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Greg LeMond : Interview

Greg LeMond interview
Mark Bailey
6 May 2015

The triple Tour de France champion talks to us about his obsession with tech, fronting up to Lance and his love of Boris bikes.

For a man who enjoys a tranquil life filled with fishing trips, hikes and hearty plates of Mexican food, Greg LeMond has had an extraordinarily dramatic career. The American cyclist won three eventful Tours de France, triumphing in a bitter duel with his team-mate and nemesis Bernard Hinault in 1986 to become the first non-European Tour champion, and clinching a tense final-day time trial in 1989 to beat Laurent Fignon to the yellow jersey by just eight seconds – the narrowest margin of victory in Tour history – before storming to his third title in 1990.

Armed with an almost superhuman VO2 max of 92.5ml/kg/min (one of the highest rankings of aerobic fitness ever recorded in any sport, and almost triple that of an ordinary healthy male) and capable of sustaining 460 watts, LeMond also powered to two UCI Road World Championship titles in 1983 and 1989. His success was so monumental he was invited to the White House by US president Ronald Reagan and was the first cyclist to grace the cover of iconic US magazine Sports Illustrated. But cycling glory constitutes only half of his tale.

Greg Lemond Oakley Eyeshades

Approaching his athletic prime in 1987, LeMond was accidentally shot while on a turkey shoot, losing 65% of his blood volume and coming within 20 minutes of bleeding to death, before staging an incredible return to the top two years later. He pioneered the use of many technologies – from carbon frames to aero bars – now ubiquitous among cyclists. As an anti-doping campaigner, he became embroiled in a vitriolic battle with Lance Armstrong and the American bike manufacturer Trek, which poisoned his love of cycling, tainted his reputation and threatened his financial security until he was very publicly exonerated. It’s been quite a ride.

Pioneering spirit

When LeMond strolls over to the BikesEtc stand at the London Bike Show for our interview, he greets us with a relaxed Californian grin and a big bear’s paw of a handshake. Aged 53, the American is more robust than during his racing days, and his once iconic blond locks now have a sophisticated silver sheen, but his blue eyes and natural charisma make LeMond unmistakable, turning visiting cycling fans’ heads and sparking frantic camera-phone grabbing.

Accompanied by his wife Kathy and chatting with fans, LeMond is at ease with himself in the cycling world in a way that many riders of his era can never be. Clear in conscience and unfettered by shame, regret or bitterness – despite multiple provocations – LeMond is back in love with cycling again, designing bikes, commentating on races and riding just for fun.

Greg LeMond interview

LeMond is particularly happy today because the Excel centre in London’s Docklands is a riot of gleaming bikes and electronic gadgets. ‘I’ve always been into bike design and technology, so I love this kind of thing,’ he reveals. ‘I was one of the first to use a cycling computer for racing. Then in 1984 I started using a heart-rate monitor to track my performance. The big one for me, though, was using watts. I was one of the first to get into SRM [the power meter favoured by many pro teams] and that was a major transformation.’ At the 1985 Tour de France, LeMond was the first rider to sport Oakley eyeshades, and a year later he became the first rider to win the Tour on a carbon-fibre bike. His historic time-trial win on the final stage of the 1989 Tour was aided by a rear disc wheel, a modified helmet, aerodynamic bars and hours of forensic wind-tunnel analysis.

LeMond now plans to harness his knowledge of cycling technology and athletic performance to deliver new bike designs and training solutions through his LeMond Bicycles brand. ‘So many things are established in cycling because it’s the way they’ve always been done, but I like to re-evaluate everything,’ he explains. ‘I’m working on some cool new designs and software which will give recreational riders a new experience.’

Lemond Washoe road bike

Last year he released the Washoe steel bike, which features an extended wheelbase for enhanced power output, control and comfort. His innovative LeMond Revolution indoor trainer remains popular, its direct-drive system enabling cyclists to hook their bike’s drivetrain directly to the resistance fan, removing the need for tyre-to-roller contact. He’s currently building a new carbon bike, a new tri-bike and what he calls an ‘adventure bike’. ‘It’s basically the bike that I want to ride myself,’ he says. ‘In the States, there’s a movement towards bike touring over challenging terrain. So you can do some mountain riding, but with some singletrack capability too. Basically, I just want to go to Patagonia and ride around on a high-performance bike.’

