Défaillance, part 4: the final chapter

Thus a day in the life of Gregory James LeMond. He’s 23 and the reigning world pro champion, the toast of the Continent, where bike racers are a form of royalty. And, of all things, he’s an American. No, no, more than that: the quintessential American, a true Innocent Abroad, open-faced and still full of wonder. He’s a touseled blond with light-blue eyes, a sort of Huck Finn with steel thighs. He’s a family man and a proud new papa. Throughout Europe, they say his name with awe and stretch it out approvingly: Greg LeMoooonnnnd.

This June interlude in Switzerland comes just before the 24-day Tour de France, the most prestigious event on the pro circuit, in which LeMond will finish a most creditable third. To put that into perspective, bear in mind that he was only the second U.S. competitor in the 81-year history of the Tour. He was also the first non-European ever to make it into the top three. “I was almost disappointed,” he would say later. “I’d half-expected to win the thing.”

Let’s face it, it’s patently impossible for a kid from Washoe County, Nev. to be picked up from the mountain canyons around Reno and dropped right in among the most formidable racers in the world – and go wheel to wheel with them…

So wrote Sports Illustrated in 1984, in a long article following Greg LeMond training in Switzerland, back in the golden years when LeMond was truly the young innocent with the massive talent, the talent that would slay the European giants of the road.

And who could have predicted the trials and tribulations that LeMond would go through in his career, the impossible highs and the impossible lows, which this blog has attempted to adequately chronicle in a series on défaillance, in part 1, part 2, and part 3. This post, part 4, looks at LeMond’s final years of racing, his search for answers, and a final postscript.

Answers

LeMond announced his retirement at the end of 1994, following a series of medical tests he’d sought to explain his chronic fatigue.

“The tests revealed that LeMond is suffering from mitochondrial myopathy, an impairment of proteins in his muscles that prevents them from delivering the kind of power a world-class cyclist needs for hours a day, every day of a stage race,” according to Sports Illustrated. “Doctors don’t know if there’s any connection between the disease and the 30 lead shotgun pellets still inside him as a result of a turkey-hunting accident in 1987.”

Since the 1992 season, LeMond had struggled to find his old form and had been undergoing a battery of testing to ascertain his condition.

“My immune system is not functioning properly,” he was reported saying in the middle of 1993. “I have had a hard time recovering for the last month.It’s a combination of allergies with asthmalike attacks and a sore throat and chronic fatigue.”

His training at the end of 1992 over the winter leading into 1993 had been poor, by his own admission, but he had made up for lost time and gone into the 1993 Giro “a little over trained”. During the race, his body rebelled with allergies and the onset of what he would later call his chronic fatigue. This condition, as well as a broken hand would keep him away from that year’s Tour – another poor showing after his abandonment in 1992.

Coming into the 1994 season, there were his critics, suggesting that he was overweight, not serious about training, or simply too old – he would turn 33 just before the Tour de France.

“It’s not just weight,” LeMond told Sam Abt, “but weight and training. It’s proper training. I’m convinced it’s not my age. What would have changed in my body in three years? Nothing! All it takes is having the right combination: no stress, good training.”

But was that drive absent? LeMond noted that he had more demands on his time, no longer able to maintain that monastic focus on cycling. As his old foes – such as Laurent Fignon – retired, many thought that LeMond was holding on for too long, looking for a final ride of glory before stepping away from the sport that he had given so much to over the previous decade or more years.

In May of 1994, LeMond was feeling confident. But his early season had been mixed – strong from winter training, then setbacks with illness, before a crash at Paris-Roubaix and more concerns with over training. Still, he said he needed to get his weight down from 158 pounds to closer to 150 pounds, and that his power output in March had been only where it was in January instead of showing gains.

“I still have a lot of improvement to make between here and, say, the Tour de France,” he said. “I’ve trained more this winter and I’ve been dedicated, more dedicated than I’ve ever been in my career.”

But at some point between May and July, LeMond revised his expectations for the Tour substantially downward.

“It’s been frustrating”, he told Sam Abt, lamenting his absence of form. “I’ve worked really hard since last October. I’m trying to keep my morale up, I’m trying to keep my motivation.”

LeMond had hardly shone in the Dauphiné and the Tour of Switzerland, his build up races for the Tour. It was clear on his GAN team that expectations for a final Tour de France win were gone, that he could not really claim to be the team captain, and was hoping at most for a stage win.

