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PEZ Bookshelf: Greg LeMond – Yellow Jersey Racer

Tour Icon – Book Review: Greg LeMond is America’s most successful cyclist, ignoring the dubious results of Mr. Armstrong, and he is also held in high regard through-out the World of cycling. Leslie Reissner takes a look at a book by Guy Andrews on the career of the multi-champion, LeMond. From a young boy dreaming of his future, to a rider who revolutionized many aspects of the sport. ‘Greg LeMond – Yellow Jersey Racer’.

Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer by Guy Andrews

In self-help guides to business success it is often written that nobody plans to fail but many people fail to plan. On October 18, 1978, a 17 year old American cyclist wrote a list: to win the Junior Road World Championships in 1979; win the Olympic Road Race in 1980; win the Pro World Championships by age 22; and win the Tour de France by age 25. The USA boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980 so that was an opportunity foregone but, incredibly, Greg LeMond went on to achieve everything on that list within six years of writing it down. The story of this truly remarkable sporting career is told in “Greg LeMond, Yellow Jersey Racer”, a superb new book by noted cycle sports author Guy Andrews.

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I would be a first to admit to LeMond fandom: following the career of the first non-European to win the Tour was a big thrill in the 1980s, although in the pre-Internet Age of Immediate Gratification not so easy to do. I knew about the meteoric rise of the American: the winning of the Rainbow Jersey; the attainment of the huge contract with the Bernard Tapie superteam; the strange war fought with Bernard Hinault; the dramatic comeback at the 1989 Tour that shocked and inspired us; the inexplicable stuttering fade to a career, a collapse, in my mind, that seemed to go on much longer than it actually did. For years I rode a LeMond Maillot Jaune bicycle and I own a personally-autographed La Vie Claire jersey, inscribed “Tailwinds forever!” to me above his signature.

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And this cheerful salute seems so characteristic of this great natural athlete who arrived in Europe, raced at the highest levels in a rather archaic and traditional environment but never lost his essential Americanness. This idea continually comes out in “Yellow Jersey Racer”, which is constructed in an unusual way. It is divided into thirteen chapters (well, actually fourteen but that last one is different) that cover his career from its beginnings as he got into riding to keep his father, who wanted to lose weight, some company to the final days on the pro circuit with Gan in 1993-94, with so many DNFs. Each chapter begins with a one-page summary, followed by a section devoted to someone who knew LeMond at that time, a listing of palmarès, and then a section of excellent photographs. The contributors are a remarkable selection in their own right, including racers Sean Kelly, Ron Kiefel, Robert Millar, Stephen Roche, Ronan Pensec, Phil Anderson, and soigneurs Shelley Verses and Otto Jacome. There is much that was newsworthy after he stopped racing but the author notes: “…this book isn’t about what happened before or after Greg’s career; rather, this book is pure celebration of his ability and talents as the best American bike racer in history.”

His first local race was in 1976, when he showed up in tennis shoes, running shorts and a tank top and came second against a group that included a national champion and other experienced riders. In 1977 he came first at the US National Junior Road Race Championships and by 1978 he was starting to ride in Europe. As he moved up the ranks of pro cycling one has the sense that he resisted being absorbed into the system. He was truly fortunate that at age nineteen he was taken under the wing of French coach Cyrille Guimard, an innovator in cycle sport, who had noticed the American riding as an amateur for the French Lejeune team. In 1981 he came with Bernard Hinault to Nevada (there are some deeply embarrassing photos of the Frenchmen in cowboy outfits) and LeMond was signed with the Renault-Elf-Gitane team.

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Unlike his countrymen who were members of the 7-Eleven team, LeMond did not see his future with an American team but realized he needed a powerful European one to succeed. He was an outsider, both to other American racers but also within the French teams for which he rode, and seemed to thrive on this difference. Guimard was willing to bend the traditional rules that took away much of the initiative from pro riders and LeMond thrived.

In 1981 he won the major US race, the Coors Classic, by five minutes, and in Europe he had excellent showings at the Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour du Tarn; in 1982 he won the Tour de l’Avenir and came second at the Worlds and at the Tour Méditerranéen. 1983 saw wins at the Worlds, the Dauphiné, second place finishes at the Grand Prix des Nations and Tour of Lombardy and a strong fourth place finish at the Tour of Switzerland. But, LeMond notes,“psychologically, 1983 was a hard year. We were homesick much of the time, the weather was bad, and I always seemed to be sick. In those days, we trained at way too much volume….I was usually dying to get home, and by September I was done.”

