At the time of the accident LeMond weighed 151 pounds, with a body-fat content of 4%. When he started training again, he weighed 137, with 17% body fat. His body, in its efforts to survive, had consumed vast amounts of its muscle. LeMond began to understand how weak he really was when he went riding with a 250-pound man one day, and the man left him behind on a climb.
The next two years were lost ones, professionally. Every time he started to show signs of progress, something would set him back. He had an emergency appendectomy four months after the shooting accident, ending his 1987 season. In July 1988 his comeback was further delayed by surgery to repair an infected tendon in his right shin, forcing him to miss the Tour de France for a second straight year. The powerful Dutch team, PDM, with which LeMond had signed a two-year deal in 1987, wanted to cut his 1989 salary by $200,000. "They had lost total confidence in me," he says. "They were trying to claim that maybe my liver was bad, my lung was shot up, maybe I had lead poisoning. That's why I wasn't riding well. They said, 'Maybe you're not going to ever come back.' "
When he reasoned it out, LeMond knew that he had to be patient. His body had to go through a series of plateaus, every one requiring a period of adaptation. To reach each new plateau, LeMond had to stretch his endurance. Then he had to allow his body time to recuperate before stretching again to reach a higher level. "No matter how dedicated you are, how seriously you train, you need a certain period of time to do that," he says. "It's impossible to go straight there."
When he didn't reason it out, however—and what athlete is a perpetual slave to reason?—when he listened to his disgruntled employers and read what the skeptics were saying, at home and abroad, he kept hearing one phrase in his head: Maybe you're not going to ever come back.
Before the start of the 1989 season, LeMond took a pay cut and signed with ADR, a Belgian-based truck-leasing company, for $350,000 plus bonuses. ADR has a lower budget and considerably lower expectations than powerhouse PDM. That translated to less pressure on LeMond, but it also meant he had a weaker team working for him. Teammates who help to break the wind and chase down opponents are an integral part of professional cycling.
After riding well in the spring classics in Europe, LeMond returned to the U.S. in May and fared poorly in the inaugural Tour de Trump—a race he had designs on winning. He struggled from the start and finished 27th, leading even his most ardent American supporters to question whether he could ever regain his former level. "I was just not capable of staying with anybody on the hills," LeMond says. "I suffered unbelievably."
Before the shooting accident LeMond was one of the most daunting cyclists in the mountains, a climber who thrived on the steepest grades. Now he was the one being dropped. "The hardest part about coming back from an injury is you always remember yourself at your best," he says. "Never the way you were when things were going badly. I kept remembering how I rode in the '86 Tour de France, when I floated up hills or when I could ride 30 miles per hour for an hour and a half during the time trials."
LeMond had his blood tested near the end of the Tour de Trump to see if that might yield some clue to his disappointing performances. It revealed nothing. He returned to Europe to prepare for the Tour of Italy, one of cycling's most prestigious events after the Tour de France. There, too, he faltered. In the first mountain stage LeMond lost eight minutes to the leaders. His masseur, Otto Jacome, who has been a friend of the LeMond family since Greg was 15, took one look at him afterward and said, "You are white. You need iron."
Again LeMond had his blood tested. This time he was diagnosed as anemic, and his doctor immediately gave him an injection of iron. "I was riding myself into the ground," LeMond says. "I was pushing so hard that I was eating into my muscles."
The worst was still to come. In the 11th stage of the Tour of Italy, during a climb called the Tre Cime di Laverado, LeMond finished 17 minutes behind the leaders. If it hadn't been for the Italian spectators urging him on, he figures he would have finished 25 to 30 minutes down. Riders he had once dominated were pedaling away from him with bewildering ease. How did they do it? he wondered. He was more impressed than angry, feeling for the first time in his career that he was out of his league.