He’ll swear that no mischief was intended, but there was certainly a touch of irony about Greg LeMond’s decision to visit the 2008 Tour de France on a day which should have belonged to his old friend turned racing foe Bernard Hinault.
Today’s second stage to Saint Brieuc took in many of the roads where Hinault learned his craft, but it was LeMond who was besieged by fans, well-wishers and journalists in the start village in Auray. Hinault, of course, is on the Tour every day in his PR role for race organisers ASO. LeMond’s sojourns at the Grande Boucle are rarer and, by extension, more celebrated.
As usual, America’s first Tour winner was in ebullient form. He’s just finished a three-week charity bike ride in Ireland, where he also found time for a few rounds of golf. “I played horribly,” he told me today. “I’ve got this over-swing which causes me big problems. I hadn’t played for about a year, then the first course we play is Doonbeg, the Greg Norman course. I was an absolute disaster…”
Trust me, if his former teammate, Cofidis manager Eric Boyer, hadn’t rescued him (or me), we’d still be there now, pondering how his old Titleist driver didn’t suit his ball flight as well as his new Ping G10.
Mercifully, a few minutes earlier, Greg had held forth on the sport he knows best. And I was among a group of journalists who listened in.
Procycling: Greg, a lot of people are tipping Cadel Evans to win this year’s Tour. Are you one of them?
Greg LeMond: I think he has real natural talent, that might rise to the top like cream. He’s my favourite. He’s also the guy who I know a little more about than the others. Once you started eliminating the guys who were implicated in scandals, I always thought you’d see [Cadel’s] real potential.
You haven’t been on the Tour much in recent years. How does it feel to be back?
I’ve missed the Tour for many years. I was here last year, though, at Briançon, just for a couple of hours. I came to talk to Patrice Clerc and Christian Prudhomme. I think they’re doing the right thing now. I just hope they have the conviction to stick to the route they’ve taken, because there’s going to be massive pressure from the IOC and the UCI. There’ll be lawsuits, but you look at the damage doping has done to the sport….
Has the Tour changed much since you were riding?
I don’t know that it’s really different. It’s nice now that there’s easy access to the coverage. In America you see it live, there are live updates on the internet, so you have access to all the information quicker. Everyone always wants to believe it’s changed so much, but I raced 14 years as a pro and it didn’t change that much. There might be a few more spectators one year, or a few more journalists the next, but the race still comes down to whoever’s the best rider.
What about this year’s race? What do you expect from the next three weeks?
I don’t know enough about the contenders, except Evans. I’ve watched him ever since his mountain bike days, watched his rise to the top. He’s been consistent over the years, but you never can tell. I thought I would win the Tour in 1991. I felt the best I had since 1986, but I could barely finish in seventh place.
Greg lemond during the 1992 tour, where he was 7th: greg lemond during the 1992 tour, where he was 7thAFP/Getty Images
Greg LeMond struggled in 1992
Do you have more faith in cycling these days?
I can believe that cycling is going to change, in a very positive way. I think the sport needed what happened to it. Festina didn’t change it, Operacion Puerto didn’t change it, Landis didn’t change it, then, last year, all of sudden the pressure of sponsors pulling out was a good thing.
You know, I’ve been pushing for an independent testing agency for a long time. The UCI should just give licenses out. The testing needs to be done by an agency which doesn’t care what damage a positive test will do to the sport’s image. The biological passport is good, but I still believe that you have to look at physiology. You have to do tests on wattage and VO2 Max. That’s genetic talent. When you dope, you can increase your oxygen uptake by 15 or 20 per cent, but, based on the conversations I’ve had with doctors and experts, there have been guys in the Tour increasing their power output by 30 to 40 per cent. Now that’s impossible. You just can’t do it. I believe that only talent can win the Tour de France.
Are there things you see in Cadel Evans which suggest that he’s credible.
Well, you know Taylor Phinney, Davis Phinney’s son? He started racing and within two years he’d won a junior world championship. Now there’s a natural talent. I’ve just read an interview with Davis, where he said, “Taylor could develop into a good Classics rider…” But I say screw that. I mean, when a guy’s winning time trials against guys ten years older than him, that’s like I was. I won the Circuit de la Sarthe at age 18.
Your genetic potential doesn’t change over the course of your career. You have to figure out how you can compete for 100 or more days a year, but your actual genetic talent doesn’t really change. And Cadel showed that kind of talent when he was riding mountain bikes and winning in a period when you didn’t know who was a real talent and who wasn’t. I mean, Christophe Bassons might have been the most talented guy in the Tour de France. We just don’t know…
I think that, if you go back through cycling history, the best riders – Merckx, Hinault, Fignon – were all good at the age of 19 or 20. In the last few years we’ve heard riders say, oh, I’ve started pedaling at a higher cadence, or I’ve lost weight, but how do you lose weight when you’re only four per cent anyway? Physiology hasn’t changed, unfortunately for some people.
One of Evans’s directeurs sportifs, José de Cauwer, also led you to Tour victory in 1989. Do you believe in omens?
José’s a directeur for Cadel? I didn’t know that. José de Cauwer was a great directeur. He was like Cyrille Guimard. He was very good psychologically for a rider. Tactically he was very good, too. He also helped me a lot in 1989. There were times when I didn’t want to race anymore, but he just kept telling me that it would come, but I never thought it would.
I have very fond memories of José, and I wish I could have had him as a directeur for more than one year. In fact it was one of the best years of my career. I mean, I loved my time with Roger Legeay at Z, but I was earning a lot of money and I didn’t feel as though I was justifying it with my results. That killed me psychologically. I felt bad for the sponsor.
In 1989, I didn’t get paid a dime, so at one point I just said, screw it, I’ll just take the gruppetto every day, and that’s what I started doing, until I started feeling a little bit better, and the pressure was off. I came into the Tour with no pressure from the sponsor and that was a major relief. José de Cauwer’s role was key.