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Interview with LeMond book author Dan de Visé

By Peter Joffre Nye

Author Dan de Visé visited the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame on Saturday for a reading and signing of his new book, THE COMEBACK: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France.

De Visé grew up in Chicago. He alternated going with his father, Pierre, to watch the Chicago Cubs play in nearby Wrigley Field, and watching track races on the Ed Rudolph Velodrome in suburban Northbrook.

After college at Wesleyan and Northwestern universities, de Visé served as a staff writer for newspapers including the Washington Post and Miami Herald and authored the acclaimed ANDY AND DON: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, about Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.

USBHOF Board Member Peter Joffre Nye interviewed de Visé about his new book.

 

What inspired you to write THE COMEBACK, which you call “a great forgotten story”?

My agent, Deborah Grosvenor, really hammered in my head the need for a story about main characters living roller coaster ups and downs, forcing them overcome many obstacles. I was rummaging through my brain while walking through my neighborhood in suburban Maryland outside Washington, D.C., and I thought of all the things that Greg LeMond did.

Talk about ups and downs and overcoming obstacles! Greg came out of nowhere in cycling. He went to Europe and beat the best Europeans at their own game. Then after his first Tour de France victory in 1986 he went into decline. I knew there had been conflict and sharp words between him and Lance Armstrong. I presented a proposal about Greg’s career to my agent and she thought he had a great story.

 

Besides enduring with ups and downs, LeMond had to overcome several serious betrayals.

Greg was betrayed by his team leader Bernard Hinault. Hinault had won the 1985 Tour with Greg’s help and promised to help Greg win it in 1986, only to ride against Greg in an attempt to win for himself. I have a whole chapter on that, “The Betrayal.”

Three years later, Greg was riding for the Belgian team ADR-Agrigel and had not been paid for months when he rode his greatest Tour in 1989, his second Tour victory.

 

You depict a poignant scene in Paris on the afternoon in July 1989. Greg had won the Tour and his ecstatic teammates took him away to celebrate. His wife, Kathy, was left behind ner the finish line. She’s penniless because the team hasn’t paid him.

She didn’t have cab fare to for a ride back to their hotel.

 

Then there was more betrayal after Lance Armstrong and the war of words between him and Greg.

Lance and Greg were the two people who accomplished the most in modern cycling. It’s surprising to me that so few people know about Greg. Now since Lance’s fall from grace Greg is the most decorated U.S. rider. I wish there were 10 books on Greg. Perhaps there will be one day.

 

While The Comeback is framed around the epic time trial on the final day of the 1989 Tour de France, burning up the road faster than leader Laurent Fignon to score an upset victory, you continued with Greg’s personal story—his career, his personal life, through 2017.

The ADR team Greg rode for when he won the 1989 Tour is probably one of the worst in Tour history that produced a winner. His Belgian teammate Johann Lammerts defends the team, saying they were good riders. They were good for crits. One rider was a decent sprinter. But Greg was completely on his own in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

The 1990 new French team Greg joined helped him win his third Tour.

 

How would you rate LeMond’s feat winning the 1989 Tour by clinching the time trial compared with landmark moments among other sports—like Babe Ruth’s famed “called shot” home run for the Yankees at Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series.

Objectively, Greg’s victory in that Tour was a big enough deal that Sports Illustrated picked him, then a not-very-well known athlete in America, competing in an obscure sport, as Sportsman of the Year. The magazine’s writers picked him rather than a baseball player or football player.

Over the years, the massiveness of Greg’s career has been diminished by the comeback of Lance Armstrong. It’s weird, like if Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and another player hit 65 home runs.

The thing about Greg is that the first year he competed in the Tour, he finished third. The second Tour, he finished second. The third time, Greg won. He was always consistent.

I intended this to be a celebratory book about Greg, but toward the end it gets dark.

 

Often when writers work on biographies, they can grow disillusioned with the person or worse. What kept you going?

The more I learned about Greg and Kathy LeMond, the more I admired them. I think that one reason more hasn’t been written about is that he’s elusive. Greg and Kathy are so busy. I flew to Minneapolis and met with Kathy one day and Greg met with me the next day. They are wonderful people. I wouldn’t write a book about someone I didn’t admire. Neither one of them is perfect. Greg can be forgetful.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Lance as a person. I was a big Lance fan when he was winning Le Tour and I bought his book for my dad. My father died before the undoing of Lance’s legacy.

What a blessing it is for a writer like me to have a subject like Greg to overcome his battle of words with Lance. It turned out that Lance fell into disgrace as Greg’s star rose. Greg remains the only U.S. cyclist ever to win the Tour de France, and he won it three times.

 

How long did it take you from an idea you had formed while walking around your neighborhood to copies that will be available in the Hall of Fame in July?

I had the idea in summer 2015. I finished a proposal in fall of that year. I wrote the book mostly in 2016 and handed it in around spring of 2017. So, roughly a two-year process, but then there’s been another year of editing, fact-checking, photo-gathering and such. I last met with Greg in October 2017.

 

You inform readers on this side of the Atlantic about the late Laurent Fignon. He sounds like a really noble character.

I interviewed his widow, his ex-wife, his soigneur and several of his old friends. I thought Laurent was sweet-natured. And he was very candid. Also very shy. He didn’t know what to do with the crowds that he drew, so he would push his way through the throngs that followed him.

 

Who were some of your influences as a writer?

In my wildest dreams I think of this book in the tradition of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and Daniel James Brown’s Boys in the Boat. I was inspired by Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault, and the Greatest Ever Tour de France.

I’m transfixed by really good narrative nonfiction. I like the work of Mark Bowdon, author of Black Hawk Down, and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.

 

With all of the obstacles Greg LeMond put up with during his cycling career and afterward with his battles against Lance, the way you write of these developments come across as a ten-part mini-series waiting to go into production.

Yeah, that would be great!

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