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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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Guimard got him. "He introduced himself after the race," LeMond says. "It was all very discreet because of my amateur status. But, heck, I'd already had offers from two other pro teams, Peugeot and Puch. But I discreetly said that, yeah, I'd be interested—secretly I really wanted Renault because they were clearly the best of them all. And it was sort of agreed that I'd finish out 1980 as an amateur and we'd talk about it sometime after the Olympics."

With that sort of future hanging over his head, the rest of 1980 was, well, anti-climactic. Back home, he took on the best racers in the land to win the road race at the Olympic trials in June, the youngest ever, at 18, to make the U.S. team. When the boycott became irrevocable, perhaps the least-disappointed athlete in the country was LeMond. In September he took out his pro license.

And, lo, come November, guess who should happen to show up right there in good old Washoe County but that relentless tourist, Cyrille Guimard. He was accompanied by his No. 1 racer, Hinault, who came along to lend some impressive star quality.

It should be noted that LeMond officially graduated with the Wooster High School class of 1980—a goal accomplished by means of correspondence courses, since he had dropped out for the junior nationals. One couldn't both race and go to school. But as has been said of another notable dropout, A.J. Foyt of Indy 500 fame, "He may not have gone to college, but he sure as hell can read a contract." Guimard and LeMond sat down to talk terms, and pro bike racing hasn't been the same since.

The kitchen of the brick house in Kortrijk, Belgium smells strangely wonderful this sunny noontime. In the air is an aroma guaranteed not to be found anywhere else in this well-trimmed, upper-class town. It's the distinctive smell of honest-to-God cheeseburgers frying, with lettuce and sliced onions and tomatoes waiting to one side. "You're just in time for breakfast," LeMond says, standing at the stove in his racing togs. "I'll put you down for two of these, O.K.? Can you handle three?"

LeMond had returned from Switzerland late the night before, whomping along the highways at about 110 mph most of the way—there's a lot of Richard Petty in him. His brand new, bone-white Mercedes 500 SEL is parked in the driveway. A team-supplied Renault station wagon sits out front. His Gitane racing bike leans against the wall in the front hallway.

Kathy LeMond oversees the rest of the meal: cheese puffs and strawberries, Cokes and cappuccino with brown sugar sprinkled on top. "Is this Continental enough for you?" she says. Kathy, a year older than Greg, is brightly pretty with perfect teeth. Nearby, their six-month-old son, Geoffrey James, sits in his stroller. And Brigitte, the cocker spaniel, paces anxiously from chair to chair, ready in case anybody drops anything.

Geoffrey LeMond, born in February in Sacramento, Calif., is exactly what Greg and Kathy wanted, an older brother to the planned three other kids who'll one day live with them on two continents. "We're not sure yet," Kathy says. "Maybe we'll live in California in the offseason; we've got a home now in Sacramento where Greg can train in the Sierra Nevadas. Or maybe in Minneapolis...."

"...Or maybe in Connecticut," Greg says. "But somewhere in the States. I've got to have my America fix a couple of times a year or I'd go nuts. You know, I'm probably the most American American anybody's ever seen. Lots of times European journalists will ask me what goes through my mind in the middle of long races. And I can't explain it to them exactly because it's kind of vague and they might not understand—but what I think about when I have time is America. Oh, you know, the really neat towns we've got and the fantastic countryside and the movies, TV, magazines and newspapers and the Dairy Queens—God, I dream about Dairy Queens!—and all that good stuff. But you can understand that, uh, right?"

Of course. Even if they're thoughts of home, a racer thinks of such things only fleetingly during a long event; most of the time, as LeMond says, his mind's in killer gear. "I know I'm missing all the spectacular scenery in races," he says, "and, anyway, the crowd forms a sort of tunnel. At most events, there are upwards of 100,000 people."

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