2001–Our Pal Greg LeMond

Up Close with Greg Lemond at Portand Bike Shop – copyright Peter Marsh

Wow! Greg LeMond was coming to Portland (Oregon). LeMond–the greatest American cyclist ever, the man who won the closest Tour de France in history. And yet, I felt strangely reluctant about showing up at River City Bicycles to see him. Maybe this was because I treasured my memory of him as a younger man: blasting past the Arc de Triomphe in 1989 to win the Tour, during the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

So what would it be like to see this legend in person–not surrounded by French camera crews or climbing through the crowds in the yellow jersey, but in front of an audience in a bike shop? Well, there was only one way to find out. After a well-written tribute, read by cycling author Maynard Hershon, Lemond stepped forward. There was no fanfare, no sponsor’s banners. Greg had been sitting quietly at the back of the shop next to the mechanics’ space and I hadn’t even recognized him!

When he turned to face us, there was that mischievous, bright-eyed smile that I hadn’t seen for a decade. This was a new Greg LeMond: Greg the Dad (his son was with him), Greg the bike company executive, Greg the middle-aged man. Yes, it’s true–and he said it! Our hero has settled into a comfortable life as a former champion and even admits to being overweight. Well, that’s his business, and he’s even earned the right to race a motor car if he wants to.

Those glorious days, from his first world championship in 1983 to his third Tour victory in 1990, were what we came to hear about-and they seemed to come alive again as Greg took us into the peloton while answering a steady stream of wide-ranging questions. “My comeback in 1989 was the sweetest victory of my career,” he reflected “because I’d had two poor years after the shooting accident.”

“You’re only as good as your last race……………and I was contemplating stopping the sport. When you’re racing 120 days a year and you’re off the pace, it’s hard to keep coming back.” The harsh truth, Greg confided was this: “After fourteen years racing on the continent, I never stopped being the outsider. Europeans have their country and their culture behind them; even today they’re still trying to downplay my successes.”

“I never stopped being homesick. After my famous disagreement with Bernard Hinault in 1986, I felt so isolated, I stopped eating with the team and spent all my free time with my family. When I returned to the states that winter, I had no interest in training. I played golf, skied and tried to forget about it.” (Winter sports gave him his first taste of competition and it was a ski coach who first recommended he do some cycling in the summer months.)

Greg had already spoken about Lance Armstrong, America’s new, cycling star. Then in he walked, unannounced! Lance had been speaking at the Anthony Robbins motivational seminar in town and was just “dropping by”for a bit of gossip. The two champions caught up on the news in a conversation that the microphone barely picked up. I stopped taking notes and just sat and stared at this pair of American boys who have both reached the top rung of the cycling ladder.

There are many similarities between them: they were both teenage prodigies who were able to beat the top adults while they were still in high school–Greg as cyclist, Lance as a tri-athlete. Both men were hospitalized for many weeks and recovered miraculously to ride again. Greg was the victim of a hunting accident who recuperated from a shotgun blast to the back to win the Tour de France two more times, Lance is a cancer survivor who underwent the full chemo-therapy regime and emerged with a leaner physique to become the best climber in the world.

“When you’re young, with your whole career ahead of you, you’re invincible. Then a brush with death like this gives you a whole new perspective on life,” Greg observed. You’re happy just to be alive. When you realize you can race again, that’s just an added blessing. I changed my priorities and I’m sure Lance did as well.”

Armstrong’s flying visit was soon over, and the evening resumed with more questions, many concerning doping. Greg reminded us that the latest “wonder drug” EPO, hadn’t been invented when he was riding, but there were still plenty of chemicals to choose from and very few controls. “I left one team because of systematic doping,” he informed us. “I think the Tour de France would be dead if it hadn’t cleaned up its act,” he stated.

When this second session finally concluded, Greg said a few words about LeMond Bicycles–the ostensible reason for his visit–and I thought the excitement was over.  But Greg LeMond showed no signs of quitting, as ever, and was ready for another long session with his fans-this time with his pen at the ready!

The autograph line formed up with cyclists young and old clutching shirts, hats, old magazines and posters. A half hour passed and Greg was still signing and smiling. So he still has that endurance that carried him so far in the world of cycling. I went home happily with two images of Greg, In the first one, he was time-trialling through Paris to win the closest ever Tour, while demonstrating the new, American, bicycle technology of  aero bars and a streamlined helmet. In the second, he was just our pal Greg………(Incidentally, Greg’s bikes are now built by Trek, which happens to be Armstrong’s supplier as well.)

Afterword

Judge for yourself if this shows unfair bias on my part! It was a deja vu moment for me to read this again in 2014, years after Armstrong’s winning streak in the Tour de France had been thrown out for drug offences. And in 2010,  Greg’s lawsuit against Trek (Armstrong’s sponsor) for failing  to market his bike brand was upheld. The Zen company in Portland was reported to be building a batch of  Reynolds steel frames for LeMond bikes to make a comeback. P.Marsh

An Oct 27, 2014 issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune carried a story on Greg, here are some quotes:

At 53, LeMond is grayer and beefier than he was 25 years ago, when he won his last Tour de France. He’s also far healthier and happier than he’s been since he dared to challenge the credibility of Lance Armstrong and cycling’s culture of drugs.

What followed, LeMond said, was “12 years of hell” — the loss of a successful business, a swirl of litigation, the searing wrath of the cycling world. As Armstrong smashed LeMond’s records, sports reporters continued to pester him, asking, “What do you think of Lance Armstrong?”

“I came up with an answer I could use,” LeMond said. “I’d just say, ‘It’s unbelievable. It’s really unbelievable.’ ” That line gets a laugh now, but not 12 years ago. As doping rumors intensified and evidence mounted, reporters pushed LeMond to comment. Finally, he told the London Sunday Times, “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”

Now, Greg LeMond is once again the only American ever to have won the Tour de France. And the LeMonds are launching their long-delayed second act. Their three children, once scattered, are back in the Twin Cities area. Geoffrey designs software, and Scott and Simone work with their father. Greg’s company is close to selling out its limited-edition carbon bike frame and is taking orders for a second bike, a steel-frame road bike. A complete line of bikes, he said, is on the way.

 

 

About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
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