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LeMond Is No Lemon as He Rolls With the Punches to Finish First

Greg LeMond, America’s spokes person, did more than just win a bicycle race--make that the bicycle race-- Sunday when he turned the final day of the Tour de France into the 24 Hours of LeMond.

He got even.

He got even with the individuals who gave up on him and with the ones who gave him grief when he needed belief. He got even with those who wrote him off and with those who rode him off.

Just like that boy in the 1979 movie “Breaking Away"--who was LeMond’s inspiration for getting into international bike racing in the first place--this American flyer struck back at some of the snobs and snots who had treated him like dirt.

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He got even with the rich and prestigious Dutch PDM team that ditched him, withdrawing its sponsorship of the Tour de France’s 1986 champion while he was still recuperating from a 1987 hunting accident in California that riddled his body with shotgun pellets in more than 40 places.

He also got even with the wiseguys from other teams who laughed right in his face as they were zooming past him during the Nissan International Classic in Ireland in late 1987, when LeMond was just beginning his comeback and lagging near the back of the pack.

He got even with those who pronounced him a has-been earlier this summer at the Tour of Italy, when LeMond lost more than 17 minutes in one day’s worth of climbing and limped to the finish line in 39th place.

He even got even with those who criticized his training habits--including his eating habits, of all things--as well as his attitude and his intelligence, chastising the American for taking unnecessary risks.

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Whatever misfortune occurred, LeMond came to believe, there were some in bicycling circles who “in essence felt that I got what I deserved.”

Oui. Greg LeMond did get what he deserved. He got it Sunday, winning the 2,030-mile, three-week-long Tour de France by putting his mettle to his pedals all the way from Versailles to Paris, leaving opponents looking as though they had forgotten to take off their training wheels.

Among those left behind at the finis line: Laurent Fignon, the last-day leader, wearer of the yellow jersey, who was supposed to have the blue ribbon in the bag, but instead fell eight seconds short in the closest Tour de France ever. Nice try, Laurent. This Evian’s for you.

Mister LeMond got the last laugh on Monsieur Fignon, who earlier in the Tour had been critical of everything from the American’s strategy to the curve of his handlebars. And you thought only Dennis Conner alienated international opponents with his methods and means of transportation.

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Although LeMond is popular enough over there (that name of his doesn’t hurt) to be thought of as something of an honorary Frenchman, he still has not forgotten the way France’s Bernard Hinault double-crossed him in 1986, when they were teammates and Hinault was supposed to run interference for LeMond, the way LeMond had done for him the year before.

Anyway, the American revolution continues. Some summer this has become, with a kid of Chinese descent (Michael Chang) taking the French Open tennis title, a gentleman of Italian heritage (Mark Calcavecchia) winning the British Open golf and LeMond triumphant in the world’s greatest bike race. Send the word, send the word, over there! That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming ...

And to think LeMond was just saying a couple of weeks ago that he would be lucky to finish 15th or 20th. Since winning in 1986, he had endured leg and shin ailments, an emergency appendectomy and, worst of all, that turkey-shooting incident of April 27, 1987, when the hunter was the one who ended up shot. Pellets lodged in his intestines, liver, lung, diaphragm, kidney and heart lining, with holes in his back, legs, arms and hands. He also broke two ribs.

Fellow cyclists could not believe LeMond had the audacity to go out hunting--not just because he was scheduled to leave for a big race four days later, but because back in 1980, while introducing Hinault to the sport of hunting on his then-friend’s visit to the States, the Frenchman took a shot that ricocheted off a rock and struck LeMond in the eyelid.

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Hinault, whose English at the time was worse than LeMond’s French, was not sure what had happened at first.

“Je suis blind!” LeMond cried out, hands over his bloodied face as he staggered about the woods.

Turned out the damage was not as bad as it looked. Not only was LeMond OK, but even after his second horrific experience seven years later, he continued to go hunting whenever he liked.

LeMond goes his own way, at his own speed. Bernard Vallet, a teammate in 1985, would spot LeMond in public eating ice cream, which is alleged to be very unwise and unhealthy for cyclists. “But that was Greg,” Vallet would say later. “Rules do not apply to him.”

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More than one adviser, close or otherwise, cautioned LeMond against gulping down pizza and cheeseburgers and Dairy Queen cones, his admitted weaknesses. Greg didn’t care, even though studies had proven to him that one extra pound could mean 30 to 60 seconds in a 12-mile climb. He and his wife picked a small town in Belgium called Kortrijk to be their home away from home, whenever he was competing in Europe, partly because several grocery stores there stocked his favorite peanut butter and potato chips.

Ten years ago, Greg LeMond, a typical American kid, saw the film “Breaking Away” and thought it might be exciting or even romantic to compete against dashing Europeans. Originally he became a biker just to get his legs in shape for other pursuits, but today he has become the most famous American on two wheels since Peter Fonda rode with Dennis Hopper.

Even if he hadn’t won Sunday, LeMond’s effort would have been heroic. The fact that he did win amounts to one of the great achievements by any American in any sport, anytime, anywhere, and the ultimate in what they mean by winning on the road.


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