On the road again
Cyclist Greg LeMond finds fast new wheels
Posted: Saturday July 03, 1999 06:37 PM
By Loren Mooney
Issue date: May 19, 1997
Cornering into a sharp turn at 50 mph, three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond takes a tight line, and another racer trying to sneak by on the inside crashes into him. LeMond suffers no road rash from the collision, but he can't just grab a spare bike and continue the race. These days LeMond's ride is a race car, and it isn't so easily replaced. LeMond, 35, who retired from professional cycling in 1994 because of a rare cellular disorder that sapped his energy, has a new competitive focus: the U.S. Formula Ford 2000 racing series.
His new Ford, number 83, is bright yellow, like the leader's jersey in the Tour de France. But as a rookie FF2000 racer LeMond hasn't approached the triumphs he celebrated speeding to victory up the Champs-Elysees in Paris. In the Indy 200 at Walt Disney World in January, he crashed into a wall at 80 mph in a qualifying round, then eked out a 20th-place finish in the race itself. In his second start, the Kash N' Karry Florida Grand Prix, in St. Petersburg, on Feb. 23, LeMond qualified 18th but was taken out in Turn 1 of Lap 1 by another racer. In March at the Phoenix 200, LeMond raced in the middle of the pack before he was taken out by a spinning car. Last month he finished 21st in one race and broke down on the last lap of another.
According to Warren Gibson, LeMond's longtime friend and consultant, the cyclist's switch to race car driver was a necessary adaptation. "Every year he had goals and a schedule for what he should do to reach those goals," says Gibson. "When Greg retired he no longer had that. But now he's got that commitment."
LeMond found his new commitment a year and a half ago, when, at the urging of his friend Frank Bennett, he got behind the wheel at the Russell Racing School in Monterey, Calif. "After a 20-minute session, I was like, Woo hoo!" says LeMond. He enrolled in the school, took advanced courses and finished third in Russell's season-ending competition. Then, on a rainy afternoon last July, LeMond paid $6,000 to lease a race car and entered a professional race in downtown Minneapolis, not far from his home in Medina, Minn. He finished a respectable 12th. "I drove cautiously," he says. "I didn't want to pay damages."
Last fall LeMond found someone else to foot the racing bills, which run about $150,000 annually for the car, mechanics and travel in the nine-stop, 12-race FF2000 series. John Miller, president of Miller Milling Company, a durum wheat mill in Minneapolis, signed LeMond to his Miller Brothers racing team because, Miller says, "we felt that he could safely run in this category, and that it was the logical next step if he's serious about a career in racing." And, Miller admits, the publicity LeMond attracts doesn't hurt.
"He's not going to win a race tomorrow or next week, but he's already climbed an incredibly steep learning curve for someone with so little experience," says Miller, who has been racing for more than 10 years. "If he continues, by the end of the season he'll be a contender to win races."
To maneuver the open-wheeled, two-liter Ford at speeds of up to 150 mph requires great confidence, especially for a rookie accustomed to sitting high on a bike seat. Low in the driver's bay, LeMond is bound to his foam-contoured seat by a seat belt, chest and crotch straps, and forearm restraints. He cannot see the nose of the car, its jutting tires or how close the tires come to the concrete safety barriers in turns. He has a mirror smaller than a bike pedal on either side of the car to see traffic approaching from behind. "I only have about 33 days of racing experience," LeMond says. "That's not much. I can't imagine racing a bike with only 33 days of riding. But in car racing you don't have the luxury of being able to drive whenever you want." He is still getting used to turns and traffic. Except for LeMond, all of this year's FF2000 rookies have several years of amateur racing or go-karting experience.
"I don't think Greg's ever even changed the oil in a car," says his wife, Kathy. She took a three-day racing course to have a better understanding of what her husband experiences on the track. "He's been reading lots of racing books," she says. "We were trying to remember back to my college physics to figure out some of the aerodynamics."
Greg's most valuable asset in overcoming his mechanical ignorance is his driving coach, Steve Knapp, last year's FF2000 champion. "The system we've worked out is, on test days, I'll run the car for a few laps with the same setup he uses," says Knapp, who is the lead driver for Miller Racing. "Then we look at the computer data and show him where I'm faster and go from there." The data come from a racing software program, used by most professional teams, that records driver and car performance on a card in the car's computer. After a run, the card is transferred into a laptop, and Knapp analyzes the information to recommend adjustments for LeMond to make. "Listening to Greg's stories at night over dinner, you can tell that cycling and car racing are real similar sports," says Knapp. "It's just that now everything comes at him a lot faster."
Knapp believes his charge will advance to a higher level of racing—the KOOL/Toyota Atlantic series, for example, in which Knapp now drives—and might even get up to Indy or Formula One. But LeMond knows that he's not much closer to the Indy 500 than he was to the Tour de France when, at 14, he got his first racing bicycle and began riding the country roads of the Washoe Valley of Nevada. "Who knows? I might find out I don't have what it takes," he says. "I don't think I'd stick with car racing if I weren't improving. I think when you start to plateau, you have to reanalyze."
Then again, LeMond seems a good bet to succeed. No American had won the Tour de France before LeMond won the race in 1986. But in 1987 he nearly bled to death after his brother-in-law accidentally shot him in the back while they were hunting wild turkeys. In LeMond's torso there are still about 40 lead shotgun pellets that doctors decided to leave there rather than risk causing further damage by removing them. LeMond went through a grueling, yearlong rehabilitation program that led eventually to a stirring come-from-behind victory at the 1989 Tour de France.
But in 1991 he began to experience severe fatigue, and his performance soon started to fall off. In 1994, as part of a battery of tests, he underwent a muscle biopsy. LeMond pulls up his shorts to reveal the wormlike scar on his thigh where doctors sliced off six strips of muscle—"like sashimi," he likes to say. The diagnosis was mitochondria myopathy, a rare disorder in which the mitochondria in his cells are inhibited from converting fat calories to energy at the rate needed by a world-class athlete.
"If I was sitting behind a desk all day, I'd never know I have it," says LeMond, whose two sisters are now being tested for the disorder. "I could probably compete locally in bike races and still win, but after you've raced at the Tour de France level, it's like a guy who's raced Indy cars going back to racing in this series or in go-karts."
LeMond has taken the step back to the bush leagues, albeit in another sport. There is something odd about seeing the U.S.'s greatest cyclist in an entry-level racing series filled with aspiring unknowns and wealthy businessmen looking for a hobby. Former Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal stopped by the Miller Brothers paddock at the Florida Grand Prix, where he was advising a team in another series, to tell LeMond that he has been a fan of his for years.
Others flocked to the rookie and presented an odd array of paraphernalia for him to autograph: cycling jerseys, baseball caps embroidered with an emblem of his number 83 Ford, Tour de France posters and Grand Prix programs. They didn't seem to mind that LeMond crashed early, and they eagerly asked what happened.
"That guy T-boned me," LeMond said. "I wish this was like bike racing, where you have spares. I wanted to get back out there and race." Though he's now a middle-of-the pack rookie, LeMond's spirit has not changed. He has cut down on the road rash, but he's still looking to become a champion in yellow.
Update, 7/10/98: LeMond has steadily improved during his first year and a half on the Formula Ford 2000 circuit. He earned three top-10 finishes in eight races this season, twice ending up third. He is 12th in the points standings, with $3,250 in prize money.
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