This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!
Sunday, July 23, 1989
Versailles to Paris
24.5 km/15.2 mi flat, time trial
Greg LeMond awoke in Paris on Sunday, July 23, the final day of the 1989 Tour de France, and wondered what the next 12 hours held in store. The previous evening he had told his soigneur, Otto Jacome, that he thought he could do it.
“That’s the way to talk,” said Jacome. But now LeMond’s mind fluttered between confidence and doubt, unsure whether to feel satisfaction at a job well done, or to dare hope that it wasn’t finished yet, that there was still a slim chance.
Two decades on and LeMond sits in a café in Coventry, England, where he has been speaking at a conference, and shakes his head, as if his thoughts are still jumbled, as though he still cannot quite believe how that day un- folded. He is not the only one. He is recalling his return to the Tour, three years after becoming the first American winner, and the fact that nine months later he was shot and almost died in a hunting accident. It caused him to miss most of the next two seasons. When he did race, he was a shadow of the rider he had been. There was a fleeting glimpse of the old LeMond at the 1989 Giro d’Italia. But, overall, that race seemed to confirm that he was finished as a contender in three-week Tours.
LeMond went from the Giro to the Tour de France, for the first time since his win in 1986. “I had no hope of anything. Zero. No expectations. My fitness was unknown. My mind was still in ’86, my body was . . . a mystery.” Reports of LeMond’s near-death in April 1987, when he was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law while hunting turkey, were no exaggera- tion. His shooting party had split up and he was hiding in bushes—dressed in fatigues—when he heard a gun go off. It was so loud that he thought it was his own. It took a few moments to realize that his back and side had been peppered with sixty pellets. His lung collapsed and he came within 20 minutes of bleeding to death. Had a helicopter from the California High- way Patrol not happened to be nearby, he would have died where he was shot, in a field in California. When his wife, Kathy, went to see him in the hospital, “He was like a colander. He had sixty holes and he was just drip- ping blood out of every single one.” Surgery removed lead pellets from his legs, arms, liver, kidneys, and intestines. Some remain lodged in his heart lining, unreachable.
When LeMond returned to the sport and struggled even to finish races, then suffered in the gruppetto for much of the 1989 Giro, he seemed to suffer another kind of death, as an athlete.
“WAS I CONFIDENT?” LEMOND REPEATS the question. “No! No, no, no.” He laughs. “I have to laugh. I wasn’t even getting paid.”
It was a sign of how far LeMond had fallen. In 1989 he was riding for a small Belgian team, ADR, that didn’t appear to have any money. “I was supposed to get paid on January 1. January came, February came, March came, with no money. Then April came, with no money.
“They had also promised me a car. By March I said, ‘Where’s the car?’ I was taken to a showroom in Antwerp and told, ‘Pick a Mercedes.’ I picked this 500. It never showed up.
“I was under financial pressure. I had a bike company, which my dad was running. My dad was driving me crazy and I wanted to end it, but I didn’t know how to tell him. I felt like a boxer, supporting everyone around me. But having not been paid in January, February, or March, finally in April, two days before Liège–Bastogne–Liège, I said, ‘Fuck cycling.’ And I got drunk. I needed relief from the pressure.
“I told the team boss, ‘There is no fucking way I am doing Liège–Bastogne– Liège.’ That was Friday, the race was on Sunday, so I went out, had a good time, had dinner with my wife, and I drank a lot of port. I had a hangover on Saturday. I haven’t drunk port again.
“José De Cauwer was the directeur sportif, and he was a great guy,” Le- Mond continues. “But I said, ‘I’m not riding.’ And I didn’t. I went back to
the U.S. and didn’t ride at all for three weeks. I was going to quit. But Kathy said, ‘Give it this year.’
“I turned up for the Tour de Trump [a U.S. stage race backed by Don- ald Trump] with no training, and barely made it through. Then I showed up at the Tour of Italy, and on the first day I lose eight minutes. There’s a combination of things affecting me. Allergies, iron deficiency, psychologi- cal pressure. The stress of not being paid really affected me.
“One day I lost 17 minutes. I called my wife and, yeah, I broke down cry- ing. I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I looked at Stephen Roche and said, ‘I can’t believe I used to be that good.’ I wanted to quit that night.”
When LeMond phoned Kathy, at their European home in Kortrijk, in Belgium, she sought to reassure him. “Take it easy,” said Kathy. “Get through the Tour of Italy. Get to the end of the season. If you get to then and find you can’t do it, you can’t do it.”
By May, five months into a season in which he had been racing without glory, and also without a penny of his $350,000 salary (with a promised $150,000 bonus if he won the Tour—as if ), he was at breaking point when, in his hotel room in Italy, LeMond cried on the phone to his wife. It was the evening of the 13th stage of the Giro, which included the climb of Tre Cime di Lavaredo. He had finished 17 minutes down. When he called Kathy he told her, “Get ready to sell everything.”
“Give it this year,” Kathy told him, before boarding a plane to Italy to support her husband. “Just get through the Tour of Italy.”
Finally, there was a sliver of hope, a glimpse of the old LeMond. On the final day, a 54-km time trial into Florence (about 33 miles), he was second to Lech Piasecki, the Polish time trial specialist, and over a minute faster than the overall winner of the Giro, Laurent Fignon.
There were those who didn’t realize he was still riding. “It was just pure luck that I got better,” LeMond says. “Literally, the day after I lost 17 min- utes, and phoned my wife in tears, it started raining. I now know what my allergies do to me; I get wiped out, 25, 30 percent. I used to think I didn’t race well at the Tour of Italy because I wasn’t in shape. But in May the grass has all-time high pollen. When I raced the Tour of Italy I suffered so bad, my eyes were closed; you wouldn’t even recognize me.”
At the time, LeMond told journalists that his improvement was down to iron injections from the ADR team doctor, Yvan Vanmol. “I had three shots of iron,” LeMond says. “Later, [Lance] Armstrong says I had EPO. If I took that, why would I announce it to the public? I had three shots of iron over the course of the race. I was anemic. Otto, my Mexican soigneur, kept say- ing, ‘You look like a woman who’s menstruating.’ I was gray.”
Whatever the benefits of the iron, LeMond felt better. “Crying on the phone to my wife was like an emotional release. I did question what I was doing, but I started feeling a bit better, mentally. There was a day it snowed [stage 16, to the ski resort of Santa Caterina di Valfurva, which was can- celed] and we had to take the bus. That gave me a day of recovery. Then my legs started feeling good. I still didn’t trust myself; didn’t believe I had all my strength back. But the morning of the final day, the time trial, I told José I was going to pretend that I was in contention for the Tour of Italy and see where I was in comparison to everybody else.
“In a time trial, you don’t put 100 percent in if you’re not in contention. So I had to sit there at the start and pretend I was in the lead, or second place.” LeMond smiles at the memory of his self-deception. “It worked. I got myself really psyched up. I went flat out and got second place. I put a minute and 20 seconds into Fignon. That blew me away. I caught five peo- ple but I had no clue I was going to get second. I thought maybe top 20.
“I didn’t know what it meant. For two years I almost hadn’t been able to finish a race. I didn’t have any confidence. It was a day-by-day deal. And that was what I thought when I went to the Tour. My goal was top 20, maybe a stage.”
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