Monday, November 12, 2012

Reassessing LeMond, rethinking cycling icons



Cycling coverage when I was growing up in Colombia was exhaustive. Both the fans and the press were alarmingly literate about the sport. Having said that, there was also an urge to oversimplify matters, perhaps in an attempt to make the sport more enjoyable and less like watching paint dry at times (let's face it). The most common way to do this was to break the peloton into several tiers, which themselves were bookended by two groups: the good guys and the bad guys, with a few others in between. Even as a little kid, I could see how overly simplistic the approach was.

Gods and demigods
This being Colombia in the 1980s, it should come as no surprise that all of "our" riders were the good guys. Those who rode for Cafe De Colombia or Postobon were the really good guys. Gods. Then there were those Colombians who rode for teams from other countries. They were good guys to be sure, but were downgraded to demigod status. Just ask Fabio Parra, who rode for Kelme, or Pacho Rodriguez who rode for ZOR. To this day, their popularity pales in comparison to many others who accomplished far less.
The allied forces
Colombians aside, there were also allies. Non-Colombian riders who were well liked as a result of riding for our teams (Lithuanians in Postobon, or Danes in Cafe De Colombia). There were those who had raced with panache in Colombia, or had spoken positively and respectfully to the press about Colombians, while riding alongside them. Some of these riders are still loved by Colombians to this day (I spoke with Andy Hampsten about this).

From Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper: "Thanks to God...and to Hampsten! Thanks to God Almighty, in the most critical moment—as though sent by the Holy Spirit—Andy Hampsten appeared to help the leader of the Motorola-Postobon team, Alvaro Mejia."

Bad dudes
Where there's good guys, there's also bad guys. For us, this meant the French. Hinault and Fignon were demonized by the Colombian press, something that was only exacerbated by tales of discrimination and mistreatment of Colombian riders (see here, here and here). One such incident even prompted fellow Frenchman and Olympic road champion Jose Beyaert—at the time working for Colombian radio—to threaten Fignon, and tell him he'd gladly break his jaw if he spoke about Colombians that way again (this came up in my interview with Matt Rendell about his biography of Beyaert).


Somewhere in the middle
Then there were the riders who we were largely ambivalent about. Not disliked, not loved...just there. Dutch and Belgian riders were largely in this group, and at the top of this pile was one Greg LeMond. Surprising, considering his many accomplishments.

Some didn't care too much for him ("he's too American" they said, failing to see that if any group of riders was stubbornly hanging on to every bit of their nationality, it was Colombians), but I can't say he was disliked. In retrospect, the similarity between the experience of North American riders and South American riders should have made Colombians love the Americans. But Latin American politics being what they were/are, seeing any bit of ourselves in a gringo was beyond impossible. We were "the exploited, the victimized, the second or third class citizens under neo-colonalist rule". This had always been drilled into our head, so true affection for Americans was hard to come by (the fact that I'm married to an American would both amaze and surprise a 5-year old version of me).

Never mind the fact that at the Tour, Americans were met with similar disdain as Colombians. Forget the Colombians falling to pieces on the pavé, while the 7-Eleven team collapsed at a team time trial. And by all means, disregard the Colombians bringing foods like bocadillo and panela to Europe, while Americans had a thing for eating burritos while in France (not American food, mind you, but you get the point). Riders like LeMond were respectful of the countries in which they raced and lived. They tried to learn the language, and acclimate as much as possible. But this was lost in the shuffle. As much as we were painfully aware of how Colombians were treated due to (according to riders) their dark skin, perhaps we were unable to see past LeMond's blue eyes and blond hair ourselves. That was our loss.

Yes there were inherent differences between American and Colombian riders and teams, sizable ones. But as a young cycling fan, the similarities that existed between them were beyond me. And lost in all this, to Colombian fans at least, was Greg LeMond.


