I admit it : I am a huge fan. Always was. Always will be. Many people don’t like this word, mainly because it sounds “unreasonable”. To me, it just means I’m passionate about things. And I’m actually very proud of that. In my life I’ve been interested by many things and every time I’ve learned some craft and/or something about myself or life in general. Being passionate is not about re-hashing the same things over and over again, it is about exploring, searching and sharing. At least for us here, at Greg LeMond Fans.
There are 3 things I am passionate about to the point of being able to speak about them at length: our man Greg, of course, irish supergroup U2 and galactic mythology saga Star Wars. At first glance, you might not necessarily see what these things have in common, and so did I… Until I really thought about it.
Ultimately, here’s what I admire about Greg LeMond, U2 and George Lucas: the inability to “fit in”, the need to explore new ground, the craving necessity to shape their field at their own image rather than adapt. The refusal to just “blend in” and make a living. I admire that because I think it is rare, and I don’t think I could do this myself, probably. Yeah, I might be a little jealous, too 😉
By now, you’ve probably heard about U2’s last marketing stunt: selling their new album to Apple so that they could give it away to every I-tunes user. No matter how you feel about what they did: just by doing it, they’re surfing ahead of the wave rather than waiting for it to splash on their heads. And they’ve done this for decades, now. You might not know this, but here are a few fun facts about U2 :
-They are the only 4-decades-career-spanning rock group showing the exact same line-up as when they started : Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen Jr.
-They are one of the very few recording artists to actually own the rights to their music.
-They’re known for having introduced an arm-length list of innovative systems for their shows: giant screens, satellite links, “B”-stage, LED tech, 360° stage structure with little visibility obstruction… the list goes on and on.
-In 1985, Bono visited Ethiopia (with hardly any camera in sight) with his wife and a humanitarian association, teaching kids songs about hygiene and clean water use… From that point on, he never stopped being an “activist”.
As U2, George Lucas represents for many people the idea of “mainstream culture” and yet, his body of work and business moves tell another story. Not many people acknowledge this, but Star Wars started as an independent movie project: a story based on mythology figures and realistic settings, where space is just decorum. The idea of founding his own studio came to Lucas after years of deception, sterile battles with studio executives, lawyers and unions. Did you know George Lucas was sacked from the director’s guild because Star Wars shows no opening credit whatsoever? Because he wanted the audience to go straight into the movie and use the opening as a storytelling tool? The whole business model of selling merchandise rights as well as a movie was just a way for George Lucas to fund his dream and stay true to his story. Do I need to remind you of all the special effects created solely for the Star Wars movies? I don’t think so.
Big ideas all right.
When the young Greg LeMond came to Europe, his head was full of dreams too. The way he could reach these dreams was unclear but he, as teenage Bono and young Georgie boy before him, had faith.
In the early 80 ’s, the almighty European pro cycling was pretty much where it had been for a half century before that. Nutrition was based on empiric knowledge, the peloton was a feudal regime with kings & “domestiques” and the technology had just started to take aerodynamics into account. It’s probably the leading spot in the latter that drove young LeMond to sign for the Renault-Gitane team, the first to use wind tunnels and such.
My stepfather, a rather strong amateur cyclist, told us this story a hundred times: as he was racing in the mid-70’s, a well informed cycling coach advised him to use a “victory” cocktail consisting of eggs, sugar and brandy. He ended up sprinting in the grass, nearly crashing and eventually failing. When I read a book about the very first 1903 Tour de France, I was amazed to read that winner Maurice Garin’s magic potion was made of… eggs, sugar and brandy. That’s what European pro cycling was at. In the 1950’s, drinking while on the bike was perceived as a sign of weakness and riders often started the race with their pockets filled with raw meat… not to mention doping apparatus.
Coming from America, Greg LeMond was free of such a “traditional” background. And what could have been a weakness lead him to question everything, not taking anything for granted, as his fellow “neo-pros” did. It is often reported that Greg LeMond was “naïve” or “business driven”. I think it’s partially true but it all comes down to misunderstandings.
When Greg entered the pro peloton, he was very well received. He was a nice talkative chap with the unmistakable Yankee accent, which was rare at the time and certainly granted him an exotic touch. Even more, the Euro-based cycling world was flattered by the new addition of a US citizen into their ranks. Plus, Greg was certainly very strong and evolving alongside Bernard Hinault who was at the time the acclaimed “Boss” of the pack. Soon, reporters were predicting for LeMond to be the new Badger or the new Eddy “Cannibal” Merckx. Only he wasn’t. Not because he couldn’t. But because he wasn’t interested in taking this spot in the first place. He just wanted to be himself.
