PEZ Bookshelf: L’Américain – The Comeback
L’Américain I’m sure PEZ readers around the world are all familiar with Greg LeMond’s epic ride on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on July 23, 1989 to snatch victory from Laurent Fignon and win the Tour de France by a mere 8 seconds (still the closest finish in La Grande Boucle). I can still remember watching it on TV. And I still have on VHS (as well as functioning VHS tape recorder!) The 1989 Tour de France: Greg LeMond’s Incredible Comeback!
But now that comeback has been chronicled in great detail by Daniel de Visé in The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France. If you’ve read Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France by Richard Moore, which is about LeMond’s fierce battle with Le Blaireau to win his first Tour de France win in 1986, you will most certainly want to read The Comeback.
For those who just want the BLUF (bottom line up front): The Comeback is a great book. It’s well written and thoroughly researched with extensive footnotes. It’s the “backstory” of those 8 seconds that separated LeMond from Fignon. Although more than 300 pages long, it’s an engrossing and hard to put down read. If you’re a Greg LeMond fan, The Comeback is a must read because it’s a detailed accounting of his career and – more importantly – his life and person off the bike. It’s also an important reminder that American cycling did not begin and end with Lance Armstrong.
For those who want more than just the BLUF, the hard part writing a book review is to give readers just enough so that they will be interested and want to read the book, but without giving the book completely away. With that in mind…
To begin, The Comeback is actually about more than Greg LeMond coming back to win his second Tour de France – although that is clearly the literary device for de Visé to tell the story. There are actually three different comebacks.
The first comeback is about the 1989 Tour de France. To tell the story of that comeback, de Visé has to first tell us the story of LeMond’s childhood, how he became a pro cyclist, his first Tour victory, and his demise afterwards when he was shot by his brother-in-law and came within a hair’s breath of dying. This is probably my favorite part of the book because a good part of it is spent on LeMond’s formative pro years on the Renault team, considered by many to be the first “super team” in pro cycling that would boast three Tour de France winners. The team leader was Bernard Hinault, who would win four TdF’s riding for Renault (and his fifth with La Vie Claire); Laurent Fignon would win two Tours for Renault; and LeMond would eventually go on to win three Tours but not with Renault. It was during this time that LeMond earned the nickname L’Américain.
Some episodes from LeMond’s youth:
- If not for an injury from skiing (his first love), LeMond might have never discovered cycling: “A coach told the boys to avoid running, because the stress of pounding the pavement would hurt their legs. Instead, he said, try cycling.” Greg’s dad, Bob, was also instrumental in him taking up the sport:
Bob and Greg drove out one weekend to watch a training race [the US national amateur team training for the Pan American Games]. By the time of their return, father and son were hooked. Bob had never tested the limits of his own athletic ability. Now he resolved to scale back his drinking and shed some pounds. He quickly dropped the extra paunch and found, to his surprise, that he could keep up with his teenage son on the hills of the Washoe Valley.
If you wonder where Greg got his bike racing genes: “Within a year after he started cycling, Bob raced as a Category 1 senior, ‘competitive on a national level, which is unheard of,’ Roland Della Santa recalled. In 1978, at thirty-eight, Bob would take fifth place in the Red Zinger Classic, the nation’s premier multistage men’s bicycle race.”
And Greg wasn’t the standout athlete in the family: “For all his promise, Greg was not generally regarded as the most gifted athlete in the LeMond family. That distinction went to Karen, his younger sister.” Karen was a gymnast who won an amateur national championship, but was forced to stop in 1980 due to an accumulation of injuries.
The second comeback is about LeMond’s return from being ostracized by much of the pro cycling community and bicycling industry for being outspokenly critical of Lance Armstong’s Tour de France victories. By now, everyone is familiar with LeMond’s carefully worded statement: “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.” Casting such doubt on who was then the new American hero and single-handedly driving the huge growth in cycling in America would cost LeMond dearly: “Greg was now a cycling pariah. Sponsors vanished into the midst. Dealers at trade shows avoided his gaze.”
The third comeback is about LeMond’s coming to grips with being the victim of childhood abuse at the hands of a family friend. We learn early on in the book about this abuse. It would be something that haunted him throughout his life. It wouldn’t be until 2002 that he told anyone else.
Six weeks later, Greg fled to Arizona with another woman. He had become convinced that he had to lose everything – “my wife, my kids, my house, every cent I had” – to find himself. Oddly enough, his strategy worked. Finally, fearing that Kathy was going to leave him, Greg flew home, broke down in sobs, and revealed his darkest secret. Afterwards he and Kathy felt closer than ever.
Facing his demons and exorcising them would also be part of LeMond reclaiming his livelihood in the cycling industry.
The lawsuit [against Trek, alleging the firm had intentionally allowed the LeMond brand to languish] would drag on for two years, finally ending in an out-of-court settlement, a messy finish to a fifteen-year partnership. The terms were confidential, but Trek announced it would donate $200,000 to 1in6.org, a little-known charity for male survivors of sexual abuse. Greg had joined the group as a founding board member, becoming the public face of a discomforting topic.