7-Eleven implodes at the team time trial in the 1986 Tour de France



And while Colombians were largely ambivalent about LeMond, fans in the United States logically embraced him. How could they not? His youthful face was almost a caricature of hopeful American enthusiasm. But as we all know, the passionate love affair between Americans and LeMond would not last. As the Armstrong era took hold, LeMond was not simply forgotten, he was suddenly disliked. Matt Rendell has said that the unbelievable rise from nothingness to stardom is part of the sports narrative, but so too is the apocalyptic fall. But in this case, LeMond's fall (maybe using the word "fall" is a bit too strong here) was not really his own doing.

Surely people reading this blog know how the shift in public discourse about LeMond changed, and how that came to be, so I won't go over it again. But I think it's fair to say that most of it revolved, in one way or another, around Armstrong and his relationship with him and his sponsors. Being that I'm a fourth rate blogger (with the reading comprehension of a fourth-grader I might add) with no real connections to the bike business, I don't know all the specifics. But the press and many in the peloton very clearly turned their back on LeMond. He wasn't just disliked, he was seen as crazy, jealous, unstable, and a fool. By and large, American fans wanted LeMond to be one thing...which he most certainly wasn't: quiet. One example of how many Americans came to view him can be seen in this description of a 4-pack DVD set, for sale at Competitive Cyclist.





Like a kid who is embarrassed by his parents' loud demeanor or unfashionable clothing in front of his friends, many came to see LeMond's actions as being undignified for a man of his stature. Ah, who the hell am I kidding, most just thought he was insane. Maybe some still do.


And then the pendulum swung.
But it's the end of 2012 now. Surely I don't need to recap the events of the last few months, though it's certainly worth pointing out that attitudes about LeMond have changed as a result of said events. The "fool", the man who was unable to "age with class" is being hailed by all as a prophet, a genius, a hero, and (it was only a matter of time) America's only Tour de France winner.

While LeMond is finally starting to get the respect that I think he's rightfully earned, it seems odd to me that none of the people with a prominent profile in the sport who voiced such distaste for LeMond have apologized. Perhaps they have spoken to him in private, but a slight acknowledgement of this in public could go a long way (the Andreus too are probably appreciative of the shift in opinion, but are surely shaking their heads in disbelief as they remember the climate not long ago).

For now, it's good to see that at least some publications have stopped using unusually unflattering pictures of LeMond and Kimmage (see here and here), an obvious sign that public opinion is changing, as measured by my very own proprietary Unflattering Picture Index. There's a lot of chest pounding and bravado to go along with the new pictures that publications have pulled out from their dusty archives, and that's probably because there's a great and intoxicating joy in big pronouncements of moral indignation, when everyone appears to be on the same page. Just as there was a great intoxicating feeling for many in praising Armstrong during his prime. The relationship between these two sentiments is slight, but important.


While many claim that LeMond's 1989 Tour victory was his greatest triumph, I still have a soft spot for his work with Taco Bell, as a result of my love for Mexican food...though Taco Bell barely qualifies as Mexican food. Actually, it barely qualifies as food of any kind, but you get my point. 


In the end, those with a prominant voice in cycling have skipped acknowledging their past characterizations of LeMond, and gone straight to the part where they praise him again. And much of that praise, I would add, is warranted. LeMond was a fantastically talented rider, one who was willing to take on grand tours and one-day classics alike. He fought back from amazing set-backs to conquer impressive wins, and has been steadfast about his views regarding the sport after his retirement. All these things are true. But just as the overly simplistic manner in which the Colombian media portrayed cycling (dividing it into tidy groups simple enough for a five year old like me to understand), I think the binary manner in which cycling fans of today approach the sport seems foolish.


Yesterday, LeMond was one thing. Today he is another. I think he'd argue that he was the same guy all along, but public opinion is shifting awfully fast as of late. As a result, the pedestal atop which many placed Armstrong now stands empty, and it seems like there's a sudden urge to put someone else there. After all, how could it possibly be empty?

There has been no reassessment of Greg LeMond, merely a reassignment. A shuffling around that is convenient for fans, but (I think) disrespectful in many ways. And by the way, does he even want to be up in that pedestal?

