Gregory James LeMond was born in late June 1961, in Lakewood, California. In his adolescence, the ADHD-stricken LeMond preferred to spend his time on a pair of skis or on two wheels in the jagged, snowy mountain ranges of North America's Sierra Nevada. This is where his enthusiasm was born for a sport that was still very much in its infancy in his homeland: cycling. During a local race in the United States in 1976 young LeMond had somehow got to know the Izegem-based professional cyclist Nöel Dejonckheere, who that summer was competing in a number of races in the country.
In his biography entitled 'Greg LeMond Yellow Jersey Racer', the American wrote: "I just met him and he rode with me even though I had been racing only for four or five months. He went back and told his parents he'd seen the new Eddy Merckx!" Dejonckheere advised him to train in a more focused way and to come over to race in Europe. LeMond acted upon this advice. A good thing too! Without Dejonckheere's encouragement he may never have realized his full racing potential.
The first time that 19-year-old LeMond drew people's attention was in 1978. He took the junior world champion title in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. The American also made an impression in Belgium one year later, when he won a series of junior competitions. In 1980, LeMond won as an Under-23 rider the Circuit de la Sarthe, a multi-day French stage race where newcomer pro cyclists could also compete. The American's talent did not go unnoticed. Cyrille Guimard, head of the new French pro team Renault-Elf-Gitane, travelled to the States with his team leader Bernard Hinault to be there in person, to convince LeMond to support their project. Successfully, as it happens, as Greg agreed to sign a contract to join the Renault team as a professional cyclist.
Shortly afterwards, LeMond and his bride-to-be, Kathy Morris, moved to the Breton village of La Chapelle-sur-Erdre, near Nantes. They stayed in unfurnished accommodation provided by his main sponsor. But the young couple suffered from homesickness and LeMond thought the local landscape was rather flat. He preferred training in the higher highs of California, where he laid the foundations for his climbing skills and for his tremendous endurance.
After an entire winter of high-altitude training, LeMond won the Tour de l'Avenir, a 12-day stage race across France, and became world champion runner-up at Goodwood in England. Greg LeMond then moved with wife and new-born son, Geoffrey, to Flanders, the perfect base for cycle racing in Europe. And where he would be able to speak English. As a lover of fine food LeMond could also walk from his home to the best restaurants in the region, where he was a very welcome guest.
Kuurne, and then Marke, a municipal district of Kortrijk, became the second home of the young LeMond family. There, they found a perfect traditional country villa in the residential Rodenburg area. His neighbour Eric Coeman, his wife Marie-Ange Ameye and their two teenage children Karen and Peter became friends for life. Whenever Greg LeMond sped towards the finish at the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, they would be his most loyal fans along the route, holding Coca-Cola drinks diluted with sparkling water.
LeMond won the 1983 Dauphiné Libéré and was crowned world champion in Altenrhein, Switzerland. LeMond, still only 22, was the first American to do so. On his return, he treated all the neighbours to a glass of champagne in his kitchen. As a surprise, Kuurne's very own caricaturist Rik Delneste, alias Nesten, painted the facade of Greg's villa.
LeMond in his biography: "When I won the Worlds in 1983, our neighbours in Kortrijk planted four flags outside our house: the US flag, the Lion of Flanders, the Belgian flag and that of the town." LeMond and his wife were heaped with honours in Kortrijk Town Hall and were awarded accolades by the entire Municipal Council. At the end of that season - he also finished a close second in the Tour of Lombardy - LeMond mainly set his sights on the World Championships and on the Tour de France. Not coincidentally, these are the only two cycling competitions that have any impact in a sports-mad nation like the United States.
LeMond finished third on the Liège-Bastogne-Liège podium in 1984 and was also third at his debut in the Tour de France. LeMond competed in that Tour in support of French overall winner. Teammate Laurent Fignon. 23-year-old LeMond took the young rider classification. Shortly afterwards, he signs a three-year contract with new top team La Vie Claire, created by flamboyant French businessman Bernard Tapie. Lemond would now earn one million dollars a year. An unprecedented sum in the professional cycling world. The following year LeMond finished fourth in Paris-Roubaix, third in the Giro d'Italia and, in the summer, was back on the podium in Paris. As number two, next to five-time Tour de France winner and leader Bernard Hinault. LeMond managed to win the final time trial to become the first ever American winner of a Tour stage. A month and a half later he would become world champion runner-up once again.
