There’s been a lot of talk recently about a former American cycling legend and his tarnished legacy. It’s probably time to review the achievements of the original American Cycling Legend so that he might once again be properly considered as a cycling great and a pioneer.
I give you Greg LeMond.
Most casual (American) sports fans can tell you Lance Armstrong won a bunch of Tour de Frances. Many can even tell you the actual victory total is seven. Very few of them will even recall the name of LeMond. That’s a shame, because his story is almost as remarkable as Armstrong’s fiction and the fact that the former champion was bankrupted by the latter fraud makes the story only more poignent.
Before LeMond, no non-European had ever won the Tour de France. Ever. He finished third in his first-ever TdF (1983) and won the Young Rider classification. The next year he finished second, helping his teammate, the great Bernard Hinault, win his fifth tour. Most analysts believe LeMond could have beaten Hinault except team managers insisted he ride in support of the Frenchman. Hinault promised to return the favor the next year and instead battled his teammate tooth and nail. Despite the disloyalty, LeMond won his first TdF.
In 1987, LeMond suffered a dramatic setback akin to Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis when he was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law while turkey hunting. After almost dying and with 35 pellets still in his body, two year’s of rehabilitation ensued. Hoping to finish in the top 20 of the 1989 tour, LeMond won the whole thing behind a breathtaking time trial on the final stage, beating Laurent Fignon with an average speed of 55.5 km/hr (that’s 34.5 mph – try it sometime) – a record at the time which has only been bested twice since then. Later in 1989, he won the World Cycling Championships.
That year, LeMond was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman Of The Year, the first cyclist to win the award.
In 1990, LeMond won his third and final TdF after signing a record-breaking contract with $5.5 million to ride with Z-Tomasso (aka “Team Z”). He won the tour without winning a single stage, taking the yellow jersey on the second to last day after yet another strong time trial performance.
LeMond continued to compete for four more years but grew increasingly less relevant in the general classification category. He finished 7th in 1991, abandoned in 1992, was too exhausted to enter the race in 1993, he retired in 1994 after being forced to abandon once again.
In addition to his first-ever tour wins for a non-European, LeMond was a pioneer of cycling technology which we take for granted today, including the use of aerobars on time trials and the measurement of power (watts) in training regimens. He was the first rider to win the tour on a carbon-framed bicycle and successfully use clipless pedals. He played a big role in the success of Oakley sunglasses and Giro helmets, endorsing their products and improving their designs.
In 1990, LeMond founded LeMond Bicycles. In 1995, the company partnered with Trek Bicycles. Trek would eventually go on to sponsor Lance Armstrong. When LeMond (always a strong opponent of doping in the tour) made comments questioning Armstrong’s achievements, it led to several years of bickering between him and Trek. The acrimonious relationship eventually led to court suits in 2006 and an eight year feud with Armstrong. Many people felt that LeMond was motivated by jealousy over the fact he had lost his position as America’s Greatest Cyclist. Supporters argued that LeMond was simply being consistent with his strong anti-doping advocacy.
Whatever his motivations, it is now apparent that he was right.
So let us reflect on the achievements of Greg LeMond, three-time TdF winner, the first non-European to win the tour, a man who overcame a near-death accident, a pioneer in cycling technology, and a staunch advocate of anti-doping measures. Theres a lot to be said for a career like that.