The Comeback is also about three men. Obviously, it’s first and foremost about Greg LeMond. But it’s also about Laurent Fignon. In part, because of the 8 seconds that separated them in the 1989 Tour de France.
Laurent now studiously avoided the Champs-Élysées. He caught himself, at random moments, measuring bits of his life in eight-second segments: one, tow, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Walking along a sidewalk, watching a passing sport car, climbing a light of stairs, reading a paragraph in a Stephen King book: you couldn’t do much in eight seconds. How, then, could eight seconds have transformed Laurent’s life so completely?
But LeMond’s and Fignon’s lives were intertwined before that, having ridden together as teammates on the Renault team. Indeed, it isn’t possible to tell Greg LeMond’s story without also telling Laurent Fignon’s story since they were contemporaries and competitors. After Fignon’s passing on August 31, 2010 to cancer, LeMond said, “He was a very, very big talent, much more than anyone recognized. We were teammates, competitors, but also friends.”
The third man that The Comeback is about is the aforementioned Lance Armstrong. Armstrong adds another comeback within The Comeback – his return to cycling after being “given up for dead by the European cycling establishment” after recovering from cancer. We also see Armstrong go from being a rider initially befriended by LeMond to beoming his bête noir. Armstrong is also connected to Fignon by cancer. Although Fignon wanted to let the world know about his cancer in his own time, Armstrong preempted him on June 11, 2009 when he Tweeted: “Sending out my best to Laurent Fignon who was recently dx w/cancer. A friend, a great man, and a cycling legend. Livestrong Laurent!”
Ultimately, what makes The Comeback an important book for cycling fans is because it’s about more than 8 seconds in the Tour de France. It’s about everything before and after that – especially for those who only know about cycling through the lens of the Lance Armstrong years.
And, for me, The Comeback was a little bit “personal” because I’ve been fortunate enough to have met all three protagonists in de Visé’s book. My wife, Karen, and I were at the 1991 Tour de France on a Breaking Away cycling tour – the first year of “The Decline” chapter in The Comeback. As I told PEZ when my bike was featured in Readers’ Rigs:
Favorite riding experience on your bike?
1991 Tour de France with Breaking Away Tours. Stage 1 in Lyon, which was a 114.5km circuit race in the morning followed by the team time trial in the afternoon. Riding the race route, which was one of the perks of doing a Breaking Away tour. I was with 2 or 3 other guys and we were all wearing Breaking Away jerseys. We were supposed to be well ahead of the race, but there was break that included Greg Lemond, Sean Kelly, Erik Breukink, and eventual stage winner Djamolidine Abdoujaparov. Somehow, as we were entering a small town we got caught inbetween the race caravan and the break. The fans lining the streets were screaming and cheering for us as though we were in the race while we pedaled like mad men, frantic to find a way off the course but we were inside the barricades with nowhere to go but to keep riding. It was an adrenaline rush but scary at the same time because we had no idea how far (or close) behind us the break was. Finally, we found an opening in the barriers and got off the course. Probably 10-15 minutes later the break came through. Whew! I can honestly say I rode the Tour de France with Greg LeMond.
But I’ve also actually ridden with both Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, when they both joined the last leg of the AXA World Team ride for riders with disabilities from Reston, VA to the Washington Monument in November 1995 – a time when Greg and Lance were still friendly with each other. Both were larger than life figures – one whose star was fading but still a star and the other a rising star – and heroes to us mere mortal racers, but they were very approachable and took the time to talk with anyone who wanted to talk with them. I also had the opportunity to “party” with Laurent Fignon at the end of the 1992 Tour Dupont (the year Greg LeMond won the race and his last major race win) when it finished in Washington, DC (our RAAM team was invited to the post-race party). Le Professeur wasn’t much of a partier (although Davis Phinney was!) and more the introvert described by de Visé.
I’ll end by leaving PEZ readers with my favorite bit from the book, after Greg’s 1989 TdF win:
Greg and Kathy decamped to Deauville, a beach resort in Normandy, to escape their many pursuers, only to be awakened by the room telephone at one in the morning. It was Bob [Greg’s father]. He told Greg that François Lambert, the ADR owner [Greg’s team], had just arrived at the front door with José Cauwer, the team coach. Once admitted to the dwelling, Lambert had marched over to the table and emptied a gunnysack full of money. The cash totaled $175,000, the portion of Greg’s annual salary that the team should have paid him half a year earlier.
“What if it’s drug money?” Bob asked.
“I don’t care,” Greg replied. “It’s my money.”
The Comeback: Greg LeMond the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France
By Daniel de Visé
384 pages, hardcover
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018
Suggested price: US$27.00.
# Some photos by Chuck Peña, others from the book. #
More info at: https://groveatlantic.com/book/comeback-the/
• Available from AMAZON.COM.
Daniel de Visé
PEZ contributor Chuck Peña is a former weekend warrior racer who now just rides for fun and coffee, but every once in a while manages to prove Fausto Coppi’s adage true: Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill. He lives in Arlington, VA with his wife (who is his favorite riding partner), his daughter (who takes great joy in beating him at golf all the time, but at least he’s still faster on a bike), and their dog (who is always there to greet him when he comes home from a ride). You can follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.