By John Wilcockson
The Italians have a great word for athletes who have intrinsic ability that allows them to be instant winners: fuoriclasse, literally “of superlative quality.” The French describe these competitors as surdoué, or “exceptionally gifted.” The closest we can come to that in a single English word is probably Superman — but that implies something supernatural. Fuoriclasse means much more than being gifted. In cycling, it is someone who has a slow pulse, large lungs, perfectly proportioned limbs, lean muscles, and, above all, the brain and mindset to utilize all those attributes to win the world’s toughest races at the youngest possible age.
This description beautifully fits cycling legends Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. Coppi started the 1940 Giro d’Italia as a 20-year-old rookie riding for Legnano team leader Gino Bartali. He ended it as the overall winner after scoring a break-out solo stage win halfway through the three-week race. Anquetil, even before he’d turned pro, and at age 19, won the 1953 Grand Prix des Nations — the equivalent of the present-day world time trial championship, except it was 140km long, not just 40! And Merckx, also at 19, rode away from the world’s top amateur cyclists to win the 1964 road world’s in an astonishing solo attack.
Very few others have attained such heights at a young age, not even Bernard Hinault (whose breakthrough at Ghent-Wevelgem in 1977 didn’t come until age 23), nor Miguel Induráin (who didn’t win his first significant international race, the 1990 San Sebastian World Cup classic, until he was 26).
For the first eight decades of road racing, no North American racers could be described as fuoriclasse because, as readers of this column know, bicycle road racing didn’t gain a true foothold on this continent until the 1970s. Once it did, it didn’t take long before an exceptional athlete emerged.
In the summer of 1975, a 14-year-old Nevada high school student named Greg LeMond saw a bike race pass by his house between Carson City and Reno. He was into hotdog skiing at the time, and his coach had told him that cycling might be a good summer exercise to increase his leg strength and improve his all-around fitness. But the bike race, the North California-Nevada state road championship, struck a note in LeMond’s psyche. He and his dad, a real estate agent, both bought racing bikes and started training.
The following spring, young Greg won the first 11 races he entered, and he soon immersed himself in the sport’s lore. A year later, still only 15, he was given special dispensation to race in the junior category (ages 17 and 18). He continued winning, and then the star-struck teenager scratched out a series of goals.
“I remember making up a list on a legal yellow pad,” LeMond recalls, “saying in ’78 that I wanted to win the junior world championship in ’79, make the Olympic team, hopefully win a gold medal. I did say win a gold medal — that was my goal. I wanted to be a professional within a year or two of the Olympics, and by 22, try to win the world pro championships. By the time I’m 25, win the Tour de France.”
Were these realistic ambitions? Or were they just the wild dreams of a wide-eyed teenager?
LeMond sort-of answered those questions in 1979 when he returned from the world junior cycling championships in Argentina as the proud owner of gold, silver and bronze medals, scored respectively in the road race, track pursuit and team time trial. The next year, after roaring through the ranks of senior amateur racing, he was one of the favorites for Olympic gold — but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to the United States boycotting the Moscow Games.
LeMond may have been robbed of his chance at Olympic gold, but the amateur racing he did in France in that Olympic year, 1980 — he won the Circuit de la Sarthe stage race and took a stage of the Circuit des Ardennes — earned him a pro contract with the mighty Renault-Elf-Gitane team at age 19.
In an earlier “Inside Cycling” column, I described how LeMond went on to take silver at the 1982 world’s in Great Britain behind a jet-propelled Giuseppe Saronni, and how the American then became the youngest-ever winner of the grueling Dauphiné Libéré stage race the following June. So if he were to complete the third part of his “yellow pad” ambitions, LeMond would have to win the 1983 world championship, scheduled for Switzerland, in early September.
The road to the rainbow jersey in those years usually passed through the Tour de France — whose 4000km of racing were the perfect base for a 270km road race a month later. LeMond was still considered too young for the Tour, so he had to find another way to prepare for the world’s. He did it by racing in late June’s Tour of Switzerland, taking a break in July, followed by some post-Tour criteriums and intense training before competing at the late-August Tour of the Netherlands.
LeMond was fourth at the 11-day Swiss tour (placing second, third and third on the three main mountain stages). He stayed at home when the Tour was taking place, and then returned to take a third place at a late-July criterium.
“I went back and just trained extremely hard in August,” remembers LeMond, who then scored a third and a fifth place in two of the Dutch tour’s four stages, finishing 37th overall.
That race finished a week before the world’s, which would take place on a hilly course at Altenrhein, in the beautiful Swiss highlands above Lake Constance.
“I remember training with [my Australian friend] Phil Anderson prior to the world championships and,” LeMond says. “I don’t know, I was just floating. I was flying. That’s why I got so darn nervous.”
Perhaps the young American was just nervously excited about his good form, knowing that after his silver medal the year before he was going to be a marked man. He should also have been nervous about his backing for the race, which would cover 18 laps of a 15km circuit.
The marathon 270km race would be too much for four of the six-man USPRO team — Gavin Chilcott, John Eustice, Erik Fetch and John Patterson had never raced that distance — while the other American was Jonathan Boyer, who, after the previous world’s dispute with LeMond, had no intention of riding for anyone but himself. Without true support, LeMond would be facing powerful national squads, such as the Italians, who were sending 12 seasoned professionals to support their top man.
So how could LeMond expect to win a gold medal in a race where team tactics are nearly always pre-eminent? Only a fuoriclasse would be able to answer that question.
I’ll write about that in my next column.