Jun 28, 2018
By Daniel de Visé
Not long after I started writing books for a living, I realized that a lot of my own favorite books were works of narrative nonfiction: Jon Krakauer’sInto Thin Air.Laura Hillenbrand’sSeabiscuit.Nathaniel Philbrick’sIn the Heart of the Sea.Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat.
I wanted to write one myself, but I needed the right story. It came to me one summer day in 2015 as I walked around my leafy neighborhood outside Washington D.C.
Recreational cyclists whiz up and down our street en route to Beach Drive, a winding two-lane road that snakes along Rock Creek from the Maryland suburbs into the District. I think it was one of them who made me think of Greg LeMond.
LeMond was born in Lakewood, California, grew up near Reno and emerged in the 1970s as a freakishly talented bicycle racer in Northern California. With shaggy blond hair, piercing blue eyes and a puppy-dog way, LeMond might easily be mistaken for his fictional counterpart in the movie Breaking Away, which came out during LeMond’s teens and portrayed an idealistic young cyclist aspiring to race in Europe.
That was precisely LeMond’s dream. He went to Europe, joined a professional cycling team and, in 1986, became the first American to win the vaunted Tour de France. I grew up idolizing Greg LeMond. My father was a Belgian immigrant who had raced bicycles as a young man. He and I attended weekly races at a track outside Chicago. Bicycling, rather than baseball, was our household sport.
Most other Americans didn’t realize quite what LeMond had accomplished. Prior to the 1980s, no American had even entered the Tour. His feat was akin to a French kid traveling to New York, joining the Yankees and leading them to the World Series. Now, the cycling world expected big things of LeMond. He expected big things of himself. Yet, before he could enter the 1987 Tour to defend his title, LeMond nearly died. He was shot, accidentally, on a hunting trip outside Sacramento. Airlifted to the UC Davis hospital, he came within twenty minutes of bleeding out.
Now, think about it: What athlete in a physically demanding sport has ever come back from an injury like that to compete at the top level?
LeMond did. A painful and frustrating comeback stretched through the 1988 season into 1989, when, finally, LeMond rediscovered his top form.
In July 1989, LeMond was finally ready to defend his Tour title, which was now three years old. He faced off against Laurent Fignon, a reserved, bespectacled Frenchman who was probably the most talented cyclist of his era apart from LeMond. The two men staged a battle for the ages. On the final day of racing, LeMond came back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to win the Tour by a margin of eight seconds, the closest finish—even now—in more than a century of Le Tour.
Narrative nonfiction is all about conflict: A hero overcomes long odds to conquer the mountain, or the sea, or the race.
By the time he retired from cycling in 1994, LeMond had done plenty of that. But one final conflict yet lay ahead. In 2001, LeMond squared off against Lance Armstrong, the brash Texan who would win seven Tours to LeMond’s three. At the very peak of Armstrong’s career, LeMond accused him of doping. The two feuded for a decade. Armstrong and his backers wielded their enormous influence to exile LeMond from the cycling sport.
Finally, in 2012, Armstrong went down. When the dust cleared, LeMond was again recognized as the true king of American cycling. That became my story. It was great story, and one most Americans had forgotten. LeMond had enjoyed a brief fame in the 1980s, but then Armstrong had eclipsed him to become the most celebrated American athlete of his generation. Armstrong, too, had come back from near-death (of testicular cancer) to win the Tour.
And now, Armstrong’s narrative had been discredited, clearing the way for the public to rediscover LeMond.
Daniel de Visé is author of The Comeback: Greg LeMond, published this month by Atlantic Monthly Press. He will speak at 7 p.m. on July 9 atCopperfield’s Books in Santa Rosa. For more info, visitwww.danieldevise.com.
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