Personally, I say that pedestal too stays vacated. We don't need it, and I suspect that even LeMond would agree. Give him credit, like him, remember him, admire him, and even thank him. Hell, some should really pick up the phone and apologize to him. But just remember that the world we live in is not always easily parsed through with binary logic, and just because you turn one switch off, doesn't mean you have to turn another identical one on. Maybe LeMond and other riders like him deserve their very own place in cycling history and in the hearts and minds of fans. A different, more dignified and human place. One that acknowledges their humanity, their triumphs, and yes, their human frailties. I say this because it's their ability to achieve great feats in spite of their humanity (not because of it) that continues to draw us to cycling. So acknowledging this is paramount.

But there's another aspect about cycling that continues to draw many of us in, and that's the ability to help us connect with our youth. We either followed cycling, or rode a bike ourselves as kids. There's a sense of freedom and adventure that is inherent in riding a bike. It's a seemingly senseless, but beautiful pursuit. So while maintaining this youthful, wide-eyed enthusiasm, I say we rethink the way that we enjoy the sport, and reassess the manner in which we treat its most celebrated figures. I say this for the sake of sports fans, but most importantly for sake of people like Greg LeMond.

19 comments:

  1. Beautifully written piece, as always. Thank you.

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  2. Lovely piece, spot-on. The Armstrong affair must surely teach us an important lesson about the dangers of myth-making, binary thinking, hero-worship. While some of us saw quite early that Armstrong was not what he purported to be, so many people would not abandon the myth for the truth, and therein lies a huge danger that goes beyond cycling. Also, as a cycling fan, I feel some responsibility for the romantic mythology of cycle-racing: the lone breaks, the mountain battles, the long stages day after day, the demand for a spectacle, for this has contributed to the culture of doping. We need to be careful what we wish for and what demands we put on cyclists if we want a cleaner sport.

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  3. Nicely written. I'm very pleased that LeMond has been vindicated.

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  4. Lemond used Taco Bell burritos as a performance enhancing product , with his gnarly farts forcing many rivals off his wheel. He rode clean except for his bike shorts.

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  5. Interesting thoughts. Also, one can't help but wonder if Lemond, Hampsten, Lucho, Parra and a host of others wouldn't have achieved more victories if the peloton hadn't become PED crazy in the early nineties. That has struck me as the greatest tragedy in this. Was Hampsten destined to become a tour winner had the sport been clean? Could Lucho or Parra won more grand tours? This all leads to the next ugly question: was Indurain dirty? It seems naive to think he wasn't). If Indurain turns out to also be a monumental cheat, that would be 12 (TWELVE!) tours that could be vacated. More than a tenth of all tours. Whoa.

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    1. Many more than 12 to be sure. Anquetil and Coppi were both big speed heads. Back in the teens and twenties guys were using everything from morphine, to cocaine, even ether (to numb pain I guess). Judging by his reaction to the Armstrong ban I'm highly suspicious of Big Mig. I'm glad for the advances in science that may be able to clean up the peleton today. Is there anyone who thinks a clean peleton wouldn't have still sorted out Ulrich and Armstrong on top? They were both phenomenal teens before the PED's.

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    2. jonathan, good points, although lemond himself in a recent (and quite good) irish raio interview says something about the difference in drugs along these lines: "yes, there was drugs in the peloton in the past, like amphetamines, but these new drugs that affected your oxygen capacities really affected the sport a whole lot more and were more serious." he was there, and he saw what was happening and considered the 'new' peds more serious, a whole other category. anyway, i recommend finding that interview.

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  6. Time to stop short-changing your own writing. I rarely read all the way to the end of a blog post. You had me glued to the screen with your insightful analysis and prose. And, you have also succeeded in getting me to re-evaluate my opinion of LeMond.

    Cheers, H.

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  7. Heath Cox,
    I hereby take a bow, and thank you for your comment.

    Bazal,
    Maybe we aim for a balance of this mythology, while remembering that they are human, to help keep things in check. Again, I think it's a bit odd when we start thinking of riders in terms of their superhuman abilities ("do you know what his resting heart rate is?" "I heard his lungs take up eighty four percent of his body"). No, it's their very human-ness (just made up that word) that makes their feats enjoyable. That goes for Colombian riders of the 80s too by the way. They weren't climbing gods....they were just very small riders, who lived at altitude, were used to really long steep climbs, and didn't even know that stage races could have flat stages. it all adds up. it doesn't make anyone's feats less amazing, but respects them, and thus keeps our childhood minds in check I think.

