As I have done every summer since I discovered the Tour de France, first on Channel 4 in 1985, I have spent three weeks in July, trying to keep up to date on its 21-day duration, whether ‘live’ as it happens or on the highlights package later. Even being out of this country during the race, hasn’t stopped that dedication, as I have watched the race on Eurosport when on holiday in Italy, Spain, Portugal or in France itself.
In those early days of watching it, it took me two years to work out that only a select few riders taking part, could actually win the race, with the bulk of the other riders simply there to serve as ‘domestiques’ and basically riding in support of their teams designated leader in his effort to take the coveted yellow jersey, which signifies the leader of the race and then the eventual winner at the end of its three weeks..
It’s no secret, that the world of professional cycling has been tainted for many years due to performance enhancing drugs being widely used by many of its top names, perhaps most famously Lance Armstrong who won the race seven times. For me however, it was another American rider who first caught my eye and who along with names like Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Robert Millar was among the first batch of riders who hooked me in to this fabulous spectacle.
He went on to win it three times, all the while looking like the all -American sporting hero, blonde and blue eyed and he certainly rode his bike like one, taking on the big French names of the time, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon among them, to give as good as anything they dished out.
I’m talking about Gregory James LeMond, who was born in Lakewood, California in June 1961. His family, mum Bertha, dad Bob and his sisters, later lived in the Nevada countryside. A hyperactive kid, LeMond was into all the major outdoor pursuits, namely fishing, hunting and skiing, anything that kept him busy.
‘I was a boy who just could not sit still. I had trouble focusing on school. Parents and educators then did not have the skill set to diagnose and cope with what we know now was a classic case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD certainly was not the frequently medicated childhood disease it is today. My triumph over the symptoms was found atop two thin tyres over many dusty miles. When I got into cycling, I would say the sport itself took a fog off my brain. I was able to absorb stuff I read. It changed my life.’
He rode his way to high school every day and then started to compete in proper cycle races in 1976. Aged fifteen, he won the first eleven races he entered. As a result, he was moved up into an older category and soon began catching the attention of the US Cycling Federation. He went on to win the gold in the junior world championship road race in 1979 but missed out on the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to the US boycott of the games.
Instead he signed a professional contract with the Renault team on the day the 1980 Tour de France ended. He soon made his mark on the pro circuit, coming in third in the Criterium du Dauphine, whilst riding in support of his team’s leader Bernard Hinault. Showing great form, LeMond went on to win five races in his first season with the team.
He started to compete in Grand Tours in 1984, including the TdF, with Laurent Fignon as his team leader. LeMond won the white jersey, signifying him as the best young rider in the race, on his way to finishing third overall.
For the 1985 race, he had transferred to La Vie Claire, owned by Bernard Tapie who secured the services of Greg on a contract of $1 million over three years. The leader of the team was Bernard Hinault, who was in search of his record equalling fifth win of the race. It was very clear early on, that LeMond was strong enough to win the race in his own right, however, he was prevented in doing so by team orders. Hinault went on to the win overall, with LeMond claiming 2nd place. As a gesture of good faith and in return for his support in the race, Hinault promised to help LeMond win the following year.
By the time, the 1986 tour grew nearer however, Hinault smelt what would have been a sixth historic win of the three-week race. So, instead of the supporting role he had promised, he attacked in the early stages and held a five-minute lead at one point. Realising what was going on, LeMond, tremendously fit and lean with just 5% body fat, attacked back and began to drop Hinault in his wake as he stretched out to a 4-minute lead and pulled on the yellow jersey as race leader, becoming the first American rider to ever do so.
Then Hinault attacked again, prompting LeMond to exclaim ‘He’s attacked me from the beginning. He’s never helped me once, and I don’t feel confident at all with him.’ He won the overall race in the end, but the betrayal of Hinault, nicknamed The Badger, and that of the team management, bit deep.
