The French call Greg Lemond "Le Roi Soleil." And like Louis XIV, the American Sun King has defeated formidable European coalitions, narrowly escaped death and traveled great distances to win fame and glory. LeMond shone most brilliantly from 1986 until 1990, winning the Tour de France all three times he entered. He was both a path and a light, extending the popularity of cycling beyond its European borders and inspiring fellow countrymen to emulate him. Before LeMond, Americans thought of bikes as something you straddled to deliver the paper. Yanks had made as much impact on cycling as the French had made on baseball. Today, U.S. pros are wheeling and able, and cycling is as American as pomme pie.
LeMond began setting the pace at the 1980 Olympic trials when he was named, at 18, the youngest captain of a U.S. cycling squad. After the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games, LeMond turned pro and moved to Europe. Three years later he became the first American to win the professional road race at the world championships. And in '84 LeMond became only the second American to even attempt the Tour de France, finishing third. The next year he placed second to France's fearsome Bernard Hinault, his colleague on the French team La Vie Claire. In '86, at the precocious age of 25, LeMond beat Hinault and became the first (and still the only) non-European to win the Tour, cycling's most prestigious race.
If Louis XIV was the symbol of absolute monarchy in the baroque age, LeMond reigned supreme in the space age. It was LeMond's team that first used the Rock Shox suspension fork to hug the cobblestones of the Paris-Roubaix road race, in 1991. It was he who forsook the standard steel frame for a lighter carbon fiber one to ride the opening time trials in the '92 Tour de France. And it was LeMond who made the best use of tribars, looping clip-on handlebars that kept him in a position not unlike a skier's tuck.
He used this peculiar posture to astonishing effect in the '89 Tour's final stage, a 24.5-kilometer time trial from the House That Louie Built (Versailles) to the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris. Races of Truth are what the French call time trials—and the hard truth was that after 22 days and 2,010 miles, LeMond trailed overall leader Laurent Fignon of France by 50 seconds. Hunched tightly over the tribars, his helmeted head lowered for aerodynamic efficiency, LeMond rode all-out all the way, shooting down the same path that Louis XVI took in 1793. Unlike that Louie, LeMond kept his head.
A gain of one second per kilometer was considered barely possible. LeMond more than doubled that figure to beat Fignon by eight remarkable seconds. LeMond averaged 34 mph—the fastest time trial in the Tour's history. He won with no teammates chasing down opponents. He won with no domestiques shielding him from the wind. And he won not so much on talent as on sheer force of will. "I kept thinking...what a good thing it was that I never give up early," he said afterward. "That's what it taught me. Never give up."
The Tour de France is the most sadistic sporting event in the world. Its champions arc those masochists who can suffer longest. "This sport is about pain," LeMond says. "Your legs, your chest, everywhere. You go into oxygen debt and fall apart. In the Tour de France you push yourself to where you think you can't go. The key is to be able to endure psychologically. When you are not riding well, you think, Why suffer? Why push myself for four or five hours? You have to ignore your inner voice."
Few cyclists have ignored their inner voices with such intelligence and self-awareness. And none ever put his mettle to the pedal so imperially. In April 1987—just nine months after winning his first Tour—LeMond was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law during a turkey hunt at a Lincoln, Calif., ranch. His liver and kidney were hit, his pierced right lung collapsed, and a couple of pellets lodged in the walls of his heart. LeMond almost surely would have died if a police helicopter had not been available to take him to a hospital that specialized in gunshot wounds. "I never thought I'd be the type that needed painkillers," he would say later. "You think you're used to pain on your bike, but that's not pain. The suffering you feel on your bike is nothing compared to real pain. I think of that sometimes when I ride."
His road to recovery was blocked first by appendicitis and then by shin surgery. After he missed the '88 Tour, LeMond's new team, PDM, asked him to take a $200,000 pay cut for '89. "They had totally lost confidence in me," he would recall. "They said, 'Maybe you're not going to ever come back.' " But the Sun King knew his career had not set. "No matter how dedicated you are, how seriously you train, you need a certain period of time [to get back to top form]," he said. "It's impossible to go straight there."
LeMond is not without his critics. Among the staunchest are five-time Tour winners Eddy Merckx and Hinault, the latter of whom retired after LeMond won the '86 Tour. LeMond, they snipe, lacks panache and subtlety, plays it safe and focuses on the Tour at the expense of the one-day classics and other traditionally important stage races.
"I hear the old guys criticizing me," LeMond said a few years back, "but they don't even know how easy they had it in their day. Now everybody is much better prepared and that much more competitive. People talk about there being no leader in cycling today like Merckx or Gimondi. You know why? Because there are 10 Gimondis and 10 Merckxes in the peloton today."
The enduring image of LeMond will be of a thin, crouched figure climbing up, ever up, an impossibly steep peak in the Pyrenees. His pace is steady, his rhythm inexorable. Just because the American Sun King's reign didn't last as long as his French counterpart's, it wasn't any less divine.