1986 was right on target. Top placings in Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo, the Giro and the Tour de Suisse ensured that Greg LeMond would become the first American overall winner of the Tour de France. He beat La Vie Claire, teammate Bernard Hinault and Swiss cyclist Urs Zimmerman. Marke, and by extension the Greater Kortrijk area, was in uproar. Verruestraat in Marke was mainly painted yellow. The whole neighbourhood was waiting for LeMond and his wife in the middle of the night after his return from France. The popular celebration went on until the wee small hours of the morning. Neighbour Eric Coeman, with his SME concrete company, presented him with a concrete sculpture of a bicycle. His daughter Karen was now nanny for Geoffrey, Scott and Simone, Greg and Kathy's three young children. Nothing and no one seemed to be standing in the way of LeMond's great career.
Until disaster struck in the spring of 1987. During a turkey shoot on his father's ranch in Northern California, LeMond was accidentally shot by his inexperienced brother-in-law Patrick Blades. Emergency surgery saved LeMond's life. No fewer than 35 pellets would remain in his heart, liver, back, arms and legs. After a long spell of rehabilitation, LeMond planned a comeback with the Dutch PDM team, but overtraining and tendonitis forced him to watch the Tour de France start, in the summer of 1988, on television from the ranch he had bought in California.
Come the end of the year he transferred to the ADR team of Bruges entrepreneur François Lambert. Eddy Planckaert, Frank Hoste and Johan Museeuw became teammates, José De Cauwer was team leader. The first signs of resurgence were evident in the Critérium National de la Route, when he found himself back on top again. Things fell apart the day before the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, however. LeMond let team manager De Cauwer know that he would not start because he had not yet been paid his salary. LeMond then went home to the United States and gave up racing for a while.
Three weeks later, he changed his mind and competed in the Giro d'Italia to get in shape for the Tour de France, due to start a month and a half later. But LeMond put too much pressure on himself and ended up underperforming. When LeMond lost more than 17 minutes in a mountain stage, he decided it was time to quit the Giro. He was in tears when he called his wife in Marke, saying he wanted to quit for good. But Kathy told him to put the impulsive decision off until the end of the year. So LeMond pressed on. He even finished the gruelling Giro in second place in the final time trial. Former teammate Fignon became overall winner in Italy with a good one-hour-plus lead over LeMond.
It was mid-June 1989 and LeMond had still not received a penny from François Lambert. A personal friend helped LeMond find another sponsor in Agrigel so the ADR team could compete in the 76th Tour de France. His performance in the prologue exceeded expectations. He rode just as fast as Fignon. The financial problems seemed not to affect the performance of the ADR team, which started the Tour in particularly good shape. The pioneering LeMond rode the two individual time trials wearing an aerodynamic helmet and a streamlined full back wheel. He also had triathlon handlebars mounted on his time trial bike. An unprecedented risk. The competition jury did not raise any objections and that is why this became a turning point for the world of cycling. Despite his dominance in the time trials, LeMond was still plagued with doubts. He did not take responsibility in the mountain stages, for one thing because two of his teammates had now already left the Tour.
Rumour had it that everything was being done to prevent LeMond from winning the competition. Fignon was also angry about Greg LeMond's allegation that Fignon had latched on to a motorbike for 15 seconds. Whereupon the pair engaged in a neck-and-neck duel with the Frenchman and the American taking in turns to lead the way. The final showdown came during the final time trial over a distance of 24.5 kilometres, from Versailles to the centre of Paris. Fignon had a 50-second lead over LeMond, but the Frenchman was suffering from an excruciatingly painful saddle sore. Sitting on a bicycle saddle was a torment. Even so, Fignon managed to complete the fastest time trial of his life. But someone was almost one minute faster: Greg LeMond, who reached an average speed of 54.519 kilometres per hour. LeMond therefore won the Tour by a mere eight seconds. Behind the scenes, the bottle of champagne personalised for Fignon was quickly spirited away.
