26 June 1961 America’s greatest ever cyclist? Who else is there?
It feels as though Greg LeMond has now been tub-thumping for transparency, for antidoping generally, and against Lance Armstrong specifically, for decades now. As a result, it’s easy to lose sight of his exploits as a rider and of the profound effect that he had on the sport.
LeMond’s extravagant talent was never in doubt but the impact he made in his debut European season, that of 1981, was truly extraordinary. Here was a teenage boy – from America of all places – finishing fourth at the Dauphiné Libéré. That he did so with Cyril Guimard’s Renault, the old continent archetype, presaged the huge changes which his brilliance would usher in.
Within two years he was world champion and one of the most influential riders in the peloton. Following a podium finish at the Tour in 1984, he became the hottest property in cycling. Bernard Tapie, the owner of La Vie Claire, was convinced that LeMond had what it took to prize open the previously untapped American market, and is reputed to have offered him cycling’s first $1million contract. LeMond then rode in support of the old lion Bernard Hinault at the 1985 Tour before ascending to the very top of the sport.
While the Armstrong story may be characterised as Hollywood in reverse, LeMond’s really is pure Tinseltown. He displaced Hinault to win the 1986 Tour but then his brother-in-law accidentally blasted him with a shotgun while out hunting the following spring. He lost 65 per cent of his blood – and with it very nearly his life – but by 1989 LeMond was a Tour winner once more, despite the 35 lead pellets still in his body. What’s more, his final- day time trial duel with Laurent Fignon is now celebrated as one of the Tour’s most famous moments. The eight-second margin remains the closest ever finish and LeMond’s elated reaction has become one of the most iconic Tour images. Another World Championship title followed, then he rubber- stamped his greatness with a third Tour win in 1990.
As EPO started to proliferate, his powers waned but Greg LeMond was a genuine great. So abundant was his commercial value that the benefits trickled down to the mortals of the peloton as the sport finally began to treat them with a semblance of respect. He also planted bike racing into his countrymen’s collective headspace and his influence, like the memory of his brilliance on the bike, burns as brightly as ever.