Oct 8, 2019
By Daniel de Visé
Greg LeMond, a California-born bicycle racer who now stands as the only American winner of the legendary Tour de France, is up for a prestigious national medal under legislation authored by a congressman from St. Helena.
The House of Representatives passed a bill that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to LeMond, who dominated the amateur cycling scene in Northern California in the 1970s before rising to the top of the professional sport in the 1980s. The measure now heads to the Senate and, if successful there, then to the president’s desk. Its author is Mike Thompson, a Democrat who represents all of Napa County and portions of Sonoma, Solano, Contra Costa and Lake counties in Congress.
First awarded to George Washington, the medal has since gone to such illustrious Americans as Ulysses Grant, Jesse Owens and Rosa Parks. A congressional website says the medal is“the highest expression of national appreciation by Congress for distinguished achievements and contributions.”
Thompson proposed the medal for LeMond after reading my biography of the great cyclist, titledThe Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling,and a Legendary Tour de France. (LINK:https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/the-comeback-greg-lemond)
Thompson first contacted me in October, looking for a way to honor LeMond as an American hero, and he eventually decided to pursue the congressional medal. He and his staff spent this summer gathering the votes – two-thirds of the House, or at least 290 representatives – required for passage. Such is the stature of the congressional medal that a successful campaign to award one requires supermajorities in both houses of Congress.
“Greg LeMond stands atop the list of the greatest American cyclists in our history,” Thompson said on the House floor.“His accomplishments speak for themselves: the only American in history to officially win the Tour de France, a three-time Tour de France champion, the youngest American ever selected for the U.S. Olympic team, the first American in history to win a major cycling tournament in Europe, and the winner of 22 [major] races overall.” Thompson continued,“More than any other cyclist in our history, Greg LeMond was the epitome of the Breaking Away culture: a young kid on a bike, trying to do things no American had ever done.”
The congressman alluded to a 1979 film about a blond-haired dreamer who becomes a besotted fan of European cycling and wages a spectacular come-from-behind victory in a local bicycle race at Indiana University. LeMond was a sort of real-life version of that character – blond-haired, enthusiastic and ambitious, and obsessed with making a pilgrimage to Europe to compete against the best bicycle racers in the world.
LeMond grew up in Nevada. He came of age on the intense Northern California-Nevada racing circuit, winning race after race and quickly establishing himself as the dominant men’s cyclist. He went to Europe, turned pro and became the first American to ascend the podium at the Tour de France, the world’s most prestigious bicycle race.
LeMond finished third at the Tour in 1984 and second in 1985. Finally, in 1986, he became the first American to win the Tour. The next April, a few months before the 1987 Tour, LeMond nearly died in a hunting accident. Doctors warned he might never race again. But LeMond did, struggling back to the top of the sport just before the 1989 Tour. LeMond won that race by a margin of eight seconds, the closest finish yet in more than a century of racing. Many consider LeMond’s comeback victory the greatest of all the Tours.
LeMond won a third Tour in 1990 before fading from contention amid the rise of EPO, cycling’s infamous “wonder drug.” A decade after that, Lance Armstrong emerged as a far greater star than LeMond had ever been, winning an incredible seven Tours de France with the jubilant backing of the nation’s cancer survivors. Armstrong was himself a cancer survivor.
A doping scandal stripped Armstrong of his Tour victories in 2012. Since then, LeMond has gradually regained his stature as the nation’s first – and now its only – Tour de France winner. Thompson’s bill might just return LeMond to the national stage for the first time since his great comeback, thirty years ago.
“I am truly humbled to be recognized for my career by the U.S. House of Representatives,” LeMond said of the proposed medal.“Cycling changed my life for the better, and I’ve been proud to help bring this great sport to so many across our nation. For years, it’s been my deep honor to represent the United States on the world stage. I hope this award continues to bring cycling to many more as the sport has the potential to help everyone be healthier and more active. The bike plays an important role in our modern mobility and infrastructure, and it can only get better from here.”
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