“I don’t want to give up hope before I start the race,” he said, expressing his hope that he could still ride at the front, help his teammates, and perhaps secure at least one more win on the road. “Regardless of all my problems, I still have the desire to win again. And that’s what keeps me going.”

Greg up
LeMond climbing at the front in ’89.

The end

“Greg LeMond reached the end of the road in the Tour de France and in his glorious career, too, dropping out of the race, exhausted, on a small hill, the Côte des Loges-Marchis, during the sixth stage,” Sam Abt wrote. “Let the records show that the finish came at kilometre 183 of the 270.5-kilometre ride from Cherbourg to Rennes.”

Although LeMond would not announce his retirement until the end of the season, it was all over. But the Tour rolled on with another victory in Paris for Miguel Indurain, his fourth in a row. It was a tough affair, with Tony Rominger, Claudio Chiappucci, and Gianni Bugno – potential challengers – all dropping out. Lance Armstrong did not repeat his stage win of 1993 (at 22, the youngest stage winner since WW II) and left the race before the Alps.

“I was killing myself to stay with the group,” LeMond told Abt after he abandoned. “I just ran out of juice. I shouldn’t have come to the Tour. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be out in six days.”

LeMond mentioned his chronic fatigue again, and that he was still searching for answers, which would come by the end of the year, as noted. But his motivation was still high, he still wanted to be a player in the peloton and not just turn up to races to make an appearance. He was competitive and hungry right to the end. But this truly was the end of his racing career.

Postscript

Défaillance. A sudden weakness. For LeMond, though, it was a gradual decline, as if a weight of contradictions was piling up on top of him – his hunting accident; struggles with muscle conditions, fatigue, and over training; the blood-boosting drugs that were creeping into the peloton and would soon come to dominate the sport. Perhaps it was necessary for a rider that had soared so high, who had made cycling’s most remarkable comeback at that time to somehow have to fall so low, that cycling’s gods were somehow punishing LeMond for daring to achieve so much.

LeMond’s search for explanations eventually gave him an answer he was looking for, but later he would distill it down to – for him – a simple truth.

“I walked away from cycling disgusted,” he told Procycling in 2008, “probably knowing that I’d burned myself out because other riders were on EPO. I’m pretty sure that riding against guys who were using EPO in the last four years of my career damaged by body.”

Whatever the full explanation, there was also LeMond’s pride, the expectation that as a former Tour winner and World Champion and proven race winner he would be always riding at the front. “I just couldn’t believe I was going to race the Tour again even though, if I look back, I probably should have stopped two years earlier [at the end of 1992].”

Samuel Abt’s 1995 book, covering mainly the 1994 Tour, is titled ‘A Season in Turmoil: Lance Armstrong Replaces Greg LeMond as U.S. Cycling’s Superstar’. Abt, who wrote another book on LeMond’s comeback to win the 1989 Tour, could hardly have known how prescient he was – not only that Armstrong would go on to eclipse LeMond’s Tour record but that the two would come to polarize so intensely, well, everything in cycling. The cover shows Armstrong aggressively piloting his bike while LeMond hovers in the background – sage like, or even god like – mouth open as much shouting a rebuke as encouragement. The picture conveys more meaning now than it did even then.

How then to conclude, now some twenty years after Greg LeMond’s third Tour de France win in 1990. How to sum it all up. Perhaps it is best left to others. First, the conclusion to the Sports Illustrated 1984 article; second, the same magazine’s final entry on his racing career:

Adoring fans surround Greg, hands reaching out, touching and patting him. And this pleasant youngster looks up into the stands and grins at his wife. He could only be an American kid at this moment, ingenuous and open, fresh-faced and with not too much cynicism in him yet – happy with his princely role in European biking. He mouths the words toward Kathy: Très bon! says Greg LeMoooonnnnd.

After his legendary win in the 1989 Tour, in which he made up 50 seconds on the final day with two of those pellets still lodged against his heart lining, this magazine named him Sportsman of the Year. A few talk-radio know-nothings objected, reviling the choice by pointing out that riding a bike is something anybody can do. Which, of course, it is. But no rider among tout le monde did it quite as astonishingly as he did.

Greg 89
LeMond hits the mainstream media in 1989.

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