The American cyclist Greg LeMond (born 1961), a three-time winner of cycling's greatest race, the Tour de France, was the first non-European to win that race and the first American to bring widespread attention to the sport of cycling in his homeland.
Known to his friends as Greg, Gregory LeMond was born on June 26, 1961, in Los Angeles, California, where his father, Robert LeMond, worked as a real estate broker. The family moved to the Lake Tahoe area in 1968 and then to Washoe County, located in northwestern Nevada between Reno and Carson City. As a student, LeMond played football and basketball, but when his father took him skiing in the local foothills the sport seemed better suited to his lanky, five-feet-ten-inch frame. At first, LeMond had the ambition to become a professional skier, and in his early teens he began training seriously in both downhill and freestyle skiing events.
Several events occurred that convinced LeMond to make the switch from skiing to cycling. A skier he knew had recommended cycling as a way to build conditioning during the skiing off-season, and he was reminded of that when riders in the 1975 Nevada state cycling championship rode by his family's home. Then, as he was quoted as saying in the New York Times, “That winter there was a drought, absolutely no snow in Nevada or California, so I rode the bike all December and January instead of skiing.” Soon it was clear that the teen had a talent for cycling: he finished second in the first race he entered, a club competition, and then won the first official competition he entered. LeMond then amassed an unbroken streak of wins against cyclists his age and soon was competing against adults.
At age 16, determined to make his mark in a sport that was still largely unknown to most Americans, LeMond wrote out a list of goals on a yellow legal pad. The list included placing well in the world junior championships in 1978, winning them in 1979, winning the cycling road race in the 1980 Summer Olympics, winning a professional world championship, and then, by age 24 or 25, winning the Tour de France. Winning three medals, including a gold in the road race event at the world cycling championships held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1979, LeMond was showing a good start as far as his checklist was concerned.
LeMond was unable to achieve the next of his goals because the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest against the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Instead, in 1980, he joined a U.S. team that planned to compete in a trio of French road races. At one of these competitions, the Ruban Granatier, LeMond was riding well and had a clear shot at a trio of Russian leaders when he suffered a flat tire. The French mechanic who was part of his support team had fallen asleep in his car and did not catch up to the cyclist until LeMond had ridden a further ten kilometers. The mechanic then urged LeMond to get back on his bike and try for third place, whereupon the enraged competitor threw his bicycle, first into a hedge and then at the team support car.
The episode might have brought LeMond bad publicity, but it intrigued Cyrille Guimard, director of the Renault-Elf team and a force behind the careers of several top French and Belgian cyclists. In general, Europeans were fascinated by the brash young rider who hailed from a country where competitive cycling was in its infancy. “Greg brought a fresh, uniquely American slant to the hidebound world of racing …” wrote Scott Martin in Bicycling. “European pros were dour, dedicated men who lived on their bikes. Greg chatted endlessly with reporters and fans, ate ice cream and hamburgers, and loved to go fishing, hunting, and golfing. European pros wore hairnet helmets and rode equipment practically unchanged since World War II. Greg used cycle computers, hardshell helmets, and aero handlebars.”
In the early 1980s LeMond began to rack up major wins in European races against older, more seasoned local favorites. In 1982 he won the Tour de l’Avenir, a 12-day race, by ten minutes, a record margin. The following year he won the Dauphiné Libéré(now the Criterium du Dauphiné) in southeastern France and placed fourth in the difficult Tour de Switzerland. By 1984 LeMond felt ready to make his debut in the 23-day Tour de France, the king of all cycling races, which winds its way across the country where cycling stirs its greatest fan passions. LeMond started poorly but recovered to finish third.
The following year, one of the top French cyclists, Bernard Hinault, invited LeMond to join a new team, La Vie Claire, and become its co-captain. In cycling, team strategy often determines when a cyclist will be able to make a move for the lead, and the team's fortunes are considered as important as those of the individual members. Hinault's offer was contingent on LeMond's agreeing to support Hinault in the 1985 Tour de France. LeMond did so, and he finished second behind Hinault that year. The two cyclists had an understanding that in 1986 their roles would be reversed, but Hinault, backed by strong French crowd support, reneged on the deal and constantly challenged LeMond for the lead. LeMond neverthless won the race and reached the top of the competitive cycling world. He was the first non-European to win the Tour de France.
LeMond moved to the Dutch-based PDM team and began to train for his title defense at the 1987 Tour de France. He broke his wrist during a race early in the year, and then, in April, suffered a major setback when he went turkey hunting in the California hills with his brother-in-law and was accidentally shot. LeMond was rushed to the hospital with about 60 buckshot pellets in his lung, kidney, liver, diaphragm, and intestines, as well as two in the lining of his heart. Near death when he arrived, he survived the accident, although he would carry more than half of the pellets in his body going forward. Months later he had recovered enough to resume training when he had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. In July of 1988, LeMond had a third round of surgeries, this time to treat an infected shin tendon.
In the United States, LeMond's health problems generated considerable public support; Sports Illustrated magazine even put him on its cover and made him its Sportsman of the Year, the first-ever cyclist in both categories. His climb back to the top levels of international cycling was arduous. He finished just 27th in the debut running of a new U.S. race, the Tour de Trump (now the Tour DuPont), in 1989. He performed better in several European races, but still experienced a severe fatigue that was determined to have been caused by anemia. After receiving iron injections, LeMond finished second in the Tour of Italy, but he was not expected to contend for the lead in the Tour de France in July. Entering the final leg of the race, which stretched from Versailles to Paris, he trailed the leader, Laurent Fignon, by a seemingly decisive 50 seconds, then set a new speed record for the final stretch and emerged the winner in a thriller finale that remained undecided until all timings were tallied.
The total of eight Tour de France cyclists at LeMond's level did not include Lance Armstrong, whose record-setting seven consecutive victories between 1999 and 2005 were invalidated after he declined to contest charges that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. LeMond expressed doubts about Armstrong's accomplishment, telling Cycling News that “in the months and years to come there is going to be a lot of stuff revealed. It's going to be not just a black period for doping …. He's destroyed people and if you go against him, he tries to destroy you. He's been trying that for ten years with me.” During the period when he was denying the allegations, Armstrong had successfully demanded an apology from LeMond and an end to LeMond's licensing arrangement with the bicycle firm Trek.
Armstrong had also exerted pressure on cycling journalists to keep his fellow American out of the limelight. In 2014, after Armstrong's disappearance from the scene, LeMond was signed to become host of a daily cycling show on the Eurosport cable television network. He has also launched a new line of bicycles under the LeMond name, and he rides an orange model for between one and two hours each day. LeMond and his wife, Kathy Morris LeMond, live in Medina, Minnesota, with their three childen (two sons and one daughter). His manual Greg LeMond's Complete Book of Cycling remains a standard work.
Abt, Samuel, LeMond: The Incredible Comeback, Random House, 1990.
Moore, Richard, Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France, Vintage, 2012.
Bicycling, June 1993, p. 46; October 1994, p. 58; February 1995, p. 58.
New York Times, July 28, 1986; July 22, 2015, p. B14.