Innovator, trailblazer, the man who introduced a nation to bike racing and transformed the peloton singlehandedly – Greg LeMond is all of this and more.
When Renault boss Cyrille Guimard approached a cocky 19-year-old American kid and offered him a pro contract following Lemond’s 1980 win at the Circuit de la Sarthe, even the greatest directeur sportif in Tour de France history must have thought it a long shot that the talented blond boy could convert his winning smile into winning ways on the world stage.
Guimard didn’t have long to wait, his new protégé taking five wins in his debut season, then a silver medal at the 1982 World Championships in Goodwood. Two weeks later, victory at the ten-stage Tour de l’Avenir confirmed the Renault team had a future Tour winner on its hands. The following year saw LeMond become the first male American rider to take the rainbow jersey when he finished solo, over a minute ahead of runner-up Adri van der Poel. This was clearly one very special talent indeed.
But it would not be Guimard who would reap the rewards of his investment. Corrupt businessman Bernard Tapie dangled a $1 million contract in front of LeMond’s baby blue eyes and lured the American away from Renault in 1985 to his all-star La Vie Claire squad, ostensibly in support of Bernard Hinault – a move that would produce one of the greatest rivalries in racing history…
If LeMond’s 1984 Grand Boucle debut showed great promise – finishing third behind team-mate Laurent Fignon – then the following year’s race providing help for his new leader Hinault was a bitter pill to swallow. The young buck was the stronger of the two men, yet played second fiddle to the Frenchman in return for a promise of reversed roles in 1986. It would not be forthcoming: the Badger attacked LeMond incessantly, but the American held on for the first of his three Tour de France wins.
LeMond’s ability to recover and improve during a Grand Tour were one of his greatest assets. His powers of recovery would be tested to the limit following an almost fatal hunting accident in 1987. He returned to racing with PDM the following year, his body still peppered with lead shot. It was not successful. Could he ever get back to the top?
Remarkably, 1989 saw LeMond take his second Tour following a so-so Spring, overturning Fignon’s 50-second advantage coming into the final stage time-trial on the Champs-Élysées to win by the closest margin in the race’s history – a mere eight seconds. He would win it again in 1990.
Away from LeMond’s glittering palmarès, his willingness to question the norms of a staid sport revolutionised bike racing. His inquisitive mind led to that 1989 Tour win, tri-bars and an aero helmet contributing to the remarkable victory as much as his legs. Other experiments, such as the bizarre Scott Drop-In handlebars, were less successful, but LeMond was never afraid to test the boundaries when it came to his equipment choices.
Nor was he scared of rocking the boat when it came to being an American in a European sport steeped in a century or more of tradition and superstition. If LeMond fancied a beer and a burger in a world of abstinence and suffering, then he would darned well have one, and to hell with the opprobrium. If he wanted his wife Kathy to accompany him on the Tour – an absolute no-no at the time – then he would do that too. And if he felt his market value was $1 million at a time when few, if any, riders were earning that kind of money, then he would ensure he got it.
French was the sport’s default language when LeMond joined the peloton. By the time of his retirement in 1994, English was widely used – arguably due to the American’s influence. A generation of US bike riders and racing fans became hooked on cycling due to LeMond’s extraordinary story – one that would provide inspiration to the next generation of his country’s racers. Kids from across the pond could indeed become cycling greats. Greg had shown the way.
Finally, in an era of omertà and not ‘spitting in the soup’, LeMond has always been an outspoken critic of drugs in cycling and dopers – most notably, Lance Armstrong. At a time when it would have best served his business interests to keep schtum, LeMond repeatedly accused his American successor of wrongdoing when others preferred to hold their counsel. He was, of course, proved entirely correct.
It may have little bearing on his eligibility to enter the Cycling Hall of Fame, but should not be forgotten. When Greg talks, we should listen.
Vote LeMond. You know he makes sense.
Over the coming months the Rouleur team will be making the case for each of the 18 Cycling Hall of Fame nominees. Vote for LeMond – or any of the other nominees – below.