Legendary LeMond will reflect on his career in Stanford speech

Publication Date: Wednesday Dec 2, 1998

CYCLING: Legendary LeMond will reflect on his career in Stanford speech

by Peter Gauvin

He grew up in Reno and raced all over Northern California as a teenage phenom, winning nearly everything he entered. He was the first American to win the Tour de France, the largest sporting event staged annually in the world. He went on to win the three-week race twice more despite a near-fatal hunting accident that left him with 35-40 BB pellets littered through his torso.

In 1989, he orchestrated the most dramatic come-from-behind victory the cycling world has ever seen when he beat Frenchman Laurent Fignon by seven seconds on the final leg, a time trial into Paris. His unlikely comeback prompted Sports Illustrated to name him Sportsman of the Year in 1990. And through his career he inspired countless Americans to ride and compete in a sport dominated by Europeans.

Greg LeMond literally changed the sport forever.

Still, LeMond--who will appear with broadcaster Phil Liggett, the most distinctive voice in cycling, tonight at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium--feels his career resume could have been even more impressive; that he could have been not just the best American cyclist ever, but one of the best ever.

With good health, he said it's quite possible he could have won the Tour de France two or three more times, equalling or bettering the record of five shared by three of the greatest names in cycling--Merckx, Hinault, Indurain. After winning his first Tour de France in 1986, LeMond missed the next two years--two years when he was in his prime and no one else had established dominance--because of his hunting accident in 1987. And the latter part of his career was shortened by a mysterious muscle disease.

Speaking from his home near Minneapolis, Minn., the 37-year-old LeMond, four years into retirment, regrets, somewhat, that his career was cut short. "Definitely. My hunting accident cut a couple years off (he lost 30 pounds of muscle mass) and then the serious fatigue I suffered through the last four or five year of my career; that's why I quit the sport.

"There was absolutely no reason I should not have been able to perform up until say '96, 34- or 35-years old. There is not one bit of evidence that says your body is different at age 29 than at 35. That's one of the myths of sport; that you automatically go down hill after 31. ... It's been proven over and over and over that some of the best riders are well into their 30s."

LeMond said he trained harder the last couple of years of his career than ever before. But his results dropped inexplicably. He was overwhelmed by fatigue. Then, in 1994, he was diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy, an incurable disease which slowly debilitates muscle cells.

A recent biopsy showed that his disease hasn't advanced significantly, although if it had there's nothing he could do. He remains active--doing bicycle tours, cross-country and downhill skiing, auto-racing. "I experience periods of fatigue now and then ... and I have to start (training) at a much lower intensity. I'm still 40 percent more active and energetic than the average person, but it's about 50 percent less than I used to be."

Regarding the drug scandals that tainted this year's Tour, LeMond said they should turn out to be positive for the sport. Cycling is already one of the most heavily drug-tested sports, he noted. "Pro football players may be tested once or twice a year ... In an average year, I'd do 30 to 40 drug tests."

The problem today is that there are now two or three undetectable drugs. But organizers will do everything they can to protect the reputation of the Tour, LeMond said. "There's gotta be a three-stikes-you'reout type of deal," and it needs to be made illegal for doctors to distribute these drugs. "I don't believe the riders want to take drugs, but if everyone is getting away with it the pressure to perform is so great."

After his talk at Stanford, LeMond said he's headed to Tahoe for cross-country skiing and onto Reno to see his parents. It was training to get in shape for downhill skiing as a kid that LeMond discovered cycling.

These days, LeMond, a father of three, is involved in product design and in promoting, of course, LeMond Bicycles, his own road-bike company. He also spends considerable time doing charity bike tours, whether from Chicago to Milwaukee or Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

On Dec. 26, NBC will air a documentary film of a 2000-kilometer ride LeMond led through Vietnam with disabled veterans from both sides of the war. "I mark the ride in Vietnam as emotional as any Tour de France victory."

Although LeMond said would have loved to have won the Tour de France a couple more times, there is no doubt he would never have been honored by a mainstream publication like Sports Illustrated without coming back after his hunting accident.

"I'm a different person than I was before my hunting accident. I was always a fairly compassionate person, but I think it gave me more compassion for people who have setbacks in their lives." Greg LeMond will appear Wednesday night, Dec. 2, from 8-10 p.m., at Stanford Memorial Auditorium with cycling broadcaster Phil Liggett. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at Wheelsmith bike shop or at the door. A V.I.P. reception ($100) will take place from 6-7:30 p.m. in the lobby. Proceeds benefit the Stanford Cycling Team.

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