Saturday, September 27, 2008

Still a Fan, Greg

Greg LeMond continues to pop up in the cycling news, most recently at an Interbike press conference where he directly confronted Lance Armstrong and doping expert Don Catlan. You can hear audio from the contentious exchange here and also a follow-up interview with Greg. A video of the press conference is on Cyclefilm.com.

The public's reaction hasn't been particularly kind. Based on comments in various internet forums, I'd say the prevailing opinion is that Greg needs to drop the crusade and get on with his life. The more vitriolic comments suggest that he's a whiner who can't stand being eclipsed by Armstrong, and that he has serious emotional issues. While I wouldn't go that far, it's clear that he's obsessed with exposing Armstrong's past doping. Unfortunately that obsession obscures his primary message and his ideas for better dope-testing procedures going forward, which I believe come from his sincere love for the sport.

But perhaps I'm biased.

I fondly remember going to races in NorCal ...including bygone classics like the Tassajara RR and the Butterfly Criterium... and seeing the whole LeMond family pull up in their lime-green VW Westfalia van. A young and enthusiastic Greg would come bounding out like a skinny blond puppy dog, always with a smile and always wanting to talk about bike racing. He was equally friendly with the good guys as he was with those of us who he crushed every weekend. It was impossible not to like him even though he was the purveyor of pain once the race started!

Now I'm an average Johnny Anonymo as a bike racer, but one distinction I do hold is being one of Greg's first acquaintances outside of the Reno/Carson City cycling community where he started. His first race was the Land Park crit in Sacramento in March of 1976. We were Intermediates, which in today's system would be called Juniors aged 14-15. The field that day was small, certainly less than ten riders. Greg went fast from the gun and soon only four of us were left. Despite it being his first race ever, he was barking commands at us to rotate through and keep the speed up. The few kids left behind were probably in total disarray but Greg cracked the whip to keep us focused nonetheless.

It's been well documented that Greg won his first umpteen races, and this was the very first of that streak as he easily took the sprint. I got 3rd. Afterward he came up to me and we talked for a couple hours, sitting on the curb watching the other races. I only remember one thing from that first conversation: he said he rode the rollers two hours a day the entire winter. The significance of that dedication quickly became evident.

The next day was the Tassajara Road Race, the unofficial start of the NorCal season. Nearly twenty years later, upon Greg's retirement, Kent Gordis wrote about that day at Tassajara in the tribute magazine "Greg LeMond, the official story"...
(click to enlarge)

Greg would go on to race nearly every weekend in NorCal for the next two years, winning a substantial fraction of the time.

I was in 20-30 of those races, some of which were more memorable than others. In 1977 we were first-year Juniors (age 16-18) racing against older, bigger, and more experienced kids. That proved challenging for me, and I often struggled to hang on. One of my few decent results that year was the Butterfly criterium in Pacific Grove. For juniors and seniors it was classified as a National Prestige race, which would be somewhat analogous to an NRC event today. Fairly early in the race I managed to hold on to Greg's wheel as he escaped the pack. As I recall, I attempted to pull through but most likely provided no help at all for the few laps we were out there. Just before being caught, he turned to me and said that he would go again with ten laps to go. I actually processed that information and was later paying attention ...from mid pack... when he did indeed attack again with ten laps to go. He soloed away for yet another win. I got 10th place, which was a thrilling result for me.

One of his most memorable NorCal performances took place in 1978 at Cat's Hill where Greg, the reigning US Junior RR champ, entered the senior race, which included Wayne Stetina, the reigning Senior RR champ. I do not know why I skipped the race that weekend, but I regret it because the drama that unfolded is the stuff of legend. Thanks to NorCal cycling guru and head-honcho Casey Kerrigan who archived many old NCNCA newsletters, here is a picture and description of that day...
(again, click to enlarge)

(SB folks: note who got 3rd place that year!)

By mid-1979, at 18 years old, Greg was arguably the best rider in the US. He won many national-level Senior events and capped off the year with a rainbow jersey from the Junior World Championship RR in Argentina. His time in California was pretty much done.

