The greatest Tour of all, by Greg LeMond

The turbulent build-up to the 1989 race, in the champ's own words

It was arguably the greatest Tour of them all. It was certainly the closest and most dramatic, climaxing in Greg LeMond’s victory on the Champs Elysées by eight seconds over a forlorn Laurent Fignon.

It was 20 years ago. In that time, LeMond and Fignon’s lives have taken many unexpected twists and turns. A month ago Fignon revealed that he is suffering from cancer, with an uncertain and bleak prognosis. It wasn’t long before LeMond, his old friend, rival, nemesis and sometime golf buddy, had paid tribute on the pages of Le Monde.

A few days before Fignon’s shock announcement, LeMond had visited the UK to speak about doping in cycling at the Play The Game conference in Coventry. Happily for you, for me, in the unlikely setting of Lady Godiva’s city, he also agreed to talk to me about the 1989 Tour. And talk he did for the best part of two hours.

So comprehensive was LeMond’s account that it requires no more adornment than a pair of quotation marks. Today I, or rather Greg, gives you the story of his turbulent build-up to the race. In the coming days, I’ll post Greg’s account of the Tour itself – the greatest Tour of them all. Enjoy…

“There were a lot of question marks for me as well before that Tour. I have to laugh because that was when I had the three shots of iron that some of my critics have said were EPO. I mean, why would I announce it if I’d taken that? I really did have three shots of iron. My soigneur kept saying that I looked like a woman who was menstruating. I was grey. I’d been shot two years before and lost seven percent of my blood volume. I’d lost 30 pounds of muscle. And yet the trauma surgeon said I was fine. All I took after that was a multivitamin. What I didn’t know at the time was that your ferritin supplies get used up as you rebuild blood. I had red blood cells but you only bind oxygen with iron, and I had none.

I’ll never forget reading a Belgian newspaper story that said I’d got what I’d deserved in '87, because I was eating ice-cream and hunting when I ought to have been racing and training. And yet they knew that I was back in the States because I’d fallen in Tirreno-Adriatico and wouldn’t be able to race for six months. After the accident there were some mean-ass letters and negative articles. Even today you still hear the myth that I didn’t train properly and that I was only interested in the Tour. The reality was that, physically, I wasn’t the same after the accident. Before that, I raced balls-to-walls from February to September.

That was the physical side of it. There was also a big psychological component. What nobody knows is that I signed a contract with ADR for 1989 and I was supposed to get paid on 1 January. I had a bike company that I was trying to get off the ground, so the money I did have was going to that company, which my dad was running, and it was all driving me crazy. January came and there was no money. February came and there was no money. March came and there was no money. April came and there was no money, plus I was riding like shit. I didn’t actually get paid until the day after the Tour. [ADR boss] François Lambert said he was paying me but all he’d done was pay the minimum bank guarantee of US$12,000. I only got to ride the Tour because I called up a guy who organised the terms of the contract and he found Agrigel as a sponsor. This was two weeks before the Tour.

There’s one story that I got paid after I threatened to quit the Tour on the rest day. That’s not true. What really happened was that I hadn’t been paid in the first three months of the year, then in April, two days before Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I said “Fuck cycling”, got drunk and decided that there was no way I was going to ride the race. I told them that on the Friday. I went and had a good time with my wife, drank some port – which incidentally I’ll never touch again – and woke up on Saturday with a hangover. The same day, [ADR directeur sportif] José de Cauwer and Francois Lambert arrived. I loved José and his methods, and he was begging me to do the race, but I told them I wouldn’t because they hadn’t paid me. Sure enough, I refused to ride and went back to the United States the day after Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

I then didn’t ride my bike at all until my wife convinced me that I should at least give it until the end of the year. I showed up at the Tour de Trump with no training, barely made it through there, then went to the Giro and lost eight minutes on the first day. Usually I’d have been able to put that down to allergies but, there, I was cracking psychologically. Stress can affect you like that, physically and psychologically. One day I lost 17 minutes and I called my wife, in tears. I said I’d been watching Stephen Roche and I couldn’t believe that I’d once been that good. She kept telling me to give it until the end of the year. She said I should forget about the others and do what I could. I didn’t know it at the time but, as I listened, something clicked.

That year, I was just lucky that I kept getting stronger in the Giro. The day after I lost 17 minutes, it started raining, which helped me overcome my asthma. I didn’t realise back then that the asthma could wipe out 25 percent or 30 percent of my watts. I used to think that I didn’t race well at the Giro because I was out of shape, but it was the pollen. I always used to finish the Giro, then take a week off and come back like a motorcycle. I always though that it was down to the work I’d done during the Giro. Really it was the pollen or lack of it in July.

I still had no idea what kind of shape I was in going into the Tour. One thing that had turned around was my attitude to racing; prior to that conversation with my wife at the Giro, every time I raced, all I could think of was “will I ever get back to how I was in ’86?”. Every day was like a race of judgment. That all changed there; we’d had a rest day, a stage was canceled because of snow, then we had a time trial, and it was in that time trial that I finally started feeling good. I still didn’t trust myself but for the last week of the race I’d pretended that I was in contention for the Giro, just to see where I was compared to everyone else. I’d got myself psyched up and ended up getting second in the final time trial to Florence, ahead of Fignon, who won the race. That result blew me away. 

I perhaps wasn’t ready to race the Tour, and I still had no money, but I was as ready as I could be.”

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