Friday, November 20, 2015

Greg LeMond Introduction

I wrote this and read it from the podium at a pre-El Tour de Tucson dinner, probably in the early 2000's. Greg was the Guest of Honor, as he damned well should have been...

Twenty years ago in cycling, Americans were outside looking in. We could love cycling, but it could never be OURS. We'd never excel like Belgians, Dutch, French and Italians.

We were too soft. European racers were tough lads who saved themselves from the mill or mine by pedaling hard. We'd been sissified by indoor plumbing, power steering and too much TV.

We thought there could never be a Merckx from Illinois or a Gimondi from Arizona. We just didn't have it. We'd never produce a Tour de France star. No way.

After all, just finishing the Tour was hard enough, even if you were a stoic European pedaling machine. An American finisher? Unthinkable.  

So, as an American bike rider, you learned to pronounce European names and bought European bikes with European parts. You wore European clothes and read European magazines. You resigned yourself to living in a third-class cycling nation.

Unless, that is, you were Greg LeMond.

If LeMond ever picked up on that sense of unworthiness, he never bought into it. Never. He showed us what a load of rubbish it all was.

Even as a fresh-faced kid, LeMond was always competitive with the best seniors. He was never tactical or economical. He'd break away if he could, and often won alone. He'd grin, braces sparkling in the sun, and ride away from guys with famous names.

He just kept getting stronger. When he left to race on European teams, when he won the world's championship, we watched unprepared, unbelieving. He wasn't JUST American; he was SO American.

Suddenly, we were staring at photos of cycling superstar Bernard Hinault on a horse, Hinault with a cowboy hat and a Winchester rifle. Hinault, who had crossed the ocean to visit LeMond at his Nevada home, to welcome LeMond to his team. 
Still, we feared LeMond would win a few more races and then fade from the scene, merely a fluke, our fluke. We'd return to cycling obscurity.

That's not what happened, though, is it? Nearly everything a bike rider could do, Greg LeMond did, and in style, always in style. And drama? Too much drama.

All that drama kept what he did from looking too easy, as if he were simply born to win and nothing could stop him from doing so. It didn't look easy for LeMond to triumph; it looked hard, on the bike and often off it, too. He did it anyway.

He made us believe we could do it, too, or a few of us could. He made us believe that he could keep doing it, that he would keep doing it and would never become distant and difficult and too good for us.

He was the new American contender, the American world champion, the American Tour winner and a brave American shooting victim. Then he was the American comeback hero, the American winner of the closest Tour in history in 1989.

And what better guy to come from our ranks and go out to meet the world! Who's a better guy than Greg LeMond? Always willing to sign the autograph, always good for a thoughtful quote, always happy to meet fans, always patient with everyone, always Greg LeMond.

We knew he was a terrific guy, one of us, and we trusted him. We knew he was open-minded, curious and progressive about equipment so we paid close attention to his choices. We based purchases on his choices.

Do you wear sunglasses when you ride? Are they Oakleys? Do you own aero handlebars? Do you wear a Giro or some other sleek helmet? Do you ride clipless pedals? Got a cyclometer? Is your saddle pushed way back? Do you ride a LeMond?

Greg LeMond changed bike-racing forever everywhere, changed pay scales, attitudes and ambitions. He played on a world-size stage. At the same time, he was and will always be our guy, one of us: Our first genuine Eurostar, our three-time Tour winner, our trendsetter, our ambassador to sport, our champion.

Until Lance Armstrong arrived with his own style and his own drama, Greg LeMond was the only bike rider Joe Sixpack had ever heard of, ever cheered for. No other rider changed our lives the way Greg LeMond did.

Maybe, if you think about it, you're riding bikes or supporting El Tour today because of the glow Greg LeMond put on cycling. It's my feeling that we've never had a more appropriate guest of honor at El Tour...

Whatta guy! Ladies and gentlemen: Greg LeMond!

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