July 2023

Homage to Greg LeMond

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Too often I find myself writing an essay in which I heap posthumous praise on someone I've admired: my heartfelt farewell to Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, "Saying Good-bye to a Boyhood Hero," or "Tom Petty: A Charmed Rock 'n' Roll Life," where I delve into an American cultural treasure and personal touchstone.

Now it's July and that means the Tour de France, so I want to celebrate a hero of mine who is still with us, one of our country's greatest athletes, a titan of cycling, a paragon of integrity, and, by all accounts, a stand-up guy: Greg LeMond.

I'm not the only one.

There's a new film about LeMond, The Last Rider, directed by Alex Holmes. The documentary, playing in select theaters around the U.S. this month, focuses on LeMond's long road to victory in the 1989 Tour de France after a near-fatal hunting accident in 1987. Like Hollywood, the sports world loves a comeback story; LeMond's remains one for the ages.

In a statement, director Alex Holmes said: "The Last Rider is a celebration not just of athletic talent but of the power of love to enable us to realize our potential, and sometimes even to achieve that which the world thinks is impossible."

Yes, a celebration! Greg's story is worth celebrating. It teaches and inspires. (Born June 26, 1961, he celebrated his 62nd birthday last month: happy birthday, Greg!)

The Last Rider inevitably competes with the ESPN Films 30 for 30 classic, Slaying the Badger, a biopic which premiered in July 2014 and is easily one of the best sports docs ever made, a must-watch. ESPN's film took a different angle; its title refers to Frenchman Bernard Hinault, the tenacious 5-time Tour de France winner nicknamed "The Badger" whom LeMond beat to win his first Tour in 1986. It was far more complicated than that, though: Hinault and LeMond were teammates and close friends.

This new film's title speaks to the fact that Greg LeMond remains the only American to win the Tour de France (subsequent American winners Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis were stripped of their titles when it was found that they were drug-cheats.) Greg may be the last rider to have won the Tour clean, but more on that later.

Unlike our home-grown sports, cycling may not be familiar to many American readers. In the early 20th century, America had a thriving, well-moneyed velodrome racing circuit. Wintertime crowds packed indoor tracks in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Newark, and, most of all, New York's Madison Square Garden. But the sport vanished after World War II, replaced by football and basketball.

And the French, Belgians, and Italians owned road-racing. Greg was a pioneer. When he won the Tour de France in 1986, he wasn't just the first American to do so, he was the first non-European winner. Let me offer a few insights into the sport to convey the greatness of Greg LeMond's achievements.

There are many kinds of road races, some take a day, some weeks. In a time-trial, each rider heads off individually against the clock, but in many races, especially big multi-day tours, riders compete as a team. Strategy abounds and I could write a treatise on the complexities of squad composition or the sometime alliances struck between rivals. Most important to understand is that due to aerodynamics, cyclists in a group move much faster than lone riders. The main group, called the peloton, can sustain astonishing speeds, in part because the riders rotate the work of leading, where wind resistance is greatest. That's why the peloton usually catches a breakaway. Relatedly, each team has its leader, its best rider for whom the others work, i.e. the leader will draft behind his "lead-out" teammates, thereby saving his legs for decisive attacks. That's the way it's supposed to work.

The Tour de France, or simply "the Tour," is one of cycling's three so-called Grand Tours, the others being the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espa帽a. Each entails 21 days of cycling, known as stages—three weeks of racing with rest days on two Mondays. The Tour covers about 2,100 miles, which averages out to a tidy 100 miles of pedaling per day, but some stages are far longer, as much as 140 miles.

Now, I don't know how much cycling you've done, but 100 miles is a daunting distance; even at a leisurely pace over gentle topography with coffee breaks and a stop for lunch, a century, as cyclists call it, makes for a very long day in the saddle. Try hammering non-stop against your rivals as you traverse endless switchbacks up and over the Pyrenees or Alps!

And it's not just how far but how fast the riders go. Since 2007, the winner's average speed over the Tour's 2,100 miles has been just under 25 miles per hour. Get on your Schwinn or your $5,000 carbon-fiber road bike and try to maintain 25 mph for 30 minutes then tell me how you feel.

From the outset, Greg LeMond was a winner. But at every third or fourth step in his career, adversity beyond his control thwarted him. As a 15 year-old brand new to the sport, he won the first 11 races he entered. He won the American National Junior Road Race Championship in 1977 and the UCI Junior World Road Race in 1979. When he was selected for the U.S. Olympic team at 18 he was the youngest cyclist ever to make the squad, but America's pointless boycott of the 1980 Olympics snuffed his chance to make history.


In 1981, LeMond turned pro and immediately turned heads. The French press loved this talented American who quickly learned to converse in their language. In 1983 he won the UCI Road World Championship, a one-day race which measured 167 miles that year. At 22 he was the best cyclist on the planet.

In his first Tour de France, in 1984, he finished third, donning the white jersey for the young rider classification, recognition for the best debut. The next year he could have won the Tour but, without giving away the intrigue of Slaying the Badger, that rule about a team riding in support of its strongest cyclist was brazenly ignored. So he made history by winning the 1986 Tour.

Then, while out hunting in 1987, his brother-in-law mistook him for a quarry and blasted him with a shotgun, perforating his neck, lung, heart, and liver with 60 lead pellets. Doctors said LeMond was 20 minutes from death, having lost 65% of his blood. Lodged in spots too dangerous to operate, such as the lining of his heart, 35 of those lead pellets remain in his body, slowly poisoning him.

Overcoming his harrowing ordeal and the attendant havoc it wreaked on his fitness, LeMond returned in 1989 to re-conquer Paris (and the rest of France.) Even though you know he wins the '89 Tour it doesn't spoil anything, because it's how he wins which will thrill you.


