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Climbing Clear Up To The Heights
Bob Ottum
September 03, 1984
Greg LeMond, a Huck Finn with steel thighs, is the first American to pedal his way to the top ranks of European bike racing royalty
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September 03, 1984

Climbing Clear Up To The Heights

Greg LeMond, a Huck Finn with steel thighs, is the first American to pedal his way to the top ranks of European bike racing royalty

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Imagine it: The '83 world champ, holder of a clutch of world records, third-place finisher in the Tour, the acknowledged new terror of the Alpine climbs—and he's still a growing boy. He's still the Kid. Bike racing is like that in Europe. Maurice Champion, an assistant coach and the public relations voice for the Renault team, rolls his eyes heavenward and says, "Greg is très aggressive now; sometimes too aggressive, and he's still learning the racing technique. But at 25, ahhhh. At 25, he shall be unstoppable."

For now, the champ pauses atop Klausen Pass. Despite the brilliant sun and the heat rising from the valley, he tugs on woolen leg warmers and a hooded pullover and then a transparent plastic parka for the ride down the other side, in which his swift descent would otherwise chill him to the bone. He'll roll flat out through the tight curves at 40 to 50 mph, touching his brakes only lightly from time to time going into the corners and accelerating out of the turns like a shot. The Mercedes will follow at a respectable speed, tires squealing—ain't no car that'll keep up with LeMond on the way down. It's agreed to meet at a roadside café at the bottom. "I'll order hot dogs and Dairy Queens all around," he says. "That is, assuming you ever make it down. Look: You want to take the bike down and I'll drive?"

And, sure enough, he's waiting at a café terrace at the bottom, sprawled comfortably under a brightly striped umbrella. He's peeled down to a white, short-sleeved pullover with the familiar rainbow stripes around the chest—the official world champion's jersey—with his tanned, clean-shaven legs (to make massage easier, he says) stretched out. The waitresses and diners watch his every move admiringly. Some of them glance upward toward the pass, as if they half expect to see a pack of pursuing racers pouring down through the curves. See? It is Greg LeMooonnnnd, and see how he eats.

This is a certified report of LeMond at lunch: He started with two half-liter bottles of Coke, drinking the first without pause. Then came a huge platter stacked with bunderfleisch, paper-thin slices of cured beef, an enormous tuna salad, three plates of French bread and two half-liter bottles of mineral water. And there's more pastry in the car for afternoon munchies. This is an extremely light lunch for him; his breakfasts and dinners are truly monstrous.

LeMond is that wonder of medical science, a living, walking, riding furnace. In full-bore action, he throws off calories at such a rate that one might expect to see them trailing away behind him like smoke. "And my oxygen uptake [VO[2]]," he says, "can drive an ergometer flat crazy." It seems impossible for him to eat like this and remain a lean 147 pounds at 5'9", yet, "in some tough races," he says, "I'll be hammering along with my eyes sort of glazing over, not knowing quite where I am—and the team director will whip alongside in the car and yell at me, 'Eat! Eat!' That's because I've hit the Bonk—which is like a marathon runner hitting the wall at the 20-mile mark. The French call it la fringale; hitting the Bonk is when you've accidentally run your glycogen level down too far and need instant nourishment, or maybe you'll pass out. So I reach into my back pocket and pull out some rice cakes. And I'll wash them down with the stuff in one of my bottles, a mixture of tea and glucose. In most races—we're talking about six hours or so at a stretch—I'll eat something about every 20 minutes."

While LeMond works his way through lunch—"Ummm, is that all the tuna you're gonna eat? Here, I'll finish it"—one has the opportunity to reflect upon the conversion of a child racing prodigy into an international champ; the life and fast times that have brought him so far from home.

Tradition has it that great bike racers are made, not born—well, provided they start riding hard no later than at age 15 and then merely devote their lives to it. LeMond beat that deadline by roughly one year. "The summer I was 14, my dad bought himself a racing bike to get back in shape," LeMond says. "He's a real-estate dealer. He'd been about a six-pack-a-day man and had developed a little pot belly. I already had a Raleigh 10-speed I'd bought with my lawn-mowing money, and we started riding together three or four times a week for an hour each time. That was fine, but next thing I knew, he had me riding 60 miles of the trip to Yosemite National Park. Listen: I was so tired I wanted to cry."

This was in Washoe County, suburban Reno, so to speak, where the LeMonds had moved from Los Angeles when Greg was seven. There were his mom, Bertha, and dad, Robert (no more belly; in superb shape now at 44 and a demon cyclist), and sisters Kathy, now 25, and Karen, now 21. "Bike riding was fairly O.K.," Greg says, "but I was already a pretty good skier and it was my secret plan to become the world's greatest hotdogger. You know, bombing through the moguls and entering contests and winning titles and all. I was only riding to keep my legs in shape for skiing."

But there was no snow around Reno in the winter of 1975-76, and the LeMonds went right on cycling into January, and then February. By that time young Greg had joined an outfit called the Reno Wheelmen. "They had a weekend club race in February," Greg says. "It was all older guys and then me. It was 25 miles, all out." And when LeMond came in second, laughing all the way, that, as they say, did it.

His aggressive instincts have been snapping and crackling ever since. "Man, it was crazy," he says. "Every race just spurred me on more. In March I raced an intermediate event in Sacramento, 12-to-15-year-olds, and won it. And I won again two weeks later. Did you see the movie Breaking Away? Well, I got like that. I went insane. I started reading all the international cycling magazines. Those pictures! All that neat Italian and French stuff! Who could understand it, but who cared? Just look at those guys! I really got into it. My first year, I won 11 races in my age group. I jumped into juniors [15 to 18], even though my birthday wasn't until June 26—and I won the state championship and finished fourth in the nationals. Man!"

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