Tour trauma

LeMond loves the outdoors. Born in Lakewood, California, on 26 June 1961, he was raised in the ranch country of Lake Tahoe and the Washoe Valley, on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. He enjoyed an adventurous childhood, hiking, fly-fishing, trap shooting, backpacking and skiing. He mowed lawns and chopped wood to save up for his first bike, a Raleigh Grand Prix. Then in 1975 he attended a ski camp as a fourteenth birthday present from his parents, where a ski coach recommended that he cycle to stay fit. The seeds were sown…

Two weeks later, LeMond turned up for a local race organised by the Reno Wheelmen cycling club. He wore running shoes, a vest and shorts but, to the astonishment of the club riders, he finished second. Intrigued, he bought a yellow Cinelli bike and won his next 11 races. Stepping up to the junior category, his success continued, winning the junior national road title in 1977. Aged 17, he was winning races in Switzerland, France, Belgium and Italy.

Greg Lemond Bernard Hinault

In 1979 he was victorious in the UCI Junior Road World Championships and in 1982 he dominated the Tour de l’Avenir, winning by 10 minutes 18 seconds. ‘I always thought of US riders as a bit like UK riders, feeling almost intimidated, as though Europe was another place,’ he remembers. ‘Cycling in the US and the UK died off in the 1950s and 1960s and it’s amazing what has happened since. In 1984, LeMond rode his first Tour de France with Renault-Elf, finishing third and winning the white jersey for Best Young Rider. ‘On my first Tour, I remember suffering so much. I was on antibiotics and I couldn’t believe how hard it was. It was almost a traumatising race, but it was very exciting because the team won 10 stages and took first and third.’

Between 1985 and 1987, LeMond rode for La Vie Claire. Despite having the talent to win the 1985 Tour, he held back under team orders to allow his team-mate Bernard Hinault to win his fifth tour – in return for a promise that Hinault would support him the following year. LeMond took second place.‘In 1985 I was bummed out that I was too conservative in the beginning, too naive and not selfish enough,’ he says. ‘But that’s just who I am.’

Greg Lemond Toue De France Stage 17 1986

The following year, Hinault refused to support LeMond and the two riders locked horns in a ferocious battle for the yellow jersey. After stage 12, Hinault enjoyed a five-minute lead over LeMond, but the American took back four and a half minutes on the following stage and seized the yellow jersey on stage 17. He was still wearing it in Paris. ‘Throughout my career I only wanted to win the race,’ he says. ‘I didn’t compete against other racers like Fignon or Hinault. I don’t have bitterness or jealousy. I just knew if I was at my best I would win.’ Unfortunately, LeMond’s chances of retaining his first Tour title were shattered when he was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law on a turkey shoot in the Sierra Nevada in 1987. He was almost-fatally blasted with 60 pellets and only the fortuitous presence of a nearby police helicopter saved his life.

Second and third wins

Greg Lemond Tour de France TT 1986

LeMond returned to racing in 1988 with 35 pellets still in his body, three of which are in the lining of his heart and five in his liver. When he managed to defeat Laurent Fignon in 1989, turning over the Frenchman’s 50-second advantage to steal victory on the final 24.5km time trial from Versailles to the Champs-Élysées, he was simply happy to be alive. ‘I never really think about those eight seconds,’ he says. ‘The thing I think of most is how much it must have affected Fignon. There are stories that he was on the Champs-Élysées counting out those eight seconds. But to go from not knowing if I was going to live in 1987 to winning the Tour in 1989, I would have been happy taking second place. Just having the opportunity to win that race was pure joy.’

LeMond retained his title in 1990, but he still ponders the two years he missed the Tour – first when recovering from his accident and a subsequent bout of tendonitis. ‘Physically and athletically, 1986 was my best Tour and I wish I’d had more years like that,’ he says. ‘In 1990 I had a full team racing for me too. If I had the fitness of 1986 with the team of 1990, I don’t think [Stephen] Roche [1987] or [Pedro] Delgado [1988] would have been winning the Tour.’ 

Greg Lemond winning 1986 Tour De France

LeMond officially retired in December 1994 after ill health and the rampant drug abuse in the peloton contrived to end his chances of success. ‘By 1991 I knew the pace had gone up,’ he says. I remember motor-pacing on a Vespa around that time. I was doing 85kmh and going well, but then getting dropped in races. Something wasn’t right.’ The following year, LeMond arranged a licensing agreement to work with Trek on his own-brand bikes that he had launched back in 1990. But in 2001 his controversial comments about Lance Armstrong caused chaos. ‘If Lance is clean, then it’s the greatest comeback in the history of sports,’ opined LeMond. ‘If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.’