Coasting from his Tour triumph in July, Greg rode to victory a second time at the UCI Road World Championship in August. And then he won the greatest road race of them all a third time in 1990, hoisting the winner's trophy over his head atop the podium in Paris!

The 35 shotgun pellets in LeMond's body hastened his retirement. Initially, his youth and superb cardiovascular shape enabled him to return to winning form, but, then as now, the harder he exerts himself the more those insidious projectiles titrate lead into his system. But something else forced Greg to call it quits, another adversity beyond his control which thwarted him.

Shortly after he returned to cycling to regain its summit, a seismic shift rumbled through the peloton; by the early 1990s, the average rider's power output, measured in watts, jumped—massively. Riders previously at the bottom of the standings were now generating as many watts as the winners on past stages. What happened? Superior nutrition? New insights into training?

EPO had hit the streets—a synthetic version of the hormone erythropoietin developed for anemia patients in order to stimulate red blood cell production. It was a crazy time in cycling. Riders like Marco Pantani, Jan Ulrich, Bjarne Riis, Alberto Contador, and, of course, Lance Armstrong smashed course records—when they weren't dying in their sleep. Since it was all done in secret, no one knew exactly how much EPO to take. The cyclists were guinea pigs.

Elite endurance athletes have astonishingly low resting heart rates; when their blood became too dense with red blood cells, their hearts simply stopped in deep sleep. Doping cyclists now set their alarms for 3 AM, hammered an hour on a stationary bike to get the blood flowing, and then went back to sleep! Hmm, dozens of healthy young riders mysteriously dying in their sleep….

Meanwhile, Greg returned to defend his Tour de France title in the best shape of his life and was dropped . . . by the peloton. It was the beginning of the doping era and almost every subsequent Tour winner would be tainted, disqualified, banned, or all of the above.

Even before he retired, LeMond courageously went on record against performance-enhancing drugs in cycling. He was rocking a very big, very lucrative boat. His outspoken warnings cost him dearly, especially when he called out Lance Armstrong's massive fraud in 2001. A vindictive monster by anyone's definition, Armstrong set about to methodically destroy LeMond and his business interests, particularly Greg's successful partnership with Trek Bicycle Corporation who had manufactured LeMond Bicycles since 1995. Trek also sponsored Armstrong, then a media -dominating darling and money machine for his backers. The sinister Texan used his leverage to get Trek to sever ties with LeMond. Along with much of the press, the zombie Pharmstrong cultists pilloried LeMond in every online forum (these were people who knew as much about cycling as I do about double-entry accounting—no, actually less since I can perform basic arithmetic.)

Along with his opposition to performance-enhancing drugs, LeMond also warned the cycling community quite early in the game about mechanical doping—the use of tiny electric motors hidden inside bike frames. Once again, Greg took a ton of abuse, his critics leveling the usual anonymous complaints—"he's just a hater"—until female Belgian cyclist Femke Van den Driessche had a problem with her bike at the 2016 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championship and officials noticed electrical wires hanging from the frame. Now how did a motor get inside my bike? Oops..

I first became dimly aware of professional cycling and its then-only American star, Greg LeMond, in my senior year of high school. That was 1984. I began riding a metallic blue Fuji "Sports 10" which I bought from a friend and proceeded to modify until it resembled a true road bike (to include ditching the shift levers on the handlebar stem and installing Shimano levers on the frame's downtube, as well as buying a pair of chromalloy pedals and shiny stainless steel toe clips.) On summer Saturdays I often rode the hour it took me to pedal from my house in Valley Stream to my pal Mark's house in bucolic Muttontown, a beloved odyssey of my youth.


Since that happy day I brought it home in July 2017 from an eBay seller in Connecticut, I've been riding a 1996 LeMond Bicycles Tourmalet, so named for the fearsome Pyrenees mountain pass, the Col du Tourmalet, where Greg attacked in 1990 to make up 5 minutes on race leader Claudio Chiappucci, thereby sealing his third Tour de France victory. It's a steel -frame bike exquisitely painted in a delicious red. Today's feather-light carbon-fiber frames make it seem 'Old School." A less generous description might be "heavy dinosaur," but it's a joy to ride—comfortable, smooth, dependable, and light-years better than my old Fuji. When I'm not powering it over the rolling hills of central New Jersey, I keep it in my living room so I can ogle its classic lines, its cheerful colors emblazoned with my hero's name and the World Champion's rainbow stripes.

Framed on one of my walls is a copy of the December 25, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated with Greg LeMond on the cover in bowtie and tux sans jacket, his bike jauntily slung over his left shoulder as he beams the winning smile of Sportsman of the Year. More inspiration, more celebration.


Cycling's doping-stained history has sadly vindicated LeMond. In the light of what we always knew, as well as revelations in hindsight, his achievements look more and more impressive. It hasn't been an easy road for Greg LeMond, but he has always ridden it with integrity and class. He's been one of my heroes for a long time. Still is. His life is worth celebrating.


Share This Page

View readers' comments in Letters to the Editor

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2023 Patrick Walsh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




July 2023

  Sections Cover This IssueinFocusinViewinSightPerspectives Special Issues
  Columns AdlerAlenierAlpaughBettencourtJonesLuceMarcott Walsh 
  Information MastheadYour SupportPrior IssuesSubmissions Archives Books
  Connections Contact UsComments SubscribeAdvertisingPrivacyTerms Letters

|  Search Issue | Search Archives | Share Page |

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine
of Arts and Culture. Copyright © 2000-2023 Aviar-Dka Ltd – Aviar Media Llc.

Subscribe to our mail list for news and a monthly update of each new issue. It's Free!


 Email Address

        Please see our Privacy Policy regarding the security of your information.

Thai Airways at Scene4 Magazine