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No slowing down: Greg LeMond profile

In-depth
3 Jun 2021
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Three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond on his ‘industry changing’ bike brand, sparring with Hinault and Fignon, and cheating

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Tyler Oxendine

Greg LeMond has possibly the most complete CV in cycling. Three-time Tour de France champion, two-time road race World Champion. The only American to have won the yellow jersey (officially), the first non-European Tour winner and the only man to have won the Tour after having been shot. Winner of the closest and most exciting Tour of all time.

He was the first rider to race the Tour on a full carbon fibre bike, the man who introduced Oakley sunglasses into the peloton and the rider who brought Giro helmets into the mainstream.

He was the first cyclist to sign a million-dollar contract. He is a bike manufacturer and brand owner who has produced indoor, direct-drive turbo trainers and exercise bikes.

He is a vocal opponent of performance-enhancing drugs in cycling and was one of the first to tell the truth about Lance Armstrong. A restaurateur, real-estate mogul, charity founder, recipient of the US Congressional Gold Medal and a world record holder in fly fishing.

You would be hard-pushed to find somebody from any walk of life with experience as rounded as LeMond’s, let alone just in the sport of cycling. And with his 60th birthday rolling around this June, who could blame the American from Lakewood, California, if he decided to kick back, put his feet up and live out the rest of his days fishing and looking after the grandkids?

But with the launch of a brand new bike brand in 2020, which promises to deliver an ‘industry changing’ product to market later this year, it seems as if LeMond’s work is far from over.

The great innovator rises again

‘People call me the most innovative cyclist ever. Truth is I’m not an innovator, I could just recognise innovative stuff and I was always able to see the value it could have on my performance,’ LeMond tells Cyclist on a recent Zoom call from his Knoxville office, overlooking the Great Tennessee Smoky Mountains.

‘Pro teams are always approached by these innovators but they tend to be brushed off. Almost every great product I used in my career wasn’t made by a big corporation but by some individual inventor with a passion for what they were doing and who saw a need for what they were producing.’

Take the Oakley Eyeshade, the legendary sunglasses LeMond introduced to the cycling world in 1985, which helped propel Oakley to market domination. History tells us they were developed by Jim Jannard and the Oakley team for LeMond.

In fact, as LeMond tells us, it was a motocross rider who took a pair of Oakley goggles, snapped out the lens, added some rubber on the nose as well as a pair of arms and presented them to Oakley and LeMond.

Or there are the triathlon bars LeMond used on his time-trial bike to win the 1989 Tour de France. He’s credited with introducing them to the peloton but even he will tell you he stole them from fellow American Davis Phinney, a man who had long been experimenting with kit from the triathlon scene to improve his time-trialling.

‘And of course in 1991 I was approached by a man named Craig Calfee, just a guy from California, no big company, an individual who came to me with his work and became the first bike manufacturer to have a full carbon fibre bike raced at the Tour de France,’ says LeMond.

Be it carbon bikes or Oakley sunnies, spotting innovation has been part of LeMond’s long career in cycling and continues to be so today. It’s this eye for innovation that led him to relocate to Knoxville, Tennessee, because it is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a world leader in carbon fibre technologies and collaborator on LeMond’s newest bike brand.

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The bikes incorporate a new manufacturing technique that LeMond claims can lower the cost of carbon fibre production by 50% and which uses a new core material that can make bikes ‘as light as anything on the market and almost failure-proof’.

At present the new brand only has a small selection of e-bikes aimed at the commuter market, but there is a range of road bikes on the way, expected in June, which LeMond believes will dramatically shift the direction of the industry.

‘I’m excited because I think some of these products we are launching will be game-changers in the next 12 to 24 months in terms of being lightweight, using this new super-core structure in which we’ll be able to make very narrow-profiled tubes while retaining lateral stiffness and ensuring material failure is practically impossible.’

As yet, Cyclist doesn’t have any more details on these new bikes so we’ll have to wait until the summer to verify any of these ‘game-changing’ claims. But as far as LeMond is concerned, his new bikes will be using ‘the biggest development in carbon fibre technology for 60 years’.

Drugs and other forms of cheating

The ultimate goal for any high-end road bike brand is to have its product raced at the Tour de France and that’s no exception for LeMond. Sooner or later he wants his bikes to be used in the pro ranks as he knows this is the best way to market his brand. If LeMond’s bikes do reach the peloton, he’s confident they will be entering a biologically clean one – or at least cleaner than it has been in the past.

‘I don’t know if the sport can ever be 100% clean, but what I do know is that – and I know this may sound naive – the French have a higher level of testing than most countries, with different standards, and Thibaut Pinot has been a guy who has released all of his data since turning pro, all his files, and we know he is clean,’ LeMond says.

‘Pinot publishes everything and almost won the Tour in 2019. That tells me things are good. And we’re seeing the younger riders up there too; the real talent is showing up. Back in the day you had to be over 30 and on the full “programme” to win the Tour. Smart teams wouldn’t have put a young guy at 19 or 20 on the full programme.’

That’s not to say LeMond thinks cycling is absolved of its sins. He does describe himself as a realist, after all. To him, the sport will always have its bad apples, but he believes the cheats may be looking elsewhere. ‘I do think there’s still a huge risk for e-bikes in the peloton. I’m telling you, it’s real. It has been used to win some very big races.’

LeMond highlights Hungarian engineer Stefano Varjas and his Vivax motor system as the first system he believes could have been used in the peloton.

‘How many bike changes have you seen during races in the last two years? Not many. But there was a period when you’d think carbon fibre bikes must have gone right down in terms of quality, because riders were changing bikes all the time.