The following year he was racing in Europe, and his upward trajectory continued. Here, also from the "Greg LeMond, the official story", is a podium shot from his first major victory...
(SoCal folks: note a smiling Thurlow Rogers in the middle!)

Well, not much point in me continuing the history lesson beyond this point because everyone knows it.

I feel fortunate at having been around when LeMond started racing, and enjoy reminiscing about those first couple years. I was in the right place at the right time. One point I want to make clearly is this: Greg was one of the most genuinely enthusiastic bike racers I've ever known. I never saw him get conceited or arrogant, despite the incredible success he had. I last saw him in 1981 when he returned from Europe to demolish the field at Nevada City. I don't remember talking to him that day, but I do remember him being humble in victory. Nothing about his public persona I saw in later years made me feel any different.

I think people should cut him some slack now.

[Updated, October 13th 2010]

Well, a lot has changed in the two years since I wrote this post. With all that's happened, only the most naive or delusional fans wouldn't now acknowledge that cycling has some deep and systemic doping problems. Yet, you still find two diametrically opposed opinions. There are many who feel cycling should take the path of certain other high-profile sports, only giving lip service to anti-doping while keeping the dirty laundry out of sight. Why scare away sponsors and promoters, they ask? It's an impossible problem to solve; they say dopers will always stay a step ahead of testers. Dope testing is a joke, just as it should be.

I don't share that view in the slightest. Why? For one, I cannot subscribe to a passive acceptance of cheating. Life has gray areas; sport should not... if it's in the rules, enforce it. But more importantly (to me), if doping is tacitly allowed at the highest levels, you can be sure it will become more and more pervasive in lower echelons of bike racing. It's a bleak future if juniors are faced with doping.

And maybe it's already metastasized at lower levels... Rumors are swirling that a bomb will soon drop on amateur masters racing in the US, one that would hit pretty close to home for me and some readers of this blog. I'll be greatly saddened and disappointed if the rumors prove true, because I had respect for some of the individuals involved. I liked them, and defended them when people made accusations that seemed unfounded. Yes, I was probably too naive.

Sometimes I long for the simpler, more innocent days of bike racing. And on that note, I'll leave you with another historical picture, this one from an old issue of Competitive Cycling. Here's 16-year-old Greg on the front leading the way up a hill in the National Road Race championships in 1976. Hey Greg, I'm glad you're staying on the front and leading the way for a cleaner future in bike racing.


7 comments:

Jules said...

Couldnt agree more. But it's a different world we live in when a guy does a "comeback" for plainly selfish reasons. (Really, who wins besides the big money with Lance coming back?) And now you have a proven cheat winning the national jersey? Seriously folks, does anybody have any shred of morals/scruples anymore?
Enough with the "it's all good" mentality

Marco Fanelli said...

It is a different world today, that is for sure. The innocent Leave It to Beaver world that cycling was in the 70's is forever gone.

I have mixed feelings about Lance's comeback. It is, unfortunately, another string still connecting us back to the EPO era. He is tainted, that's a fact. But, perhaps the greater good is more important, and I do believe his comeback will be a boost to the Cancer fight. (Not to mention, as cycling fans we'll be highly entertained!)

...and selfishly, I'm excited to see him rocketing up OSM and Gibraltar when he trains in SB!

Anonymous said...

I have so little belief that LeMond was drug free. He just raced before anyone cared to test.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I said it---Joe Razo

Marco Fanelli said...

Joe, That's not true actually. There was testing and riders were occasionally busted. GL's VO2Max was in the low to mid 90's which put him in a very small group of the most aerobically-blessed humans on the planet. Whether or not he doped is something we'll never know. My opinion is that he did not.

www.Bikehound.co.uk said...

Anonymous,
I'm assuming you're believing GL took steroids early on? If that is the case then why was he so against joining the EPO era? Surely if you're in, you're IN? And considering the returns would be much, much, greater, what would he have to lose?

(Came her from CN, great blog wish I'd found it when you first wrote it!)

JMP said...

Haven't read your post yet but looking fwd to doing so.