François Lambert would be able to pay off all his debts with the overall win bonus. There they were in central Paris when he placed 500 French francs in Kathy's hands to pay for a taxi back to the riders' hotel. This was the first payment of the year. Greg LeMond then gave Lambert 30 days to pay his wages plus a bonus. The next day, at one o'clock in the morning, an anonymous car stopped in Marke. Verruestraat was deserted, as the neighbours were not expecting their hero to arrive until the following evening. The footpath and driveway had already been painted yellow.
Seated in the car were José De Cauwer and François Lambert, who had just travelled to Luxembourg to collect cash for LeMond. Greg himself was still in France at the time. His father opened the door. "This is the share for January?" he told De Cauwer and Lambert. 'Where is the share for July and the bonus?' All in all, there was the equivalent of $175,000 in Belgian francs, in a burlap sack. Unbelievable, but true. LeMond called his son the following morning: 'What if it's drug money? Or dirty money?' Greg answered: 'It's my money! Take it to the bank in Roeselare and have it transferred to my account in the States.
One month after the Tour de France, the elite of international cycling gathered once again at the World Road Championships in Chambéry, France. LeMond proves best, as in 1983, and takes the World Champion title once again. The numerous West Flanders supporters also played their part this time, as attested by LeMond's biography: "After I won the Worlds in 1989, my neighbours painted my name on the streets". He still had a contract with ADR until next season. However, financial problems forced him to transfer to French side Z-Tomasso, where he signed a three-season deal worth $5.5 million. An incredible amount of money for that time. Next year, LeMond competed in the Tour de France wearing the rainbow jersey. Safe in his ability to rely on a team of loyal riders he won the yellow jersey from the Italian Claudio Chiappucci in the final time trial, on the last day but one. It was his third and final victory in France.
He came seventh in the 1991 Tour de France. He was forced to give up the fight in 1992. He came third in the final time trial of the 1993 Giro and therefore did not take part in the Tour de France that year. He tried again in 1994, but gave up before the peloton reached the high mountains. The day after dropping out, the phone rang at the LeMond home in Marke. 'Hello, it's Lance.' 'Lance who?", Kathy asked, not knowing who it was. 'Lance Armstrong', says the voice the other end of the line. Armstrong, 22 at the time, had won a Tour stage for the first time a year earlier and held the reigning road world champion title. 'Greg is burnt out. Finished. I would like to rent your house,' Armstrong said. Feeling a bit put out, Kathy LeMond replied their house was not for rent, before slamming down the phone. 'Something had changed in the race', Greg LeMond explained in 1994. The average speeds were higher. Slow riders were suddenly faster than me. He hung up his bike at the end of that year and moved back to his homeland for good.
He kept in touch with the Coeman family, his neighbours in Marke, even after LeMond had left. Karen, the former girl next door - also a nanny in Marke - even lived for two years in the LeMond family guesthouse in the United States. LeMond did not want to miss the wedding of Peter Coeman, who had meanwhile become an orthopaedic surgeon. But even when Eric Coeman became terminally ill, he and his wife came specially to Marke to offer unwavering support to the whole family. LeMond has remained a friend to this day, in good times and bad.
The former world champion is someone who has never ceased trying to fight injustice anywhere and anytime. He was one of the first Americans to openly question the second of a total of seven Tour de France victories by his fellow countryman, Lance Armstrong. LeMond later testified as a witness in the doping scandal involving another countryman, Tour de France winner and doping offender Floyd Landis.
The day after the testimony, it became known that LeMond had been abused as a child and that Landis' defence had tried to intimidate him as a result of this confession. LeMond also admitted later that this abuse had had an impact on his entire life. As a result of Armstrong and Landis' eventual disqualification, LeMond remains the first and, for the time being, only American Tour de France winner.
Also the only one made in Marke.