No, not Lance Armstrong. Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France, is the subject of this timely book.
Quick quiz: Name an American bicycle racer.
Easy, Lance Armstrong.
Name another one.
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It’s a shame that the only cyclist most Americans have heard of is a liar, a bully and a cheat, a man who sued those who told the truth about him and tried to ruin their lives. Armstrong admitted he used performance-enhancing drugs only because the legal noose was tightening around him in 2013 and has spent the last five years ducking and dodging and settling fraud lawsuits to protect as much of his ill-gotten fortune as he can. He estimated his confession to Oprah Winfrey cost him “in excess of $100 mil,” and that’s not counting the seven Tour de France championships he forfeited and his reputation as a courageous cancer survivor.
The real hero, the name everyone should know, is Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France and the man who came back from a terrible hunting accident to win it for a third time by eight seconds, the closest finish in race history. LeMond rode clean, without the use of performance-enhancing drugs, in the era just before EPO turned cycling into a freak show of ever-increasing speed and no regard for the consequences.
Daniel de Visé’s “The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France” is explicitly designed to elevate LeMond into the pantheon, as its clunky subtitle suggests. It succeeds because LeMond does have an abundance of heroic qualities: he is a sexual-abuse survivor, a gifted athlete and a technical innovator, a modest man in an ego-driven sport who overcame anti-American prejudice and deceit from competitors and teammates, and a truth-teller who suffered greatly for speaking out against Armstrong.
All that, and an incredible victory in the 1989 Tour de France that came a little more than two years after being accidentally shot by his brother-in-law while turkey hunting in California. LeMond deliberately downplayed the extent of his injuries and it is shocking to read about how close he was to death. He was hit in the back and left side by approximately 60 shotgun pellets and lost almost half his blood. If a helicopter hadn’t been nearby because of a traffic accident, LeMond would have died before he reached a hospital. He underwent multiple operations but many of the pellets couldn’t be removed and were an ongoing risk when he competed.
De Visé keeps his focus on LeMond while writing a second biography of Laurent Fignon, LeMond’s rival in the 1989 race and a compelling, complicated figure in the history of cycling. There’s a lot of rehashing of bike races from 30 years ago that is exciting to fans and of limited interest to readers not already enamored of the sport. (I loved it.) Armstrong casts a dark shadow, arrogant from the start and vindictive once he reached the top. He successfully manipulated the American media for more than a decade and took a litigious, scorched-earth policy toward his critics that cowed most of them into silence. LeMond criticized Armstrong’s association with a doctor known for his doping programs and Armstrong’s response was to pressure LeMond’s sponsors until LeMond agreed to retract his comments.
LeMond has been able to reclaim his legacy as Armstrong keeps settling fraud cases, most recently with the U.S. government on behalf of the Postal Service, an Armstrong sponsor during his glory years. The Tour de France supposedly is drug-free these days; the new scandal involves “mechanical doping,” motors hidden within a bike’s frame. LeMond is an outspoken critic.
“The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France” by Daniel de Visé; Atlantic Monthly Press, 370 pp.; $27.
Daniel de Visé discusses “The Comeback” at 7 p.m. Monday, June 18, at Cascade Bicycle Club, 7787 62nd Ave. N.E., Seattle; 206-522-3222, cascade.org.