Part 3: The greatest Tour of all, by Greg LeMond

From prince to pauper and back again

In the third part of Greg LeMond's exclusive look back at the 1989 Tour de France for Procycling Magazine, here LeMond recounts the bizarre series of events which made him first the best, then the worst-paid cyclist in the world halfway through that triumphant 1989 season.  

"I couldn't quite believe it when, in 1984, in the middle of a Tour I'd go on to finish in third place, La Vie Claire made me an offer to leave the Renault team and with it my coach Cyrille Guimard. They threw so much money at me. It was US$333,000 a year over three years versus $100,000 a year with Renault, but I still didn’t want to leave. We had the best team. We’d won ten stages in the Tour that year. (Laurent) Fignon had won the Tour and I’d finished third.

Guimard had already heard the rumours about La Vie Claire. At the Tour, at Alpe d’Huez, I’d been picked up by a woman dressed from head to toe in black leather, with long black hair. She’d tossed her hair back and said 'monsieur LeMond, monsieur Tapie would like to speak to you. Get on ze back of ze motorbike…' It was like a James Bond movie.  I ‘d jumped on the back and we’d zoomed through Alpe d’Huez to another hotel, where we'd gone upstairs and been greeted by Bernard Tapie and Bernhard Hinault. Tapie was holding a Look pedal. He said, 'I will make you a millionaire…' At first, I was like, 'Okay', then he explained that he wanted to give me a dollar a pedal and pay me a million dollars over three years. Then I was more like, 'Okaaaaaaay!'

I called me wife straight away to tell her. My head was spinning. The problem was that I still didn’t want to leave Guimard, although I was worried about how Fignon and I could coexist in the same Renault team. Laurent was already a two-time Tour winner by then.

Anyway, a few weeks later at the Tour of Holland, Guimard confronted me and said he’d heard that I’d signed for La Vie Claire. I told him that I hadn’t, that I wanted to stay, but that I was being offered three times the money I was on at Renault. I said that if he could give me a $60,000 raise, I’d stay. He shook his head. 'Greg,' he said, 'you should never think of money while you’re racing. First win five or six Tours then make your money. You were third in the Tour on one leg this year…' I heard this and thought he meant that I hadn’t given everything. He was actually referring to the fact that I’d been on antibiotics. Then he said something that sounded even worse: 'If you leave me and the team, you’ll never win the Tour again.' When I heard that, that was it. 'I’ll show you,' I thought. '(Screw) it. I’m leaving…' And I did.

After my two years with La Vie Claire, then after Toshiba had dumped me after my hunting accident, I had a two-year contract with PDM that my dad had negotiated on the day of my second operation in 1987. One of the conditions in the PDM deal was that I had to be racing by the end of 1987 but, if you knew what had happened to me, that was insane. My way around it was to show up to a criterium in Belgium at the end of the season and do one lap. That was it. I pretended that I had a flat tyre.

With PDM, I was supposed to earn US$200,000 in 1988 and double that in 1989. Unfortunately I started horribly in ’88 and injured my tendon. They then put me in a cast. To me that didn’t sound like the right thing to do, so I took it upon myself to call an orthopedic surgeon, who confirmed my suspicion. I then went home in June and went on anti-inflammatories for six weeks. I couldn’t pedal. Finally, on July 12th, they made an incision into my tendon and I was back on the bike in tennis shoes the next day, and with my cycling shoes three weeks later.

I’d now had almost two years without any racing, but PDM wanted to throw me right back in at the Tour of Holland. I lasted two days, and that’s when the trouble with the team really started. To my mind the problems stemmed from Gert-Jan Theunisse’s positive test, or more specifically my reaction to it, which was to tell the management that whoever had given him the drugs should be fired and the same applied to Theunisse. I liked Gert but I didn’t want to be associated with any kind of doping.

Of course this was never made public, which gave them the license to start rumours about me bad-mouthing the other riders and asking for a pay-raise. They were all saying 'How dare he ask for a pay-raise when he’s had no results and he never trains?'

It became clear to everyone at this point that it wasn’t going to work, so I started quietly asking around at other teams, knowing that it’d suit all parties if I could leave PDM. I went to Fagor to do a VO2 Max test and scored 77 or 79, with zero training and the iron stocks in my body totally depleted by the accident. My right lung was also collapsed. But they weren’t interested. They said I didn’t have the potential to win another Tour.