Trek, a long-time sponsor of Armstrong, demanded an apology. In 2008 the LeMond brand was dropped, and in 2010 the two sides reached an out-of-court settlement. After a whirlwind of litigation and public resentment, LeMond fell out of love with cycling. ‘The whole thing did dramatic damage emotionally and financially, and even affected my thoughts of getting into the bike business,’ he says. ‘I knew I couldn’t get into it unless Armstrong was exposed. But I always believe what goes around comes around [Armstrong admitted doping in 2013]. It just takes a long time sometimes.’

Greg Lemond Team Z

LeMond is delighted he’s back in the cycling world, free to work with his reputation restored. He can now attend the Tour de France or visit bike shows with his head held high. ‘It is a good thing to come back, as cycling is a huge part of my life and I never felt welcome at the Tour before,’ he confesses. ‘You feel like you’re at a party you are not really invited to. I also stayed away because it was too painful. When I was going through my 30s and 40s I was still a competitor and I wanted to be out there racing. Now the riders are my kids’ ages and it’s hard to believe I was once that young.’

LeMond will be working for Eurosport this summer. ‘I enjoyed the race last year as young riders are coming through. I like what [Thibaut] Pinot did [finishing third]. I thought it was brilliant to see [37-year-old-Jean-Christophe] Péraud, a mountain bike rider, coming to the Tour [he finished second]. When you see riders of that age in the top ten, it’s a good indication of where the sport is at.’ Eager for innovations, however small, he would like to see riders’ names printed on their jerseys to aid fans. ‘With the helmets and glasses you don’t get a sense of the riders’ personalities and or see the suffering,’ he says. ‘Fans want to know who they are watching and what they’re like. The TV interviews help, but they need to put names on jerseys.’

New beginnings

In the build-up to the 2015 Tour de France, LeMond is busy working on bike designs. Future creations are likely to feature his preference for a longer wheelbase. ‘The movement has always been towards having the wheels further underneath you, but why? It goes back to what people did in the 1980s – it’s good for sprinters and cyclocross riders for that quick acceleration. Most people want a bike that’s stable and aerodynamic, and a longer wheelbase is better on the track and for descending.’ Shorter cranks are another key component of the LeMond blueprint. ‘They are more efficient for power production, aerodynamics and performance,’ he says, ‘And as most amateurs aren’t as skinny as pros, long cranks mean their thighs hit their stomachs when on the drops. Shorter cranks are better for your hips and offer a bit more comfort.’

Greg Lemond Chris Froome

However, LeMond thinks that his time-trial bike will prove to be the most innovative product. ‘I am excited by it because there are no limitations. A lot of bikes are designed by engineers, not bike riders, which results in the bikes that look aerodynamic, but aren’t suited to a rider’s body. To get power out, you need to be comfortable so you can hold your position on the bike and move in a straight line. I also don’t understand the logic of having riders on aero road bikes when 98% of the time riders are sheltering in the peloton. Very few races have a total headwind and a lot of aero kit suffers from side winds, which add drag. A more traditional frame might be better on the road – save the aero designs for the time-trial.’

LeMond also offers a tantalising insight into the new training software he’s working on. ‘My goal is integration of technology,’ he says. ‘I want to bring what I had as a pro to the average person. Few bike companies have people who have raced bikes but have also used technology and understand physiology. It’s odd that one industry builds frames and another builds components. I want to encourage a seamless experience. Everything’s fractured. I want to unite it in a seamless way so recreational cyclists know how to train like a pro.’

LeMond would be happy to chat about bikes, crank sizes and his golden cycling memories all day long, but he has an appointment with a bike to keep. ‘I’ve ridden Boris bikes before,’ he says. ‘You see a city so much better. I told my taxi driver, I can get from A to B faster on a bike. I’m off for a ride. Taxis are expensive and slow. With walking, you don’t see as much. Cycling is just perfect.’

Greg LeMond is Eurosport’s cycling ambassador in 2015 and will provide expert analysis throughout the season in LeMond On Tour and LeMond Of Cycling

Read more about LeMond's Record 8 second victory in Cyclist's article : Game Changer : Scott Clip-On Aero Bars.

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