Cyclists of the Tour de France: Greg LeMond
Greg LeMond was the first American to ever win the Tour de France, and went on to win it a total of three times. An outspoken critic of performance enhancing drugs and doping both during his career and afterwards, he was slowed during much of his prime by poor luck and injuries. He competed in six installments of the Tour de France in his impressive career.
LeMond was born in Lakewood, California, and had success in his teens before being selected as part of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Cycling team. He did not attend, however, nor did any of the American athletes that year, and the following year he turned professional. He would compete in his first Tour de France in 1984.
His Tour de France debut was a successful one, finishing third and winning the white jersey as the best rider aged 25 years and younger. LeMond was the first American to ever stand on the podium, but he was not done writing American cycling history.
The next year, LeMond was no longer an unknown commodity, and he finished second in the 1985 Tour de France to teammate Bernard Hinault. Only 1 minute and 42 seconds behind Hinault at the finish, LeMond would go on to say that he could have won the race and essentially gave it away to Hinault. Hinault said that he would return the favor and support LeMond the next year, and repeated the promise many times before the 1986 Tour de France.
The 1986 Tour de France had its share of drama, though. Hinault rode rather aggressively throughout the race, claiming that he was wearing down the opposition for LeMond, even if it sometimes appeared that he was trying to secure the win for himself. By the end, Hinault did relinquish the yellow jersey, though he won two late stages while finishing second to LeMond. LeMond made history as the first American cyclist to ever win the Tour de France, and appeared to be primed to win again the next year.
However, fate intervened in a most unfortunate and unpredictable way. While turkey hunting with his brother-in-law, LeMond was shot in the back and seriously injured. As a result, LeMond was unable to compete in the Tour de France in 1987 and 1988. During that time, LeMond also underwent surgery for tendinitis and appendicitis in his leg. This incredibly disastrous series of events led to LeMond’s return to the Tour de France in 1989, and one of the great races of all time.
LeMond only expected to finish respectably in the 1989 Tour de France, but late in the race he found himself in second place by less than a minute to two-time champion Laurent Fignon. This set the stage for a showdown in the final time trial, which LeMond would win by 58 seconds, giving him an overall win by just 8 seconds over Fignon. It was the closest finish in Tour de France history, and the competitiveness of the race along with the tremendous story of LeMond’s return brought great attention to the sport.
In 1990, LeMond would win his last Tour de France, amazingly doing so without winning a single individual stage. Only a few riders, including LeMond, have ever accomplished such a feat. He got off to a poor start, at one point being over ten minutes behind, before slowly gaining on the leaders by consistently riding hard through each subsequent stage.
After his final Tour de France win, LeMond continued to race competitively for a few years before retiring in 1994. He competed in his last Tour de France in 1991, wearing the yellow jersey for 6 days en route to finishing 7th overall.
Since LeMond’s retirement, American cyclists such as Lance Armstrong have continued to represent the United States at the Tour de France, but LeMond will always be the one who first carried American cyclists to the top of the cycling world.