“A Tour contender rides his bicycle flat out, pedalling as fast as his heart will allow, for some two hundred kilometers over five hours of racing, daily.”) or what doping is (“The drug of choice for Laurent and his teammates was cortisone, a steroid that functioned like aspirin, offering swift relief and recovery to riders vexed by inflammation and pain.”).

Sean Kelly, Greg LeMond, Dimitri Konichev
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. Greg LeMond wins the 1989 World Championships in Chambéry, France

It also has a lot of erasing to do. This is a multi-generational story, it spans six decades in the life of LeMond. There’s a lot of people you meet over the course of six decades, especially when you count in all the riders you raced with and against. You have to thin the crowd out, a lot. So, for instance, the 1989 World Championships, it’s just LeMond and Fignon get name-checked, everyone else becomes ‘the others.’ The problem here isn’t that too few of the others are named, it’s that it’s not just their names that are being effaced, but their effort. The more the story is narrowed down to just LeMond and Fignon, the more it looks like it was all just LeMond and Fignon, all the time, dominating a decade. Abt, Moore, Andrews, each of them in tackling the LeMond story told a story of his era, gave the man a context. There’s not much room for context here.

The effacing of the efforts of others is at its most egregious in the claims that LeMond, with his father, re-invented cycling’s economic model. Cycling in the 1980s, it had a big bang of finance. Money flowed into the sport, look at the way Francesco Moser’s 1984 Hour record was funded, or look at the presence of Bernard Tapie among the team owners. The reasons for this are many and complicated. So in a simplified story you ignore them. You take one man – LeMond – and you credit him with everything. I mean, he got the first million dollar salary, right? Well, no, it was actually less than $800,000, and spread over three years.

If you wanted to credit one man with shaking up cycling’s economic model, you’d do well to consider the Australian rider Phil Anderson. Where LeMond sent his father to negotiate on his behalf, Anderson sent solicitors to discuss his 1983 Peugeot contract. And not just any solicitors but a firm that normally represented F1 drivers. Later in the decade, after he’d signed for Panasonic, he got a deal that was rumoured to be on a par with LeMond’s. But Anderson, he put people’s backs up and didn’t self-mythologize as much as others and so we get LeMond, the million dollar man, single-handedly dragging cycling into the twentieth century.

Reducing the story to one man, it becomes another story of one man against the world – well, actually, it’s one man against Europe, with Europe some strange construct I found hard to recognise. Apparently Le Monde “is perhaps Europe’s most esteemed newspaper”, L’Équipe is our leading sports paper, and the man in the maillot jaune is recognised all across the continent. This confusion between France and Europe is, I think, a part of the bigging up of the story books like this in general fall into. Little in the story is ever strong enough the way it is. It has to be supersized.

Take the 1991 Tour, the Intralipid affaire, LeMond’s former team, PDM, coming down with a bout of ‘food poisoning’ and the riders leaving the race over the course of two stages. Such a mass exodus, De Visé tells us, was without precedent. Except there is sufficient precedent for us to refer to such incidents of ‘food poisoning’ as bouts of bad fish. But the story being told here – of a rampant Gen-EPO leaving LeMond and Fignon in the dust – needs such stories bigged up.

The bigging up of the difference between doping in the 1980s and doping in 1990s is something I have argued against many times now. It damns the riders of the 1990s while letting the generation before them get off scot-free. Yes, there was a clear step change in performance in the 1990s, some down to the role played by blood manipulation. But the blood manipulation of the 1990s was grounded in the blood manipulation of the 1980s. The 1990s, it was EPO and it was available across the whole team, turning domestiques into Duracell bunnies, never tiring. The blood transfusions of the 1980s, logistics and cost limited their availability to the best riders on a team. There is ample evidence that the best riders to whom transfusions were available number more than we realise. Through Mario Beccia, Roger de Vlaeminck and Roberto Visentini we have strong evidence showing blood transfusions were in use in different teams in 1982, 1984 and 1986. Through PDM’s doping diaries we have strong evidence showing blood transfusions were in use in 1988, the year LeMond was riding with the team.

