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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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The 45,000 people of the town of Kortrijk have adopted the LeMond family with a passion, cheering Greg on, stopping him on the streets for autographs, waving to him as he rides by—and if he accepted just a few of the free drinks offered up by locals, he'd be loopy-legged for the next year. After LeMond won the world title last September, a happy crowd was waiting at the house to welcome him home; they had thoughtfully painted greetings on all of his windows and hung bicycle wheels from the rain gutter and dug a hole in his sidewalk out front to plant a big American flag—and painted a finish line on the street in front of his driveway. Four days later the community threw an official victory bash at the splendid 12th-century town hall. LeMond's idol, the legendary Eddy Merckx of Belgium, five-time winner of the Tour de France, was there, as well as Alberic Schotte, 65, a hometown boy who was the world champion 34 years ago. The people of Kortrijk, says Kathy, "are just fabulous."

It's a far cry from their introduction to Europe. After LeMond had signed with Renault, he and Kathy were picked up and plopped down in Nantes on the west coast of France, to be near Guimard and the rest of the team. This was in February 1981. LeMond's contract provided for a pleasant apartment and furnishings and a car, but still, for the next two years they felt like strangers in a strange land.

"I'd taken a two-week crash course in French at Berlitz in San Diego," LeMond says, "but I still wasn't comfortable with it. I went to winter training camp and sat there for two whole weeks without saying one word to anybody. Being a pro was a little intimidating at first. And besides, I didn't understand the TV and I couldn't read the newspapers. You know what? For the first year we lived in France I didn't even pay my taxes because I didn't know what the form was. But gradually I got a little better."

Strictly an understatement. LeMond is the sort who soaks up languages through his pores; now he reads French, and speaks it machine-gun style, if not always grammatically, with both hands painting pictures in the air.

LeMond had heard about Kortrijk from his best pal, Phil Anderson, an Australian who races for Panasonic-Raleigh and who lived in a nearby town. "He told us about how great it was," LeMond says. "English-speaking! And you could catch the BBC and American TV shows beamed across the Channel. And they had English language newspapers and magazines. And regular, I mean, grocery stores. Peanut butter! So we moved here last year, and this is the good life."

LeMond has a contract that's acknowledged to be rare in the sport. "Guimard has his favorite races and I have mine," LeMond says. "We go over them carefully at the start of a season and strike bargains on where I'll go. I always want the mountains—man, I love eating 'em up in the hills—and flat terrain doesn't do much for me. But most important, we work it out; he never makes me race against my will. See, you can't race too much while you're young or you'll flat burn out."

The international bike-racing season runs from February to October. The Prestige Trophy series looms above everything—26 races with points counting toward the title. This circus includes such monsters as the Tour de France and the 12-day Tour de l'Avenir. Most of the events are road races run in stages—but the series also includes the world championship, a one-day, winner-take-all road race, and a clutch of other one-day killers, each claiming to be a classic. While classic is the most loosely used word in bike racing, it's generally agreed that there are six of these true biggies, among them the season-ending Tour of Lombardy, a 157-mile scramble around Lake Como that should more properly be called a crusher. That's the basic framework. Filling in the gaps are races in South and Central America and hundreds of criteriums all across Europe, a summer-long carnival of race-around-the-town-square meets. They don't qualify for Prestige Trophy points, but they do pay off handsomely in appearance money, and the top pros use them for training. "Taking in everything," LeMond says, "I raced 130 times last year." That buys a lot of peanut butter.

LeMond and Guimard see all of this as a sort of high-speed game in which the object is not to win them all, but to win the big meets and score high in the others. Pacing is everything. In his rookie year LeMond won five races here and there but, most important of all, placed fourth in the highly regarded Dauphiné Libéré to let everybody know he was around. He ducked back to the U.S. to win that year's Coors Classic in the Colorado Rockies, smoking off the favored Soviet Olympic team. And then he really started to roll.

The first big move came in the 1982 world championship race held at Goodwood, England—featuring a rather mean kick in the ego for one Jacques Boyer (SI, June 29, '81), 28, a veteran pro and fellow American who was briefly a Renault teammate. It was a drama right out of a NASCAR race: With just a mile to go in the 170-mile grind, Boyer burst into the clear. Problem was, he was alone out there, pushing the air with no drafting help—and suddenly, 600 yards from the finish, LeMond exploded. He came charging through, pulling Italy's Saronni along with him, and they both flashed past Boyer. Just before the tape, Saronni ducked out of the envelope of air and shot ahead for the gold medal. But LeMond's second place was historic enough—he was the first American ever to finish that high—indeed, the first American pro to win any medal since Frank Kramer got a silver in 1912.

LeMond and Boyer aren't exactly what one might call good buddies, and when newsmen asked why he hadn't pulled his own countryman along instead of Saronni, LeMond's answer was simple. "Look," he said, "there was no way Boyer was gonna win this race, whether I helped or not. After all, he was fading, and eight other guys passed him at the end [Boyer finished 10th]. And when I saw him move, I just went after him."

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