Cycling: Interview - Greg Lemond: Defender of the clean machine

THE LAST and only American champion of the Tour de France made a timely appearance on the slopes of the Alps last week alongside his potential successor. A dollar for every reference to the "New Greg LeMond" would have made the Texan Lance Armstrong a rich man long before he cashes in on what most now be regarded as the formality of his victory in the 86th Tour de France. But Armstrong would readily acknowledge his debt to LeMond, even if the comparison has not always been to his liking, a source of mystery to LeMond himself.

THE LAST and only American champion of the Tour de France made a timely appearance on the slopes of the Alps last week alongside his potential successor. A dollar for every reference to the "New Greg LeMond" would have made the Texan Lance Armstrong a rich man long before he cashes in on what most now be regarded as the formality of his victory in the 86th Tour de France. But Armstrong would readily acknowledge his debt to LeMond, even if the comparison has not always been to his liking, a source of mystery to LeMond himself.

"It seemed to bother him," he said. "He's a competitive person and a competitive rider and he wants to be himself, but if anyone had compared me to Bernard Hinault I would have taken that as a compliment." Dinner together in LeMond's home town of Minneapolis last November helped to ease the tension between the two men who have both understood, in their different ways, that the true meaning of fear and struggle can be found far beyond the confines of a mere bike race, however intense their respect for the Tour.

If Armstrong has been pushing back the boundaries of post-cancer medical research with every turn of the pedals this past week, LeMond's return from a near fatal hunting accident to win two more Tours to add to his triumph in 1986 was no less a tribute to the healing powers of France's annual sporting parade.

Armstrong's aggression on the climb up to Sestriere on Tuesday, followed the next day by a controlled defence of Alpe d'Huez worthy of Miguel Indurain, has turned the most open Tour in recent memory into a procession. "The race has fallen for Lance right from the first day," LeMond says. Like Big Mig [Miguel Indurain], Armstrong has assumed a mask of psychological impregnability; his face hypnotised by concentration, his eyes implacably fixed on some distant goal. In the current climate of suspicion, the legitimacy of the American's unexpected dominance has been widely questioned.

Armstrong is a living testament to the power of chemotherapy, but the implication in the press room and the peloton that he owes his miraculous - his doctor's word not mine - form on the road to illegal chemical inducement has found a persuasive antagonist in the former champion.

"I know it is possible to win the Tour without taking anything," LeMond says. "I know too that we Americans like to think of ourselves as cleaner than clean, a healthy nation who would never take anything when a recent poll suggested that 65 per cent of the population would risk dying in 10 years if they would be guaranteed Olympic gold. You will get guys who will do anything to win and guys who are ethical and that's the same in any sport. But cyclists are able to build their bodies up to an incredible level of fitness through a season." The 1991 Tour stage into Brittany, LeMond added, averaged speeds of just under 50km for 140 miles, only marginally below the record-breaking stage into Blois this year, which caused so many raised eyebrows. "Riders without drugs are capable of doing that. And we stopped twice for a train."

For once riding in Armstrong's wake, LeMond's return to the Tour for only the second time since his retirement five years ago marks his own continuing rehabilitation. His Tour farewell was untypically low- key. LeMond just climbed off his bike in the middle of the sixth stage on the 1994 Tour and went home. He regretted it every July when the Tour came on the television and he could not watch. "I wasn't like Indurain," he says. "He won five Tours and just got sick of it. I felt as if I was in my winter lay-off and was going to be back riding again. I had such a strong passion for the Tour and I wanted to win it more than three times. I wanted to be there so badly."

Motor racing has absorbed some of his restless spirit and a lot of his money; running his own bike company is a lucrative sideline. But the lure of the Tour remains strong. "It's hard to think that you will never do what you really love ever again," LeMond says. "I know I'll never feel that sensation of racing and winning again and that took a while to get used to. The Tour was a race I never thought I could lose."

Last year LeMond did some commentary for a French television station; this time, he is leading a group of what the Americans call "weekend warriors" along some of the Tour's more famous highways. Up Mont Ventoux, past the memorial to Tommy Simpson, and the winding road up to the ski resort of Alpe d'Huez where 13 years ago he crossed the line hand-in-hand with Hinault, his rival and team-mate, in a display of friendship which fooled no one. It means he can follow the Tour for a while, yet keeping his own distance. "It's weird to come back," he reflects. "When you get older, you experience the same feelings and smells as when you were younger. That's kinda what I'm feeling right now. I do get flashes of nostalgia."

LeMond is one of the few champions in dramatic credit with the Tour. If Armstrong should win it would be a fitting celebration of his countryman's second Tour victory, won by eight seconds over Laurent Fignon, the narrowest winning margin in Tour history, after the final time trial into Paris. LeMond's joy and Fignon's despair, so graphically captured that day, epitomised the emotional extremes of the Tour. "I felt bad for Fignon," says LeMond. "Not bad enough to give him the race, though. Fignon later told me it took him two years to get over that defeat." The Frenchman still complains that the revolutionary tri-bars which LeMond used that year were illegal. "Anyone could have used them, but it just so happened that I did," LeMond says. The advantage was later measured in aerodynamic tests: exactly eight seconds.

LeMond straddled the era when, he believes, doping progressed from being a matter of individual inclination to systematic programming. He was criticised for concentrating too heavily on the Tour to the exclusion of other races, but he knew his limits. "If I was going to ride natural, I had to pick my objectives." When he stopped he had the sense that his sport was moving away from him.

"In the Eighties there were so many horror stories from the Seventies it was felt the risk was too big," he says. "The biggest change came in the early Nineties when you heard of certain doctors on Italian and Spanish teams seeing to their riders and you could feel the pace of the peloton picking up. It became a big dilemma for many riders. A lot of my team-mates were losing their jobs because they were not performing.

"I don't believe it was ever organised before then. I was never on a team with a doctor. When someone began promoting the use of drugs in the PDM team in the late Eighties, I left the team. I mean, there are always going to be guys who will cheat, but I truly believe that all the peloton want is to be equal one way or another."

LeMond himself blew open the feudal ranks of professional cycling, bargaining for higher wages and questioning many of the established traditions in diet, training methods and equipment. Tri-bars, Oakley sunglasses and hard-shell helmets were all LeMond innovations. "I did things my way, for sure," he says. He thought it was scandalous that a rider as popular as Hinault should be paid only £100,000 a year. LeMond knew his worth more precisely but in pushing up budgets, it could be argued, he also created the riches for riders and the pressure from sponsors which made institutionalised cheating an acceptable risk.

This week LeMond will follow the Tour into the Pyrenees with his group, staying in good hotels and riding 80km or so a day. He is, he says, a bit fatter, a little more muscular than his racing trim. But his spirit is unquenchable. "I rode in a nine-day charity ride recently, averaged 43km a day and still finished in the lead group. I'm 38, not quite finished yet."

One day he would like to organise his own team, putting together the sponsorship and hiring the riders. "I don't want to be full-time in Europe, I've moved on to a different way of life, but I'd like to come back to the Tour for a week or two. There's no event like it in the world."

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