Intensity, yodel and Superman
I have to confess I am a sensitive guy. The type that cries watching movies. There’s a part of my brain that processes stories, music and images and when the movie is clevery cut, it hits that trigger. I can’t help it. And I don’t even try to. The other day, I was watching “The Iron Giant” with my kids. I knew this was coming. I’d already seen it. When the robot decides to sacrifice himself in order to stop the nuke that is falling down on our heroes, the symphonic suit that goes crescendo gets me every time. When he reaches the bomb, the giant closes his eyes and whispers the name of the hero he wishes to be… “Sooperman…”. That is so intense.
Sometimes, bike races are like a movie that good. And no matter how many times you’ve seen it, it gets you every time.
All right. I admit it. It’s an obvious choice. This might be the most popular Greg LeMond picture ever. In fact, I know it is. This blog : http://www.bicycling.com/news/featured-stories/whatever-happened-greg-lemond?page=0,0 says Greg was signing this picture in 2006. I saw Greg in Megève last june. At one point, he was busy signing posters for the fans gathered there. What picture do you think he had chosen ? That’s correct. The famous and may I say most impressive “Chambéry yell” (not to be mistaken with the “Chambéry yodel”, which is a whole other thing… Ok, I might have made that one up).
I did not count but there are probably a dozen variants of that shot. And every single one of them tells the same story. I’ll try and walk you through it. First things first. Enter Greg. Mouth wide open as if he was trying to eat the whole world (and, rightly so, he just kind of did). Eyes so intense I don’t recall having seen such a gaze myself except maybe when Bill Bixby is about to transform into a greenish-almost-naked Lou Ferrigno in that TV show, “The Incredible Hulk”. Only… This is no anger there, just… Pure, definitive, unavoidable will.
One day, as he tried to teach me what cycling was about, my father showed me that picture. “Do you know why LeMond won this race ?”. “No”, I said. “Because he’s the only one who really wanted it.”. I thought about that a lot since then and I came to the conclusion that my father was probably right. And yet again, probably a bit off too. Let me explain. Take a look at the young Russian with a red jersey. I see relief. I see exhaustion. Dimitri Konyshev is just 23 when he wins the silver medal at the worlds. This is his first year as a professional cyclist. He is the first Russian to achieve such a goal. And he does it after a strong race, having been at the front of the race for most of the day. At this moment, for Dimitri, silver will do. This is awesome. He is enjoying it.
On the other side of the road, that’s another story. Sean Kelly is at that time the number 1 cyclist in the world. He’ll win the first ever world cup that very year, 1989. He has the strongest palmares of the peloton : he has 9 out of the… 11 day classics he’ll eventually win in the bag, so many wins in one week stage races that I don’t even care to count, one win at the Vuelta, multiple stages and classifications (including 4 Tour de France green jerseys)… In short, a most serious bad ass. But, oddly, on this very picture, the mighty Sean Kelly is in tears. He knows.
Kelly & LeMond have known each other for a while. They have a story.
They have battled many, many times and, let’s face it, it almost always turned out in Sean Kelly’s favor. Almost. For there is one race where Greg LeMond remains ahead of the irish : the world championship. Long story short, Greg LeMond never won a one-day classic. Sean Kelly won 11. Sean Kelly never wore the world champion jersey. Greg LeMond did. Twice.
Giro di Lombardia, 1983. Greg LeMond finishes 2nd in a 4 men sprint. Winner ? Sean Kelly. Pictures on the finishline show Greg turning his head to the right where Kelly just beat him for what must be between 1, maybe 2 inches.
Greg LeMond is 22, already a reigning world champion. He doesn’t know, of course, but… That’s the closest he will ever be to winning a one-day classic. Despite having achieved a top ten on every single one of these cycling monuments, he will never score one. In fact, as he’s racing towards the 1989 world championship finishline, Greg’s probability of beating Sean Kelly in a sprint is, statistically, pretty slim :
-Giro di Lombardia 1983 : Kelly 1st, LeMond 2nd
-Liège-Bastogne-Liège 1984 : Kelly 1st, LeMond 3rd
-Paris-Roubaix 1985 : Kelly 3rd, LeMond 4th (and the irish had crashed just entering the velodrome)
-Worlds 1986 : Kelly 5th, LeMond 7th
-Milan-San Remo 1986 : Kelly 1st, LeMond 2nd
I’m not even counting at least a dozen sprints in the Tour de France, Paris-Nice or the Criterium International…
But… Being the optimist he is, Greg LeMond decides to focus on another piece of statistics :
-Worlds 1982 : LeMond 2nd, Kelly 3rd
-Worlds 1983 : LeMond 1st, Kelly 8th
-Worlds 1985 : LeMond 2nd, Kelly 35th
And that final one :
-GP des Amériques 1989 : LeMond 4th, Kelly 5th
That’s the trick. Just a few weeks before the 1989 worlds, Greg LeMond did beat his Nemesis, his “bête noire” Sean Kelly. In Chambéry, he knows he can beat him, and indeed, he does.
As Greg would tell Kelly on the podium : “I’ll trade you a world champion title for a Paris-Roubaix”. Both riders agree. But races are not won on podiums. Unless you’re Kate Moss or something.
What else do we learn on this picture ? That Greg is fed up with his team, which stopped paying him a few months ago, including after he won the Tour de France. How can I say that ? 2 things : Greg is not wearing his team’s shorts as is the custom and he is riding one of his very own LeMond bikes, not the Bottecchia machines made for the ADR team.
What don’t we see in this picture ? Laurent Fignon, of course. I think this is probably the race that broke Fignon, as a pro cyclist. Even more than the 8 seconds split in the Tour de France. But that’s another story. Also, picture doesn’t show how the last lap of this race is, in my humble opinion, Greg LeMond’s masterpiece. An example of merciless killing of all his opponents, starting with Fignon and ending with Kelly. You’ll have to watch the video : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXSeWVUalBk
Epilogue : the last stand. Just 5 years after Chambéry. The world is not the same. 2 of the toughest guys that had once ruled this world, Greg LeMond & Sean Kelly, are beaten in a stage of the 1994 Dauphiné Libéré by the young French sprinter Emmanuel Magnien. No happy end here.
Greg is fighting to earn a spot in the Gan team for the Tour de France. He will succeed. But he’ll never finish this race. Kelly is trying to get his team invited for the Tour. He will fail. The team will split. So what ? Who needs a happy ending, anyway ?
We are left with this picture. It was sold as a poster a few years ago. It had a word underneath it. Just one simple word. “Intensity”. How fitting. This picture was taken 24 years ago. And it is still as intense now as it ever was. On the cover of the french newspaper “L’Equipe”, on august 28, 1989, they had also chosen one simple world. A word which, at the time, almost brought me to tears. The word was : “Superman”.
Now, THAT’s a happy ending.
By Nicolas – @NL_LeMondFans