The first wave of “LeMond bashing” came when it was announced that Greg was one of the most, if not THE most well paid rider in the peloton. We were in 1984-1985 and, as Greg was starting to earn a lot of money, he was not winning that many races. Surely, he was in the top 10 of every important race of the calendar (as you will see next year in our “30 year ago” feature”) but basically failed to nail one. That’s when the “only rides for money” legend began. What’s not been reported, is that Greg LeMond was, at the time, the first ever “proper” professional cyclist. By this, I mean that the business model was pretty well established as far as the rider’s income was concerned : low salaries, huge bonuses with “kings” deciding who got what, criteriums (unofficial races with “agreement” results following the Tour de France) being the most lucrative resource. Apart from this, it was up to anybody to find its own sponsors and make a living out of it. Bernard Hinault was seen attaching his name to bikes, cycling components, clothes, cars, pop songs and the occasional jewellery. No real strategy or marketing. It was all over the place. Furthermore, as popular as he was, Hinault was frequently fighting the press and tense relationship with public and the media was his usual meal.
From the start, Greg was very aware of his image and considered his relations with the press & the public as his duties as well as training. At the same time, he managed to let his true self speak, in this case his humour, warmth and general interest about people. That was not only new, it was revolutionary. What made it easier for him is that he truly enjoyed the whole process. When Hinault and later Fignon would fight with journalists (Fignon even went as far as spitting on a camera), LeMond would always make time for journalists, understanding they were a part of the business. But, as you would expect, Greg’s genuine interest and full on approach would be met by his peer’s scepticism.
As for sponsors, Greg LeMond decided to forge strong partnerships rather than loaning his name and image for random products. First came the Avocet electronic device, in 1984. It lead to generations of cycling driven gizmos, to the point that they are now a tool as important as the front wheel. I’m only half kidding. Then, in 1985, preceding Hinault’s broken nose with a pair of Ray-Ban’s, came the Oakley Eyeshade. I don’t have to tell you how much these changed the face of cycling as you will very rarely come across a Sunday cyclist with no eyewear.
Scott triathlete aero bars (further discussed here –insert link to “who’s cheating”) and “drop in” bars, Giro hard-shell helmets, Rock Shock forks, SRM… Greg’s sponsors would not only benefit from an unprecedented exposure but also from the guidance of a major tester. No other rider had left such a mark in the way the peloton is handled as Greg did. Nor since. It’s pretty simple : there is a “before Greg LeMond” and “after Greg LeMond”. It’s undeniable. These devices would have surely appeared sooner or later in the sport, but the fact that the same man was clever enough to spot them and put them in motion is remarkable.
Regarding nutrition & training, a few anecdotes will do. Among the myths surrounding Greg, one of them is his supposed laziness and incapacity to train properly or stick to a strict lifestyle. It was widely reported that Greg occasionally had a hamburger or an ice cream as part of his meal. You have to understand that the same riders that were mocking Greg for having an ice cream were themselves eating French cheese with bread & wine, as was the “tradition”. It was also the same riders that criticized Greg for having a go at a few putts on rest day that trained for hours at a slow pace. You, the nonsensical training method of the last century ?
Another thing you should know about the mid-80’s is that it was believed that spouses & family were “legs cutters” and obliterated any strength in the rider. Sean Kelly, for instance, never had sex at least a week before a major race. When asked if he had ever had sex before a race, Greg simply answered : “I’ve been world champion twice”. There is not one rider in today’s peloton that isn’t rewarded with a family visit on a Grand Tour rest day.
Greg LeMond, U2 and George Lucas are very popular. I mean HUGE. And they’ve had their share of bashing & “haters” too. But when you ask their detractors what’s wrong with them, you never get a crystal clear answer. Facts are always mixed with feelings of jealousy and frustration. What’s very apparent from that very small study I’ve made is that these guys surely are/were different. Ahead of their times. They have a vision. It got them where they are, in all the possible meanings of the term. And if you asked them, they’d probably tell you it’s OK. It’s just as fine. What would not be OK would be NOT to listen to their very instincts. The very core that makes them visionaries.
By Nicolas – @NL_LeMondFans