No, by this title, I am not trying to convince you that Greg LeMond is some sort of cycling god or extra-terrestrial. No. Greg LeMond is “just” an awesome cyclist and a very cool guy. And vice-versa.
I was lucky enough to be born in France in the mid-70’s. My parents living in the suburbs of Paris, it meant that I had access to a few cyclist events. We used to live in a place called “la vallée de Chevreuse”. It is a beautiful site 50km south west of Paris. A paradise for cyclists : forests, climbs of all kinds, beautiful villages… Roads go up and down, then up again, not much flat there. No wonder the Tour de France crosses the place almost every year, during the last stage of the race. You may have seen the Tour de France peloton climbing the easy “côte de St Remy” last july, after having done a tour of the Versailles gardens. This is exactly where we saw the historical moment of Hinault sprinting for the last climb of his career in the Tour de France. He already had the polka dot jersey in the bag but I guess he wanted to enjoy the moment. The crowd had eyes only for him. But not me. I was looking frantically at the peloton passing by way too fast, making the task of finding the yellow jersey harder than I could possibly imagine. The peloton passed, I started identifying riders & jerseys but soon they were a blur of colors and screams. Until…Yellow jersey Greg LeMond appeared, clearly not concerned about the race, resting easily at the back of the peloton, possibly digesting a glass of champagne. That one went fast.
Stage 22 to Paris – Tour de France 1986
Our favorite spot in la vallée de Chevreuse was the “côte de la Madeleine”, a 700m long, 11% of average steep narrow road. To me, as a young cyclist (I was 12 in 1986), that was a wall. Today, it still stands as one of the toughest climbs of the area, with ramps between 8% and 15% at times. I use it to prepare my rides in the Alpes or the Pyrénées. But back in 1985, that was where my father took us riding to show us where our limits were, and how, by comparison, superior the pros were. It worked. I struggled to get to the top without stepping down from the bike, grasping for air while pros…We saw the peloton pass there in 1985. All leaders, including Greg, were at the front. It was exciting. But disappointing at the same time.Because those guys were climbing it as if it was a bump on the road, faster than anyone I’d ever seen. No sign of pain or stress. Lesson learned, dad. 1985 might be the last time the TDF went up that hill. I remember the embarrassment of a bus driver of the “caravane”, this endless line of vehicules following the peloton, who was stuck in the last corner, unable to turn the bloody thing. He ended up taking a road sign and a part of the wall on which it was standing with him. This probably prevented any further passage of a pro race. Of course that was a long time before the 2013 Orica-Greenedge “Busgate”.
Earlier in 1986 my father had met Greg LeMond in a plane coming back from the south of France. Pure luck. My father was on a business trip. Greg had just quit a race and my father had told him he was quite sure he’d beat Hinault this time. I was so pissed he didn’t ask him for an autograph. “It didn’t cross my mind” he said. During the Tour, we were able to go to the finish of the team time trial, in St Quentin en Yvelines. Don’t ask me how, but we managed to go among the team cars were riders locked themselves to debrief the race. My father went knocking at a La Vie Claire car where Greg LeMond was. He tried to reach out to Greg, for the kids. Alas, timing was very, very bad. The La Vie Claire team had just finished on a surprisingly bad performance for them (they had dominated the same race the year before), losing precious time to Laurent Fignon’s team, Système U. I was only 12, but I could sense the tension inside the car. There was no way Greg was going to open the door, get out of the car and put on his best smile. Nope. We backed off.
Let’s go back a little while, shall we ? Back in the 80’s, criteriums were big. You have to understand Criteriums are to cycling what exhibits are to tennis. Fake races. Shows. Winners and losers are decided in advance by a comitee of riders. For them at the time, it meant big money, sometimes more than their yearly income, especially for the faithful but obscure team mates. For us aficionados, it meant getting close to the riders. And when I say “close”, I mean being able to watch French cycling star Bernard Hinault getting out of his car, pulling his bike out of the trunk, pumping air into the tires then off to the race. Like a normal guy, except for the mass of people surrounding said car. We usually went to Pontchateau in Brittany, were we spent our summer holidays or in Garancières, Normandy, closer to the capital.
It is in such a setting that I saw Greg LeMond for the first time. Was it 1981 ?1982 ? I can’t say. But what I can say is that my mother still remembers how proud she was for being able to articulate a few words in English for the young blue-eyed American. “Good luck” she said. What I do remember is that these guys were impressive, confident. They knew what they were doing. Every gesture was efficient. They were pros.
Now… My worst memory of seeing Greg LeMond as a pro rider is this. We were in 1988. It was one year after Greg was shot in the back in a hunting accident. Greg was a PDM rider. He had not had a significant result since the accident. I was curious to see how Greg was doing. I had started competing myself, with other 14 years old. Cycling was serious stuff, for me. We went to the “Trophée des Grimpeurs”, a short circuit with a tough climb. I’m not sure it was in Monthlery or Chanteloup les Vignes, but it wasn’t too far. There, after 2 or 3 laps only, Greg was dropped from the peloton. He did not look good, struggling and sweating as if on the verge of cracking completely. I did not see him leave the race. That was an awful experience. I thought he was dead for cycling.
Trophée des Grimpeurs, 1988
Then, you know the story. In short : 1989 happened.
During that 1989 summer my father took me to another criterium. We did an awful lot of kilometers just to get to a random velodrome. We waited for hours as amateurs tried to entertain the crowd, eating hot dogs and “saucisson” sandwiches. Then, out of the blue, Greg came in, all suited up in his hard earned yellow jersey, got on the bike, did 2 laps and went on to the next criterium. I know what you think. “What a jerk !”. As it it turned out, during that summer, Greg made sure he would honor all the dates that were booked before the Tour, when most people thought he was a lost cause. And he did it without asking more money, as any Tour de France winner has a right to. That was his way of saying : “thank you for not giving upon me”. I was happy. It was short but you could see Greg wanted to do more. He just couldn’t.
July 1990. Last stage of the Tour de France. A lonely teenager sits on his bike early, goes up to a climb he knows very well. Climbs half of it. Checks the view. Stops. Decides it’s the right spot to see the race. Road is only 5% steep and riders will have lunch there. They’ll slow down. Kid Waits. He’s an outcast. Basically a loner. Parents divorce. Big brother onto more interesting stuff (girls !). Learns to play the guitar to get out of his misery. He Did quit cycling because it was too hard. Got back to cycling because one man inspired him to get up in the morning, put a cycling kit on, pump some air into the tires and just ride. Ride and feel the air into his lungs, the vibration of the road, the pain when it gets tougher. The kid waits and thinks about how amazing that was to see a man returning from the dead, destroying competition against all odds. The strength he felt as he witnessed the impossible. Then it happens. The long procession of vehicles vanishes and suddenly there he is. Yellow jersey, strange hat, cool glasses and clever smile as he takes his “musette”. Greg LeMond. That’s him. 100% human being, yet capable of sharing his force with others. Peloton passes. Kid gets back on the road. Gets on his bike. Decides to go the way up to the summit of the climb. Gets stuck behind a few spectators cars. Passes them. Surprises himself. Feels tough. Looks at his speed. 28km/h. He has never climbed as fast as this.
By Nicolas – NL_LeMondFans