Onto 1987, and LeMond was looking to defend his title but broke his left wrist in a fall in an earlier race and returned the US to recuperate. Days before he was due back in Europe, he went turkey hunting with family members on a ranch owned by his father and became separated from them. His uncle Patrick, hearing a noise behind him, turned and fired. Instead of a turkey, he had shot LeMond. Hit by 60 pellets, Greg lost a lot of blood. A police helicopter got him to hospital and emergency surgery saved his life. It was said, 20 minutes later and it would have been all over. Very much alive, the battle was now on to regain his fitness.
He had signed with the Dutch PDM team, but a doping scandal within its ranks, led him to move to ADR of Belgium by the 1988 season.
Not surprisingly, his performances were patchy early that year, especially struggling in any mountain stages he encountered. In fact, he was considering retirement after the forthcoming Tour de France. Once the race was underway however, LeMond began to improve and picked up the yellow jersey after winning a time trial. French rider and two-time winner of the TdF, Laurent Fignon was also in fine form and by the last stage in Paris, he held a 50 second lead overall. The 21st stage was another time trial, this time over 25 kilometres from Versailles to the Champs Elysees. Fignon was a firm favourite.
LeMond had other ideas. Riding his time trial bike with disc wheels and wearing an aerodynamic helmet, Lemond set off like a rocket. Fignon, who chose not to wear the ‘aero’ helmet gave chase but eventually came in 8 seconds worse off, therefore handing the American the win, by the smallest margin in the race’s history. LeMond fell to the streets of Paris crying with his wife Kathy and family, when he was confirmed as the winner. Sports Illustrated magazine named LeMond its ‘Sportsman of the Year’ for 1989, the first time a cyclist had received that honour.
He also had a $5.5 million three-year contract in his back pocket after his next team move, this time to Z-Tomasso . But it was only towards the end of the 1990 race on stage 16, did he begin to take control, being chased all the way by Miguel Indurain, who was laying down a marker on just how dominant he would become in the sport over the next few years. But for now, it was LeMond who rode into Paris and the last day in Yellow, completing his third overall win of the historic race.
It was to be his last win. He wore yellow briefly in 1991, but the Indurain era had begun and LeMond finished 7th overall. He struggled on, but his general health was not in good enough shape from that point, to seriously challenge again in the gruelling Tour. He retired in 1994 aged 33 and speculated that the lead from the pellets, from the shooting accident had raised a toxicity in his blood.
He also acknowledged that doping in the mid 90s was rife in the sport and other riders were now faster than him. A fervent anti-doper, it was reported he was told he needed to blood dope to be competitive. He chose retirement instead. He also claimed that without his accident, he was confident he would have gone on to win 5 tours, the same as Anquetil, Mercyx, Hinault, and the coming man, Miquel Indurain.
In retirement, LeMond went into the bike design business, first with Trek and then with Time. He also invested in real estate with his in laws, opened a restaurant and became a popular pundit on cycling for Eurosport. He also continued his campaign against doping in the sport.
‘When I speak out about doping people could translate it and think it was about the riders. Actually, I feel like I am an advocate for the riders. I look at them as being treated like lab rats that are test vehicles for the doctors. The doctors, the management, the officials, they’re the ones that have corrupted riders. The riders are the only ones that pay the price.’
On Lance Armstrong, he had said ‘If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback (after Armstrong’s testicular cancer) in the history of sports. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.’
LeMond also disclosed his own history of suffering childhood sexual abuse and set up a non-profit organisation called ‘1in6.org’ complete with the mission statement ‘to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood, live healthy, happy lives.’
Upon hearing of the death of his old rival Laurent Fignon in 2010 LeMond said: ‘It’s a really sad day. I see him as one of the great riders who was hampered by injuries. He had a very, very big talent, much more than anyone recognised. For me he was one of the greater champions that was not recognised. He was more remembered for his loss in the Tour de France than for his two victories.’
So, there you have it, before Lance Armstrong and all that went with him, we had another American who dazzled and shone bright and then was gone. But he, along with a few others, hooked me into a sport and a race, that I had no real clue about at the start, but one to this day that I love, and I thank him, above all, for that.
The Mumper of SE5
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