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COMEBACK KID : Family in Reno Recalls LeMond’s Mishaps Along the Way

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

After a near-fatal shooting accident in 1987, Laurent Fignon was the only European cyclist, besides teammates, to send Greg LeMond a get-well note.

That could explain the sympathy LeMond’s family felt for the Frenchman Sunday while watching him lose the Tour de France to a stirring finish by LeMond.

“I can’t imagine how he feels,” said Karen Deller, LeMond’s sister.

Deller, her husband Bob, and her grandfather, Art LeMond, were among the bicycle enthusiasts witnessing the remarkable comeback on television Sunday afternoon in Reno.

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They had already heard the results of how LeMond won a 15-mile time trial from Versailles to Paris, and made up a 50-second difference to stop Fignon from winning his third Tour.

Throughout the broadcast, Karen Deller perhaps summed up the feelings of millions of viewers, saying: “God, I can’t believe it.”

In 1986, when LeMond first won the Tour, the family gathered in Paris to celebrate the victory. This year, his father and mother, Bob and Bertha, joined him in Paris, but the rest of the family was unable to make it.

But they shared in the excitement Sunday, as they have shared in the disappointments in LeMond’s roller-coaster career.

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One of the most discouraging periods began in April, 1987, when LeMond was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law while hunting. Karen Deller first heard about the accident from her father’s secretary in Reno, and rushed with Bob, to Sacramento, where LeMond had been taken by helicopter.

“All I knew was that Greg had been shot and could have been dead,” she said Sunday from her Reno home. “We went down (to Sacramento) within a half-hour, drove down, a 100 miles an hour, and the whole time that we drove down we didn’t know how he was, we just knew that he was in the hospital.”

Despite injuries caused by the more than 40 pellets that pierced his body, LeMond survived. Whether his career would survive was another question.

“If you were to see him (after the accident) it was so bad you cried just looking at him,” Karen Deller said. “He doubled in size just from the inflammatory (reaction to the pellets). He couldn’t move, and then, after a week, he lost so much weight, that he just looked . . . I guess that was the time we doubted if cycling was even worth it. But after that, once he started riding again, toward the fall, I thought he could come back.

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“He thought he was going to die when he got shot. Anyone who is placed in that position is bound to think differently. At the time when he had the accident, I felt he was really burned out on cycling. At that time we wondered how long he’d stay in.”

Art LeMond said he was sure his grandson would come back. But he was surprised that he did it so quickly.

“He’s extremely tough,” Karen Deller said. “He’s mentally tough. He was the only American (elite cyclist) ever to actually live over in Europe. That took a lot, just because he was 19 (at the time). A lot of Americans have tried to make it over there but they couldn’t.”

Deller recalled watching LeMond sit alone at the Renault team breakfast table in his first year in France, reading a book while the other riders conversed in French.

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LeMond’s devotion to cycling, a sport he first used to condition himself for skiing, became evident at an early age, when he entered a race in the Reno area. Soon, he was intently reading European cycling magazines and worshipping cyclists such as Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, five-time winner of the Tour de France.

“Every race he did enter, he’d win,” Deller said. “He’d always race a category above himself, just because he wanted the training. When he was a junior, he’d race with the seniors. I was into gymnastics, and he was into cycling and I remember sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner and arguing which sport was the best.”

Kathy Blades, LeMond’s older sister, remembers LeMond’s seemingly boundless energy.

“He was always on the go, he can’t sit still, always doing something,” she said in a telephone interview from New York. “He has a lot of nervous energy, and he burns it up in sports and other activities. Whatever he likes to do, he goes all out for. He can’t do anything halfheartedly. I thought he’d do well, and I wanted him to win (the Tour de France). I had hopes, I thought maybe he’d finish in the top three.”

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Deller also had confidence in her brother, but was unprepared for Sunday’s strong finish, one of the most dramatic performances in cycling history.

“I don’t think he had any idea when he started that he’d do this well,” Deller said. “I know that the day before the first time trial, he (LeMond) told his wife that he felt like he was flying. He’s been very good at endurance, toward the end of some of the long races is when he’s felt the strongest. The first time trial win was enough to say that he was back. I just didn’t think that he would do this well. I’m really proud of him this year, and for him to come back, I think it shocked a lot of people.”

Although LeMond has moved to Minneapolis, Reno still pays homage to him. A local cafe, the Deux Gros Nez, has enshrined one of his jerseys from his La Vie Claire team days on its wall. Other local heroes occupy spots on the wall below his, including Inga Thompson, who placed third in the women’s tour this year.

LeMond’s cycling skill was not always appreciated in Reno. When LeMond and his father, Bob, first began riding, they turned some heads in Reno with their bicycling shorts and cycling jerseys, the family said.

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Later, when LeMond decided to drop out of high school to devote time to racing, his high school counselor urged him to complete his education by correspondence out of a fear that he wouldn’t be able to get a decent job without a diploma.

Today, cyclists are a common sight in Reno, and children write to LeMond, who once idolized other riders. He has become so famous in Europe that letters simply addressed “Greg LeMond, Belgium,” are delivered.

And perhaps now LeMond can send a sympathy card to Fignon.


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