Today’s Flashback Friday feature originally published on June 26, 2017
Gregory James LeMond is the greatest American cyclist ever to pedal a bike.
The first American [and non-European] to win what may be the most demanding contest in sports — the Tour de France – Lemond propelled cycling off the nation’s sports pages and into its living rooms. Following a meteoric rise through the amateur ranks, LeMond descended on Europe to win two World Road Race championships and several stage races. He wore the coveted yellow jersey – maillot jaune — as Tour de France champion three times between 1986 and 1990. His third and final win in Paris made LeMond one of only seven riders to have won three or more Tours.
LeMond was America’s first celebrated cyclist. Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House. Johnny Carson had him on the Tonight Show, and Sports Illustrated named him “Sportsman of the Year.” He was the first American to win the elite Road World Championship and first professional cyclist to sign a million-dollar contract. LeMond was a complete rider. He could both sprint and climb, and is only one of five riders to win the Tour de France and World Championship Road Race in the same year. After finishing second to Bernard Hinault in 1985, LeMond outdueled “The Badger” in an epic Tour de France victory the following year. With three straight podium finishes in the Tour de France and a victory in the 1983 World Road Race, the 25-year-old LeMond was atop the cycling world. Less than a year later, he nearly died from severe gunshot wounds suffered in a hunting accident.
Born in Lakewood, California, on this date in 1961, LeMond was raised in ranch country on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, near Reno. At 14, he started cycling as an off season training aid to his real passion – snow skiing. LeMond began competing in 1976 and, after winning the first 11 races he entered in the 13-15 category, was allowed to move up to juniors [16-19] and compete against older riders. At 15, he finished second in the Tour of Fresno to John Howard, America’s top road cyclist and 1971 Pan Am Games champion. After catching the eye of Eddie Borysewicz, coach of the U.S. National Team, who described LeMond as “a diamond, a clear diamond,” LeMond was invited to the 1978 Junior World Championships, where he finished ninth. He returned the following year and captured the gold medal. At 18, LeMond became the youngest rider ever to make the U.S. Olympic cycling team, but was prevented from competing due to the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The two-time Junior American road champion turned pro in 1981, moving to Europe to join the powerful Renault team. He was instantly a factor on the international scene, finishing second in the 1982 World Road Race. LeMond won four events in 1983, including the World Road Race Championships, and finished second in two others. A skilled and daring descender, he thrived in the Tour de France, claiming the white jersey as “Best Young Rider” after finishing third in 1984. LeMond enjoyed success in his homeland as well, taking his second career Coors Classic victory in 1985.
Following eight podiums during the 1986 season, he suffered a broken wrist in spring 1987 and returned to Nevada. In April, while turkey hunting with relatives in Northern California, LeMond was accidentally shot in the chest. Suffering from profound blood loss and a collapsed lung, LeMond nearly died. He was flown 100 miles west to a San Francisco hospital and underwent surgery. Unable to remove all the shotgun pellets from his body because the risk was too high, LeMond was discharged with 35 fragments still in his body, including several in the lining of his heart. The pellets remain in the 56-year-old LeMond today.
LeMond’s return to cycling was slow and arduous. Unable to regain his old form, he over-trained and developed tendonitis in his shin, which required surgery. The 5’-10”, 148-pound LeMond was not considered a contender coming into the 1989 Tour de France. After a see-saw battle with two-time winner, Laurent Fignon, that saw each exchange the yellow jersey as race leader, LeMond entered the event’s 21st and final stage 50 seconds behind the Frenchman. The lead seemed insurmountable. Using specially-designed aerodynamic equipment, he averaged nearly 34 mph over the 15-mile course to overtake Fignon, who wept in shock at the finish line along the Champs-Elysees. LeMond’s eight-second margin of victory was the closest in the Tour’s history. After taking the World Championships later that season, “Le Monster” became the first cyclist to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated when the magazine named him “Sportsman of the Year.”
After signing a $ 5.5 million deal with a French team, LeMond successfully defended his Tour de France title in 1990. Despite not taking any of the individual stages, he captured his third Tour title, and remains the last rider to win cycling’s premiere event while wearing the world champion jersey. Unable to remain fit in the coming off-seasons, LeMond quickly faded and retired from competitive cycling in 1994.
Greg LeMond lost his star status and livelihood after taking a stand against doping – professional cycling’s dirty little secret. In 2001, after learning that Lance Armstrong was working with Michele Ferrari, an infamous doctor who was accused of aiding corrupt cyclists with doping, LeMond was interviewed by London’s The Sunday Times. “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports,” said LeMond. “If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.” The narcissistic Armstrong went ballistic. He bullied Trek into ending its relationship with LeMond, whose line of bikes had reached annual sales of $ 20 million. Mindful of how criticism of Armstrong, who had duped the world, was received at that time, LeMond was careful with his words. “It’s unbelievable,” he responded when asked to assess Armstrong’s dominance in cycling’s most prestigious event. “It’s really unbelievable.”
LeMond was a pariah in his homeland, daring to challenge Armstrong – a cancer survivor who had been anointed an American sporting hero – and the culture of drugs in cycling. “We lost our reputation,” said LeMond’s wife, Kathy, whom Greg married in 1980. “We lost our income.” Following “twelve years of hell,” LeMond was exonerated. In 2012, after Armstrong had lied to the world about his cheating for more than a decade, the Texan was accused of leading “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping regime that sport has ever seen.” Cycling’s international governing body stripped Armstrong of his seven fraudulent Tour de France titles and banned him for life.
Accomplished, charming and magnetic, LeMond is an extremely genuine man. In spite of his fame, he has an everyman appeal. His reputation restored in the U.S., LeMond’s fame is five-fold in Europe. He is adored in France and remains an ardent anti-doping advocate in cycling. Mr. LeMond retired from competitive cycling in 1994 and was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1996. He owns and operates Time Sport USA, the U.S. distributor of a French line of bicycles and components. In 2014, LeMond joined Eurosport, a Paris-based pan-European television sports network, where he provides analysis for the continent’s biggest bike races, including the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.
Happy birthday to the greatest cyclist in U.S. history.