‘When I was racing I don’t remember ever changing my bike unless I’d crashed, but there was a time when you’d see bike change after bike change after bike change. That’s incredibly suspicious and I think I know why. It’s nothing to do with the bike but the other stuff they are using.’

The lack of names and dates around LeMond’s claims do reduce them to conjecture, and it’s worth noting that only one rider has ever been caught motor doping: Belgian junior cyclocross rider Femke Van den Driessche in 2016. But someone of LeMond’s stature being so convinced of its presence, plus the very fact that the only person to have ever been proven to be motor doping was a junior cyclocross racer, certainly does get you thinking.

LeMond isn’t the only one concerned. UCI president David Lappartient stood on a platform of getting tough on motor doping and has taken steps to eradicate its potential risks with increased on-the-spot bike checks at races and the partial yet infrequent introduction of x-ray machine checks at the bigger races. It’s certainly a start, but ask LeMond and he will tell you it’s not enough.

‘It’s so simple to solve. You need to check every bike with an x-ray machine that you find at every American border check which can test 250 trucks an hour and find a metal clip in someone’s pocket. This issue is solved with a $1.5 million machine; someone’s just got to buy it.’

Bernard and Laurent

During his pro career LeMond’s greatest rivals were two Frenchmen: Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon. History tells us Hinault was the great ego of 1980s French cycling – brash, volatile, confrontational – while Fignon was the unassuming, coy, modest one. But LeMond, a man who knew both well, is a revisionist to this opinion.

‘It’s funny because Fignon had the bigger ego. Hinault was just a grouchy old man who didn’t think too much. If you told Hinault to attack into a headwind with 100km left to race because you thought he could win, he would do it,’ LeMond says, laughing.

‘Hinault was very respectful of other riders, always shared his prize money and he would ride for whoever in the team was the strongest on the day. But if you told Hinault he was the strongest person in the world, he would believe it. So when we had our run-ins in 1986, it was truly Bernard Tapie [La Vie Claire team manager] manipulating Hinault and telling him to “screw the American”.

‘It was Fignon, after he won the Tour in 1984, who became the arrogant one. I got to learn more about Fignon later in his career. He was incredibly shy and sometimes shy people come across as arrogant because they just don’t like the limelight.

‘After winning the 1983 and 1984 Tours, he was ripped apart for never winning it a third time, which made him angry, especially after I beat him in 1989. He was a good guy but his ego and his actions would fully depend on how he was riding.’

Any arrogance or shyness in Fignon’s character had turned to utter devastation after 1989. Losing the Tour on the final day by eight seconds to LeMond was a black cloud that would linger over Fignon until his death in 2010. It is famously told he couldn’t bear returning to the Champs-Élysées, and for years he would walk in silence, counting out steps for eight seconds, mourning his defeat.

‘The crazy thing is that Fignon’s devastation was all because he made the assumption that he had already won the Tour before the final time-trial. If he had been realistic, we were too close. I don’t get that – it was arrogant of him to believe he’d already won.’

LeMond says he had made calculations before the final stage based upon previous time-trial head-to-heads that convinced him he could overturn Fignon on the last day.

‘It shouldn’t have been so devastating to come second because the race wasn’t over until it was over. If I’d have got second, I wouldn’t have been devastated. That’s what’s so sad. I could never understand why a career could be made or broken based upon one race result. That’s the tragedy.’

Caught red-handed!

LeMond on Laurent Fignon’s mischief-making at the 1989 Tour de France

‘This is a story I don’t tell too often, but at the 1989 Tour de France I was leading the race into Stage 10 to Superbagnères and before that day Fignon had been continuously ripping me apart to the press for not leading the race properly.

‘At the time, holding on to a motorcycle or team car was an automatic disqualification. On Stage 10, the Tourmalet stage, I turned around mid-climb to see him holding onto a motorcycle so he didn’t get dropped, which should have been an automatic disqualification.

‘By the end of that stage he had managed to take 10 seconds from me on GC and then ripped me apart again in the press for not honouring the yellow jersey, even though it was just my second day in the mountains at the Tour since 1986.

‘So I pulled him aside and told him the next day, “You better shut your mouth up if you don’t want me to go out and say what I saw you do yesterday.” He went quiet until the end of the Tour after that.’

LeMond on...

…the UCI bike weight limit

‘Small riders are at a disadvantage because of the 6.8kg minimum bike weight. If you’re 68kg that’s 10% of your weight, so you’re competing with a penalty compared to a heavy rider – 6.8kg is 8.5% to an 80kg rider.

‘The bike weight limit should be based on the rider’s weight. The smaller riders, like Egan Bernal or Nairo Quintana, would then be on a more level playing field.’

…how to make the Tour more exciting

‘Before last year’s Tour everyone was saying it should never end with a time-trial because you can’t replicate 1989. That’s stupid – it should be that way every five years.

‘The Tour is made for climbers right now. They need to reintroduce time-trials of 50-70km otherwise the race will always be directed towards the pure climber. How about an entire race for climbers that finishes with a 50-70km time-trial? Now that would be exciting.’

…Cyril Guimard

‘He’s one of the greatest sport directors ever. He was known as a fighter but really he was a great tactician. Bernard Hinault won most of his races because of Guimard’s superior tactics. When you watched Hinault race for other teams he made a lot of tactical mistakes. Guimard was his driving force.

‘He also developed talent: me, Hinault, Fignon, Charly Mottet, Lucien Van Impe. And he was a great psychologist. Guimard could wring the best out of his riders even when they were racing poorly.’