Hard-Riding Greg Le Mond Hopes to Make the Tour De France His Bike-Racing Tour De Force
07/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
As the 170 top-flight cyclists racing in this year's Tour de France power through the Pyrenees, grind up the Alps and swoop down on Paris for the finish July 22, look for the man wearing the leader's yellow jersey. In the 70-year history of the world's most prestigious and grueling cycling marathon, that man, at the finish, has always been a European. This time the winner could be an American named Greg Le Mond. He may speak the language and sign his checks Le Mond like a Frenchman, but the 23-year-old dynamo hails from Reno. Twelve days into the race, Le Mond was battling bronchitis and holding seventh place only 13½ minutes behind the leader. "He has a fighting spirit," says Richard Marillier, French assistant director of the Tour. "He knows how to surpass himself, to go that much further. When an American prepares for something with the will to win, no one can beat him."
In the 24-day, 2,600-mile tear around the four corners of France, the will to win may be the key to victory. "The Tour is really an overall test to see who can last," says the boyish, blue-eyed Le Mond, who is making his first appearance in the event, which carries a first prize of about $100,000 in cash and endorsements. "It's a race of truth. I've planned my whole season to be in peak form for it. I'm there now." As one French daily put it, "cycling is about as well-known in the U.S. as baseball in Europe," but for Europeans the Tour de France is the premier event of an immensely popular sport. The race draws some 14 million spectators along its route.
Virtually unknown in his home country, Le Mond is a cycling superstar to continental fans. At an unusually young age for the sport, Le Mond has won several major titles, including the world professional championship in Switzerland last September. Fourtime Tour victor Bernard Hinault, 29, a former teammate, once called Le Mond "a super racer" and "my potential successor." But Hinault, who is looking to match Belgian legend Eddie Merckx' five win record, is now Le Mond's chief rival. Fortunately Le Mond will be racing with the 10-man Renault-Gitane squad, a team that has won the race six times in the past 12 years. Though strategies vary, the teammates generally ride in a tight pack, forcing the pace for the star rider until he breaks away for a sprint finish. The supporting riders sacrifice themselves, allowing Le Mond to draft behind them, conserving his strength for a later effort.
There is no stopping to eat during the up to ten hours of flat-out pedaling each day. Instead, a team member called an équipier delivers a pouch full of high-carbohydrate goodies to be eaten on the move. Le Mond has been an équipier but now shares the privileged role of team leader with Laurent Fignon, 23, last year's victor. "Le Mond is a great professional who has the faculty of being an example to others," says trainer Cyrille Guimard. "Greg sees things differently from Frenchmen, and that's important to the team. He always finds a way to progress."
Guimard recruited Le Mond a year after he stunned the European circuit with a victory at Le Mans, France in 1980. Noting the young Nevadan's promising form, Guimard made a special scouting trip to see him compete. "I'd been watching the results of the American for a while," he recalls, "but I wanted to see what he could do." During that race, Le Mond was 20 miles from the finish and pulling ahead of a pack of Russians when he blew a tire. A dawdling mechanic came too late to help. Enraged, Le Mond picked up his bike and hurled it at the team car. "You can understand why he did it," says Guimard. "He saw all his dreams just being thrown out the window. That day showed me he had character."
Added to that is Le Mond's combination of breakaway speed in sprints and tenacious strength in mountain climbs. The average 23-year-old has a lung capacity of under 50 milliliters of oxygen per minute, but Le Mond's bellows take in 81 to 82, an asset for tackling such Tour terrors as 8,661-foot Galibier Pass or the eight-mile end-of-the-day climb up the Alpe-d'Huez. "The riders are blue with fear there," says Marillier. "Cycling is a sport that hurts. You're in a perpetual battle with yourself."
To maintain his fitness, Le Mond competes nine months a year in about 130 races, and he jogs, lifts weights, skis and plays tennis in the off season. Two weeks before the Tour, he spent six hours a day pumping up Alpine passes near Lucerne, Switzerland on his 19-pound, custom-crafted, metallic blue Gitane cycle, then speeding down the winding descents at up to 70 mph. His compensation for the effort is a license to eat phenomenal quantities of rich food, especially his favorite foie gras (goose liver) pâté, without adding an ounce to the 146 pounds he packs on his 5'10" frame.
Le Mond started cycling at 14 in Reno with his realtor father as a way of staying fit for skiing. That year, when there was little snow, Le Mond just went on riding. Hooked, he left school (earning a high school diploma through a correspondence course) to join a local cycling team, winning his first race at 15. "I kept winning and improving each year," he says. "I realized it was my thing. I dreamed of making a career of it, but it was only a dream until I started racing internationally." Barred from the 1980 Olympics by the U.S. boycott, he decided to turn pro. Today he earns up to $300,000 a year in prize purses and endorsements, enough to drive a Mercedes and own a spacious contemporary home in Rancho Murieta, near Sacramento. Most of the year he and wife Kathy, 24 (a business student who is eight credits short of graduation), whom he met at a bike race in Milwaukee in 1978, rent a house in Courtrai, Belgium. "Kathy's a subtle supporter," says a longtime friend. "She's helped Greg grow from an immature lad to what he is today." Kathy says she's the rare rider's wife who shows up for races and plans to join him at two points on the Tour. The birth of son Geoffrey five months ago is a happy new factor in Le Mond's life and an incentive to shuck the gypsy lifestyle of the pro racer. He hopes to compete six more years before going to college to study business and then perhaps to start his own land-development company.
"What motivates me now is my career," says Le Mond. It's a career that carries risks. Crashes can be fatal (Portuguese cyclist Joaquim Agostinho died from brain injuries last May after a stray dog caused him to crash), and Le Mond himself suffered a serious concussion after falling during a race in Belgium last month. "If I can do well in the Tour, I'll be secure for the rest of my life," he says. Before the race started, though, he admitted to disquiet about the ordeal ahead. "Riding in the Tour de France is like running a marathon a day for three weeks," he explained. "You just hope you don't crack and die."