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  8. I watched the '85 tour roll by us in a small town in France. I don't think I've ever seen anyone look better than Greg in his prime. His '89 world championship was my favorite. I remember how sad I was when he got shot. I've always loved how he makes no apologies for being his own man. He's stood alone against adversity so many times now. He never once left that top pedestal for me.

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  9. Excellent and very thought provoking post!

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  10. Great commentary on public perception.

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  11. I loved watching Lemond win his tours and make the great comeback. And, beating Fignon by mere seconds when he had been written off by everyone was high drama. I still wish that he had not sounded so damn jealous and sort of crazy when talking about Armstrong. Even though he was correct about Armstrong, does that make it right that he was making those accusations without any proof? I say it made him look a bit classless then and even now.

    Lemond's Armstrong accusations are not the only place Lemond has sort of lost his cool. He had big problems running his bike business when Trek was trying to work with him.

    Let's hope Greg does sort everything out and can come back into the public spotlight with the class and elegance that he can portray. He deserves to be remembered properly and I would like that to be my most endearing memory.

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    1. Mike,
      I think by most accounts, LeMond was privy to most of the information that came out in the affidavits of the USADA decision long ago. Remember the recorded conversation about the hospital room, as well as conversations that he no doubt had with the very people whose testimony is now held as the reason why many believe Armstrong doped. As for the Trek thing, the same can be said there, as the details of how that deal went sour are now known. Did I just take some troll bait perhaps? Maybe, so I'll stop there.

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    2. I agree that Greg was most likely privy to the first-hand talk going around the peleton. The methods used to dance around testing, training regimens, race time "cloak and dagger" methods included, these guys did not figure out their schemes in a vacuum.

      I am sure that even Lance, despite the recurrent claims of "I didn't see it", from many interviews, could have kept everything completely under the radar- when it comes to other riders. These guys could tell when something was going on. I feel it quite disingenuous when folks make bold claims that Greg was "some kind of nut", all the while choosing to give others a free pass.

      The tsunami of Lance's rise just rolled right over Greg. LeMond has always had my respect. He was my inspiration to take up the sport personally in the early 80s.

      Until my first real racer was stolen a year ago, I loved my original LeMond type Mavic hubs. It took a few calls to Mavic, convincing them that the bearings were different than the mass market set. I had them mated with Super Champions, Hampsten style. While others rode on the latest, I kept that connection with the old days.

      Watching those old film clips of Lucho, Laurent, Greg, and Andy, I fondly remember the days when men were men, and toe clips and casquettes ruled supreme.

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    3. Klaus and Bobby,

      I don't disagree with anything you said. Lemond is still my first cycling hero and one of the only ones who has not been dashed on the rocks. My issue was watching him talk about Armstrong made me think he (Lemond) was jealous and he came across as a little nutty. I watched that interview after seeing a movie about Lemond's career and to see a class act with an incredible career and who had an unbelievable strength of character and mental toughness stoop (in my opinion) to attacking the current champ, even though he was correct, was not a class act in my mind. Lemond needs to play the role of the champion above the fray who does not need to embroil himself in the goings-on of mere mortals. Be the hero!

      Sounds goofy, I know, but it seems all my heroes get crucified and it would be nice if one survived completely intact. Vive le Lemond!

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  12. Nice bit! Larry thinks LeMond still has no filter between heart/brain and his mouth. You get the straight story from him. I still remember the guy from the '89 Giro when he would take no money for interviews with the cycling group I worked for..unlike EVERY other pro. I doubt many old fans turned on him in the BigTex feud, I certainly didn't. It was the new, "kick their ass, eat their cheese" fans of BigTex who called him names, those same a--holes who made an ugly scene in Paris at the end of so many Tours with their jingoistic stupidity. Don't expect apologies from those morons Greg, and that includes the jerk who runs that bike company in Wisconsin.

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