Going Going Bike

Nov 212014

LemondAmerican history is littered with tales of great pioneers. Settlers moved west into previously uninhabited land in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, establishing the settlements which would evolve into the United States we know today. Following his great ancestors before him, Greg LeMond also battled difficult terrain (mainly the Alps and the Pyrenees) as he ventured into strange new territories.

Unlike the pioneers of yesteryear, LeMond was not in fact discovering new land. Instead he forged a path into the equally alien world of professional road cycling. Much in the same way that many of us Brits look at American Football and think it is a truly ludicrous sport, cycling was similarly frowned upon Stateside in the 1980s. One man helped to change those perceptions.

Greg LeMond was born in June 1961 in California and raised in Washoe Valley (imagine cowboy country and your mental image won’t be far wrong). He initially took up cycling as he was advised it would help in his ambitions to become a skier. However after bombing around on his bike he decided that two wheels were far better than two weird long things strapped to your feet and started to compete in cycling seriously. Weekends were regularly spent piling his gear into the back of the family VW campervan, setting off to various races around California, winning, and getting back in time for school. The kid was a natural, as they would probably say on American sports commentary.

After winning a variety of amateur races both in the States and in Europe, LeMond was scouted by none other than ‘the Badger’ himself, Bernard Hinault. In 1980 the French tour champion made a personal visit to the LeMond residence along with Renault-Elf-Gitane team manager Cyrille Guimard. The pair (after posing for photos decked out in ridiculous western gear) explained that they wanted Greg to turn professional with the team, with the view to taking over Hinault’s position as team leader when the Badger retired. He was to become the Luke Skywalker to Hinault’s Yoda.

LeMond accepted and quickly established himself as the next big thing in cycling. He made his Tour de France debut in 1984 and won the white jersey for the best young rider having finished third. Things had all kicked off between Hinault and Guimard by now so Bernard established his very own team, La Vie Claire. He wanted his young padawan to join him on the so called dream team and after being offered a truck load of wonga LeMond jumped ship.

LeMond and Hinault entered the 1985 Tour de France being widely tipped to be the two red hot favourites to win overall. Tour history suggests that having two contenders for the GC on the same team rarely works out well, and almost inevitably, it didn’t. By stage 17 LeMond was in second place overall with an injured Hinault wearing the yellow jersey. The day’s stage took in three big climbs in the Pyrenees and on the decisive climb LeMond followed an attack by third placed Stephen Roche. Hinault was blowing big time halfway down the mountain and it seemed the maillot jaune was there for the taking. However the team car had other ideas. And when I say the team car I of course mean the blokes in the car. The car itself probably didn’t have that many views on the situation aside from ‘when are we going to stop driving up bloody big hills?’. Team coach Paul Koechli yelled at LeMond to wait for Hinault, claiming the Frenchman was only a few seconds down the road. By the time LeMond realised he’d been lied to it was too late and the breakaway had been brought back by the peloton.  Hinault won the tour before promising in front of the TV cameras that the team would work for LeMond next year.

Fast forward to the 1986 tour and Greg LeMond should have a fully united team to help him become the first American to win the tour right? Wrong. Maverick coach Koechli decided that having a team leader was SO 1970s and as such the La Vie Claire team would enter the tour without one. It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last time that the team lied to Greg.

Hinault was in blisteringly good form and had the brain wave that whoever did best in the first time trial would become the leader of the team. Conveniently Hinault smashed the time trial while LeMond struggled with bike malfunctions and all round rotten luck. Hinault had soon opened up a five minute gap over LeMond and it seemed the American’s tour dreams were over for another year. Greg had other ideas (cue the inspirational music and Rocky style montage). He managed to claw back four and a half minutes before the tour entered the Alps.  On stage 17 LeMond dropped Hinault on the final climb and at the top became the first American to pull on a yellow jersey.

The next day the tour hit the most famous climb of all, Alp d’Huez. Inevitably Hinault tried a long attack to reclaim the yellow jersey. However Greg pulled him back and despite probably having the legs to attack he decided to agree with Hinault’s suggestion to sit on the Badger’s wheel. They rode up the iconic climb together and as they neared the summit they had an arm around each other and were having a good natured chat. The gist of the discussion was plain for all to see: Hinault takes the stage, LeMond takes the yellow jersey. The pair crossed the line together, holding hands to salute the crowds, big smiles all round. It was a truly iconic and touching moment. The two great rivals had put their differences aside to work together and achieve something incredible.

The illusion lasted less than an hour. In a joint TV interview things went south very quickly as Hinault claimed that the race for the yellow jersey was not over and that he could still win. LeMond was visibly upset and spent the rest of the tour watching his back, convinced that the team management along with Hinault were conspiring against him. However Greg managed to survive attacks and another sensational time trial from Hinault to hold on to the yellow jersey all the way to Paris. He became the first American to win the Tour de France, an achievement made all the more impressive thanks to having to battle not only the rest of the field but his team as well.

Sadly LeMond could not return to defend his crown in 1987 thanks to being shot in the back in a bizarre hunting incident. It took him two years to recover from his near fatal accident before he was ready to return to the tour in 1989. Having been out of the sport for so long nobody really knew what to expect from LeMond but what ensued was another great battle with a French rider. This time it was the bespectacled blond bombshell Laurent Fignon. The pair exchanged the yellow jersey several times before LeMond finally reclaimed the jersey and secured victory on the final time trial. The winning margin of eight seconds still stands as the closest ever.

He successfully defended the jersey in 1990 to claim his third overall victory. There would surely have been more but for those meddling kids and their EPO. We’ll leave that topic of discussion for another day though.

Greg LeMond paved the way for a generation of American riders and helped the sport to become part of the mainstream in the States. He truly is a great American pioneer.

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