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His first year at the Tour de France was 1984 and he came third. The next year, having joined the Toshiba-La Vie Claire team, he rode in support of Bernard Hinault and came second in spite of being arguably the stronger rider. Hinault thus equaled Eddy Merckx’s five wins but, appreciative of LeMond’s support, agreed to ride in support of the American the next year. The 1986 Tour and the conflict between Hinault and LeMond, abetted by team management, has been the subject of books and documentaries. It is still a puzzling chapter. In spite of friction between them, LeMond thought of Hinault as one of his heroes, one of cycling’s Greats, and was taken unawares as the Breton behaved exactly unlike a support rider in the 1986 race.

What followed in the next years is the stuff of legend. Accidentally shot in the chest in Spring 1987 while turkey hunting. LeMond’s career was derailed by a load of buckshot. La Vie Claire dumped him almost immediately and he signed on during his recovery with the Dutch PDM squad and managed to actually race with modest results in 1988. A Belgian team, ADR, was anxious to keep sponsorship going and brought LeMond in 1989, mainly for publicity value. He was offered a bonus for each victory of 6 million Belgian francs, which nobody expected to be cashed in. But in what has to be considered one of sport’s greatest comebacks, LeMond went on to win the Tour de France by 8 seconds as he relied on his tactical sense (and aided by 1988 winner Delgado’s failure to show up on time for the prologue!) rather than team support. This success was topped off by a second World Championships title in Chambéry, France.

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A repeat victory in 1990 at the Tour, now with Team Z, and LeMond was feeling in the best shape of his life. But for the first time he was discovering he was unable to keep up with the others. The results were not as glorious in 1991 as he came in seventh at the Tour and abandoned the following year during Stage 14 after being dropped on the Col d’Aspin. A move to GAN did not help much and the list of races shows abandonments at the Giro, the Tour De Romandie, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and, finally, the 1994 Tour de France. LeMond has argued that he should have been able to win two or three more Tours but there has been really no satisfactory answer as to whether the disappointment was caused by the lead remaining in his system—or the illegal enhancements in the systems of his competitors.

Any collector of vintage bicycles will love the last chapter, which features many of his noted machines. It was an era where the innate conservatism of racing was challenged by someone from the New World. “Of the many products that were pioneered by Greg, most have had an influence on modern bike racing. The list is impressive: …cycling computers; Look clipless pedals: full-length zippers on racing jerseys; Velcro straps for shoes; concealed brake cables; rear disc wheels;…aero time trial handlebars…”. LeMond pioneered the use of carbon bicycles, winning three Tours and one World Championships on a French TVT bike, which used carbon tubes bonded with aluminum lugs.

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In addition to winning three Tours de France and the Rainbow Jersey twice, LeMond, who probably raced 80-90 days per year (far more than is typical today), was also a factor in Classics races and had a special fondness for Paris-Roubaix. In fact, the driveway at his Minnesota home boasts a section of cobbles brought from France and used as a backdrop for the bike photos in Chapter 14. While good-natured, he was a fierce competitor and a focused athlete who took his work seriously. The comments by those who knew him, whether teammates or rivals, are uniformly affectionate and often admiring.

Guy Andrews concludes his Introduction to this beautifully-produced book with these words:

“His no-nonsense reaction to the traditions of European bike racing was revolutionary. The previously conservative and introspective mentality of bike racing in the 1980s needed shaking up, from top to bottom. Greg wasn’t just a great bike racer, he was also a catalyst for change in professional cycling, spearheading the modern era. In the 1980s and 1990s, bike racers, once known as “Les Forçats de la Route” (The Convicts of the Road), took charge of their own affairs—mostly because of Greg. He saw to it that the salaries of professional cyclists were raised dramatically, and, more importantly how their contracts were negotiated.”

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While it is true that other riders have had longer careers and even more successful ones, it is doubtful that any riders have changed the sport as much or as creatively as Greg LeMond. “Greg LeMond, Yellow Jersey Racer” is a superlative summary of a noteworthy career in sports that began with that little childish list written in 1978 by one determined dreamer.

Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer by Guy Andrews

“Greg LeMond, Yellow Jersey Racer” by Guy Andrews, with a Foreward by Greg LeMond
304 pp., hardcover, with copious illustrations in color and black-and-white
Velopress, Boulder, Colorado, 2016
ISBN 978-1-937715-68-7
Suggested Retail Price: US$45.00
For more information, go to: https://www.velopress.com/books/greg-lemond/

Check prices and buy it on Amazon.com.

All photos republished from ‘Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer’ by Guy Andrews with permission of VeloPress. See more at velopress.com/lemond.

That time trial from the 1989 Tour de France:

When glad to not be riding cobbles in his driveway, Leslie Reissner may be found hoping for tailwinds at www.tindonkey.com

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