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Book Review: LeMond’s Career Gets Nuanced Perspective

Book Review

THE COMEBACK: Greg LeMond, The True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France

By Daniel de Visé

362 pp. Illustrated. Grove Atlantic.

By Peter Joffre Nye

Dan de Visé in his new book, The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France, presents a fresh perspective on one of the greatest contests in modern cycling—the 1989 Tour de France.

Today many recall how after three weeks of racing around a country the size of Texas, LeMond had ranked second overall, 50 seconds behind France’s two-time winner Laurent Fignon. Instead of a pack finish up the Champs-Élysées in Paris, Fignon’s home town, Tour organizers held a 24.5-kilometer individual time trial, from Versailles to Paris. The betting crowd considered Fignon’s lead insurmountable. They favored him by a margin of 15 to 2 to win his third Tour.

De Visé, a former newspaper reporter for the Washington Post and Miami Herald, frames The Comeback around the epic battle between LeMond and Fignon. Their clash in cycling’s flagship race, the crown jewel of the sport, deserves revisiting. Especially since LeMond had won the 1986 Tour, the first non-European ever to claim victory. Then in the spring of 1987 he was nearly killed in an accidental shotgun shooting while quail hunting in northern California.

De Visé points out how grave were LeMond’s wounds. To this day LeMond carries 30 lead shotgun pellets in his torso, including two in the lining of his heart.

In the legendary time trial that concluded the 1989 Tour de France, LeMond overcame a 50-second deficit in the time trial to win the 1989 Tour by eight seconds, equivalent to less than 100 yards over 2,053 miles. His victory is still Le Tour’s closest contest.

De Visé provides a fuller, more complex portrait of LeMond, now fifty-seven, than anything previously published. He also informs readers about the enigmatic, contrary, and similarly talented Fignon. De Visé conducted a fulsome battery of interviews with Greg and Kathy LeMond, Greg’s father Bob, friends, former teammates, and others.

LeMond entered cycling as a novice junior in Reno, Nevada when the U.S Cycling Federation was just getting organized. He competed on a U.S. Cycling Federation national team in France where he came to the attention of Cyrille Guimard, the maverick director of the Renault-Gitane professional cycling team for the 1981 season.

The Comeback chronicles LeMond’s coming of age as a neo pro on the Renault-Gitane squad, an ocean away from the American media. LeMond joined with Fignon as support riders for team captain Bernard Hinault, on his way to capturing Le Tour five times to tie earlier legends Eddie Merckx and Jacque Anquetil.

Hinault comes off as a complicated farm boy from northern France. His idea of a good time was showing up with a case of wine under each arm to a training camp and helping the team drink every bottle as part of their bonding. When LeMond received a Renault car for personal use that came with a flat tire, Hinault cheerfully rolled up his shirt sleeves and changed the tire. This is the same Hinault who later betrayed LeMond in the 1986 Tour by racing against him until LeMond beat him anyway—itself an achievement.

LeMond knocked staid European cycling traditions aside. He played golf and hunted. He ate ice cream. He replaced jerseys with 12-inch zippers for 18-inch zippers to ride in up mountain climbs. He had the clout to become the first million-dollar cyclist.

De Visé acknowledges that LeMond was a hugely talented athlete, endowed with an uncanny insight into strategy, but cursed with forgetfulness and a gnat’s attention span.

As Lance Armstrong’s star rose in 1999 through seven Tour wins, LeMond’s achievements were overlooked. But when Armstrong became ensnared in doping scandals and fell from grace, LeMond’s reputation remained unblemished.

The Comeback lays out the withering barrage of obstacles and betrayals LeMond faced. The material deserves to be turned into a ten-part mini-series.

De Visé never pinned on a competitor’s number. But he grew up watching races in which his father, Pierre, participated. Writing a pitch-perfect de Visé writes with perfect pitch and has created a book that joins a growing American cycling cannon.

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