And gradually, a certain LeMond style of racing began to emerge: individualistic rather than team or pack-oriented; a sort of nice-riding-with-you-guys-but-now-I'm-gonna-go-for-it technique. This attack mode has carried over into his pro career, and he's still working on toning it down somewhat, studying strategy like a young Patton, learning to go with the overall flow of a race. Says Renault's Champion, "We must still sit on him, how you say, keep him calm." That style, however, swept LeMond through an absolutely stunning amateur career.
By the end of 1977 he'd won the Junior Nationals, plus two of the three selection races for the world junior team—but was banned because he was still too young to tour. No matter. In 1978 he won a bronze medal in the junior world championship team time trials in Washington, then popped off to Europe to win eight races in two vacation months. And the next year was even headier. At the junior world meet in Buenos Aires, he jumped in as a substitute on a borrowed bike to win the silver medal in the velodrome pursuit. It was only the second pursuit event he'd ever run, which meant, as one magazine pointed out, his total experience in the thing was 19 minutes. He followed up with a bronze medal in the 44-mile team time trials—and then won the gold medal in the road race.
But not exactly laughing. With 18 miles to go in that 76-mile event, LeMond burst into one of his patented breakaways. Along with him came Kenny DeMarteleire of Belgium, who'd won the track championship the year before. What happened next was a sort of graduation rite, the end of innocence. With 330 yards to go, LeMond slowed, forcing DeMarteleire to pass him. Then, when LeMond sprinted out from behind DeMarteleire and pulled alongside, driving for the finish, DeMarteleire swerved and forced LeMond off the course and into a double row of automobile tires stacked as a guard rail at the side of the road. "And suddenly, somehow, I landed in between the rows," LeMond says. "But I mean upright and still riding to beat hell. Someone quickly yanked one of the tires away so I could get back on the course." And then DeMarteleire lunged at him again—this time sending LeMond right up on top of the tires. But again, he was still riding. "I just sort of lurched inside the iron pole at the finish line," he says, "just behind him."
The Belgian was disqualified on the spot—and rescued by the crowd from an angry LeMond. LeMond had become the first American ever to win a junior world road race, the first U.S. rider ever to win medals in both road and track, and the first rider of any nationality to win three medals at one world meet.
If LeMond's life were a B-movie script, the action would now cut quickly to Europe, the pro racing scene—and Cyrille Guimard, director of the Renault-Elf-Gitane team. Although few in the U.S. gave the faintest hoot about LeMond's accomplishment, it didn't escape Guimard. Nothing escapes Guimard, the most successful of all the pro team chiefs. In April 1980, when LeMond and the U.S. national team came to Europe for a series of pro-am races before the Olympic trials, Guimard was waiting. In effect, he already knew everything about LeMond down to the kid's hat size and favorite ice cream. Greg was then a first-year senior. The first race was the tough Circuit de la Sarthe, a 346-mile grind—and, sure enough, LeMond won it. Another first, of course. Next would come the Ruban Granitier Breton, and Guimard piled into his (what else?) Renault and drove over to see what would happen there.
"It was a five-day stage race," says LeMond, "and on the last day I was riding fifth overall. Then came a breakaway, and our pack surged out into a four-minute lead. Man, we were flying! Given the competition, I figured I was a cinch to finish second. And then, damn! I flatted. Front wheel. I raised my right arm to call up the team car—but nobody came. The car was being driven by a Frenchman, loaned to the U.S. team, but he was loafing along way too far back. So I stood there for a few moments, going crazy. Then the Belgian car came along and they kindly gave me a new wheel—but it was already too late. And I was churning along when our team car finally pulled alongside. And the driver, with a sort of, you know, what-the-hell attitude, told me to keep going, that I would maybe do better in the next race."
That's when LeMond braked to a sudden stop, stepped off the bike, picked it up and slammed it against the side of the car. A few more heated words ensued and then he threw the bike into a ditch.
Guimard saw it all, Guimard misses nothing. He later pulled alongside the French team car and chatted with the coach. Their conversation went roughly like this:
French Coach: "Well, what do you think now of your snotty young American racer?"
Guimard: "Now I want him more than ever."