Doping in the 1980s, remember, has been reduced in The Comeback to the ‘aspirin-like’ cortisone. And when Pedro Delgado pops a positive for probenecid at the 1988 Tour (which we can speculate may have been caused by a tainted bag of blood) and when Gert-Jan Theunisse, one of LeMond’s PDM team-mates, pops a positive for testosterone in that same race we’re told that these were “the first major doping cases at the Tour since the start of the decade.” In the 1983 Tour, six riders tested positive for nandrolone. Three riders tested positive in 1987, two for testosterone and another for nandrolone. Delgado’s case, yes, that was the biggest scandal since the last biggest scandal, Michel Pollentier in 1978. But Delgado and Theunisse, they weren’t the only two facing doping charges at the Tour in the 1980s.

This matters because De Visé accepts, without questioning the evidence, that LeMond rode clean. I’m happy to believe he rode clean but I’m not going to try and convince you he was clean by suggesting there was only one Tour in the 1980s where doping was proved or tell you that the drug of choice of the era was little better than aspirin. The man raced in an era that was dirty with dope, an era in which blood boosting was coming to the fore.

Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond
Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond, before the fall

Doping, is of course, central to the book’s final act, the struggle for the truth of the Armstrong era. Everything about Armstrong here, it’s negative, to a self-defeating extreme. The man, we’re told, had limited talent and the proof of that is his poor performance in his early Tours. I’ve no idea how much raw talent Armstrong had, but the problem with basing such a claim on his performance in those early Tours is that, just a chapter or two before, LeMond and Fignon’s poor performances in their final Tours was taken as proof the rest of peloton was hopped up to the gills on EPO. If we know that Armstrong didn’t take to EPO until the end of 1995, how can we then argue that his poor performance in those early Tours signified a lack of talent?

Or let’s take another story about Armstrong, this time evidence of what a complete and utter bastard he is. Now me, I think we have tons of evidence on that score as it is, but we get more here:

“At 11:12 a.m. on June 11, 2009, Lance greeted his millions of Twitter followers with a most unexpected Tweet: ‘Sending out my best to Laurent Fignon who was recently dx w/ cancer. A friend, a great man, and a cycling legend. Livestrong Laurent.’

“And thus did the cycling world learn that an enigmatic legend of French cycling was fighting for his life.”

This Tweet, we’re told, then bounced Fignon into having to go public that evening with news of his cancer diagnosis.

I did a quick search on Twitter and found that, over the course of four hours before Armstrong passed on the news to his one million Twitter followers, at least six other people had posted about Fignon’s cancer and at least two of them had tagged Armstrong on their Tweets. Those that credited a source named the now defunct as where the news was first seen. So why blame Armstrong for breaking news that was broken elsewhere? He amplified it, yes, but he wasn’t the source. That, though, is the type of story this is. Amplified. Bigger than life.

In the seven years since Armstrong’s fall, it seems clear that few lessons have been learned by the American media. They didn’t ask questions then, they’re still not willing to ask questions now. Then, all they wanted was a black and white story, a classic western, the lone good guy standing tall against a gang of bad guys, the townspeople turning their backs on him. That’s still all they want. Back then, we got Lance Armstrong’s War – One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France, here we’re being given Greg LeMond’s War. Back then we got Tour de Lance – The Extraordinary Story of Lance Armstrong’s Fight to Reclaim the Tour de France, here we’ve got Tour de Greg.

Only the names have been changed.

Back when Greg LeMond was the guy who had just won the Tour de France for the first time, America recognised their sporting hero by inviting him to the White House in August 1986. Ronald Reagan gave him a jar of jelly beans and a couple of trinkets, LeMond gave Reagan a yellow jersey. He was invited back again in September 1989, and again had to hand over a yellow jersey to the president, George Bush Snr. Over in old, stuck-in-its-ways Europe, it’s the riders who get the gifts: Belgium made Eddy Merckx a Baron, Britain made Bradley Wiggins a Sir, France gave Bernard Hinault the Légion d’Honneur.

Greg LeMond presents Ronald Reagan with a yellow jersey in the White House, August 1986
Greg LeMond presents Ronald Reagan with a yellow jersey in the White House, August 1986

Over this side of the Atlantic, the populist panderings of The Comeback may lack appeal if you already know the story, but I can see how they’ll play well in Peoria. Maybe well enough to spur Americans into giving LeMond the same level of respect and honour he gets this side of the Atlantic. Maybe one day it’ll even help get him invited back to the White House.

The Comeback – Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France is written by Daniel de Visé and published by Atlantic Monthly Press
The Comeback – Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France is written by Daniel de Visé and published by Atlantic Monthly Press