I was still determined to leave PDM so I called [LeMond's ex-Toshiba team-mate] Johan Lammerts. Believe it or not, ADR had tried to sign me in 1986, but, although I was keen to leave La Vie Claire, I’d decided to stay because it was still a strong team. I remembered this and called Lammerts to ask if there was a spot on the team in ‘89. I was practically begging for a place, and, to my surprise, José De Cauwer and François Lambert were enthusiastic, so we started negotiating. We eventually agreed on $350,000 base pay and a $500,000 bonus if I won the Tour. Lambert also promised me a Mercedes 500 automobile and various airline tickets.

January 1989 came around. Then February. Then March. I still hadn’t been paid, plus there was still no sign of the Mercedes. I called Lambert and he told me to go down to Antwerp and pick out the Mercedes I wanted. I ordered it that day but of course it never arrived. There are too many stories of riders not getting paid in cycling, so I’d negotiated a front-ended contract, but April came and I’d still had nothing.

I then went home, regrouped, went to the Giro and got a kicking in the first week. Although my morale was at rock-bottom, in a funny way, it might have worked in my favour that I hadn’t been paid, because it meant the team couldn’t demand anything of me. It was just a relief not to have to do it all for money. José De Cauwer also really helped to keep the pressure off. He was a great psychologist. He kept telling me just to take it easy.

By the time the Tour started, because of the terms of the contract, I ought to have been paid my whole annual salary. I hadn’t seen a dime. Then I won the time trial in Rennes and François Lambert turned up with dollar signs in his eyes. Too late: on the first rest-day, Roger Legeay had already made me an offer to ride for “Z” the next season.

I hadn’t done anything all year, hadn’t had a single offer for three years, yet Roger said he thought I could be just as good as before the accident. Then the next day I won in Rennes and it was suddenly like a feeding frenzy. 7-Eleven and all sorts of other teams wanted me... ADR hadn’t paid me but I still had to give them 30 days notice even if they’d breached our contract, which is what I ended up doing on the day before the final time trial.

Everyone remembers the contrasting pictures of me and Fignon from that afternoon, but a few hours later, the crowds had all cleared off to the Hôtel de Ville and my wife was still sitting there alone on the Champs Elyées. She was pregnant with my daughter, with no money, not knowing what to do, when suddenly François Lambert rolled up in his car. He asked her what she was doing there. She explained that everyone had just got up and left and she had no money. She didn’t even have enough to get back to the hotel. When he heard this Lambert got out a 500 franc note and, as he was handing it to her, it dawned on him that it was the first money he’d paid us all year. I don’t know what my wife said. Anyway, she used that money to get back to the hotel.

Lambert no doubt thought that my Tour win would bring in sponsors and solve all of the problems. It didn't matter: I’d already decided that I was leaving. I would only have stayed if there’d been a major new backer and if Lambert had left. I’d given them my resignation and now, after the Tour, I wanted a few days off from everything, so I went to Deauville. I was in the hotel with my wife when the phone rang. It was one o’ clock in the morning. My Dad was on the other end. He was back at our house in Belgium in Kortrijk, where he said De Cauwer and Lambert had just showed.

He’d invited them in whereupon Lambert had gone straight over to the table and emptied a gunny sack full of money. My Dad had looked at the pile of notes in disbelief: it was US$175,000 in cash; in other words, what Lambert should have paid me in January.

'What if it’s drug money?' my Dad said to me. 'I don’t (care). It’s my money, and I want you to pay it into the bank and wire it to the United States tomorrow!' I replied.

I waited for the end of my 30-day notice period with ADR. In the meantime, Lambert embarked on this vast PR campaign, telling everyone that I was betraying the team that had saved me. He even got my own agent to sue me for ten percent of what I went on to earn at the “Z” team. At that stage, though, it wasn't even confirmed which team I would be riding for in 1990. The bidding was down to Toshiba and “Z”.

I got to basically a US$6 million contract with Roger Legeay, and Toshiba were offering me over a million dollars more, but I didn’t forget that Toshiba were people who’d told me a month after my hunting accident in 1987 that I was no longer required and 'goodbye'. I knew I was going with Roger and I was going with him because he’d been the first to show faith in me. I didn’t even have to haggle with him: I just told him what I was being offered by other teams at every stage of the negotiations and he kept raising his price.

We eventually agreed a figure the day before the Worlds, which of course I won. Roger was afraid then that I’d renege, but there was no way. A contract was a contract. I also wanted to screw Toshiba.

That year, from earning not a dime in six months, I’d gone to winning the Tour, the Worlds and signing the biggest contract in the history of professional cycling."

This concludes the interview Friebe had with LeMond during the former pro's speech at the Play the Game conference in Coventry in June. Read Parts 1 and 2 here.

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