Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson:
Greg LeMond’s first rainbow jersey
By John Wilcockson
“I’ve always felt, tactically, that I was a fairly smart rider. Everything’s timing, and you’ve got to be feeling good for that one moment when it’s gonna make the difference.”
Those words could well have been spoken by Tom Boonen, who timed his effort so perfectly at last week’s world road championships in Madrid that the first time he was seen at the front of the race was when he crossed the line as the winner. But it wasn’t Boonen talking about his rainbow-jersey victory in 2005, but Greg LeMond after winning the world’s in 1983.
LeMond seemed destined to become the first American to win cycling’s supreme title ever since he won the world junior title in 1979. And, of course, winning the pro world’s by the time he was 22 was on that list of “yellow legal pad” ambitions LeMond set down as a high-schooler. But there’s a chasm between wanting to achieve a goal that lofty and actually doing it.
As I wrote last week, LeMond came into the 1983 world pro road championship as one of the favorites, even though he had no real team to back him up. That hadn’t stopped him from taking the silver medal behind Italian Giuseppe Saronni the previous year, while his stock had greatly increased in the 12 months since that performance with overall victories at the Tour de l’Avenir and Dauphiné Libéré, and a fourth place in the Tour of Switzerland.
LeMond was pro cycling’s newest phenomenon, though the Europeans were unsure how to regard him and the new wave of English-speaking riders represented by the Australians Phil Anderson and Allan Peiper, Irishmen Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, Brits Robert Millar and Sean Yates, and the “other” American, Jonathan Boyer.
At the time, all of these riders were racing for French trade teams, where they were well regarded by their peers, but not fully accepted as leaders by their sponsors — except for the oldest of them, Kelly, around whom the Irishman’s French patron, Jean De Gribaldy, had built his Sem-France-Loire team. So in the world championships, contested by national teams, the “Anglo’s” tended to ride together, or rather not ride against each other.
That was the case between LeMond (who raced for Renault-Elf-Gitane) and Anderson (one of five “Anglo’s” on Peugeot-Shell-Michelin), who lived near each other in Belgium and nearly always trained together. Anderson was three years older than LeMond and had already gotten three top-10s at the Tour de France and won a single-day classic, that year’s Amstel Gold Race.
The more experienced Aussie and his ambitious American friend trained very hard for the ’83 world’s, which took place at Altenrhein, not far from the Swiss city of Rorschach that sits on the southern shore of Lake Constance (known as the Bodensee in German). While Boyer and the other four members of the U.S. team were booked in at a modest hotel on the Swiss side of the lake, LeMond chose to stay with his wife Kathy and parents Bob and Bertha LeMond at the luxurious Hotel Bad Schachen on the more secluded German side of the lake close to the medieval island city of Lindau.
From this base, LeMond and Anderson put in some huge training miles in the green rolling countryside bordering the lake. They followed a plan that LeMond’s Renault team coach Cyrille Guimard had mapped out. It included a hard seven-and-a-half-hour ride on the Wednesday, to prepare them for the 270km championship race (18 laps of a hilly 15km circuit) they’d be tackling four days later. That was followed on Thursday by seven more hours in the saddle, split into two chunks separated by lunch and a long nap. Friday brought a two-hour morning ride, followed up by an hour in the evening, while Saturday saw a final two-hour spin.
That evening, after a prescient interview with an NBC television crew and dinner with friends and family, Bob LeMond told VeloNews that the hotel staff “came out with a cake to wish Greg good luck. He said, ‘We’ll eat it as a victory cake tomorrow.’”
Was LeMond’s comment youthful brashness or simply quiet confidence? He knew that he was in great shape: “I was just floating,” he says. He was also more than a little apprehensive about the task ahead.
“I was so darn nervous,” LeMond remembers. “I was throwing up my breakfast; I ate three hours before the race. I took … a banana and some fruit with me in the race and ate it … and threw it up. That’s how nervous I was. So I ended up drinking the whole day, just pounding drinks. [But] I was feeling so good, and never felt like I was even close to my max.”
The race wasn’t so easy for everyone. In fact, 71 of the 117 starters didn’t finish the race. As expected, LeMond received the most support not from a largely non-existent U.S. team, but from his friend Anderson, whose presence alongside him allowed LeMond to stay relaxed in the peloton for most of the day. In contrast, the Italian national team had a full complement of 13 riders, headed by defending champion Saronni and the ambitious 22-year-old Moreno Argentin, who that season had won two stages of the Giro d’Italia and the Italian road title. If LeMond were to overcome the powerful squadra he would have to do it with perfect tactics rather than brute strength.
The course featured two climbs, both in the first half of the 15km circuit. The first, starting after 2km of flats, was a steep-and-narrow 800 meters to the Swiss-chalet village of Schüler. The second, almost 3km long, climbed past Wartensee, a castle converted to a sprawling hotel, to the course’s high point 600 feet above the lakeside start-finish. That was followed by a 4.5km downhill, with a couple of 18-percent grades, before reaching the last flat 2.3km.
The first serious move on the warm, sunny early-September day came at Wartensee on the ninth of the 18 laps. A group of 13 rolled off the front under Anderson’s impetus, with LeMond stretching his legs to join it — “just in case.” The group took a minute’s lead, but the Italians closed it down by the start of lap 11. At the top of that circuit, seven others went clear. Anderson was there again. His six companions were from six different nations: two specialist climbers, Vicente Belda of Spain and Mario Beccia of Italy, and four all-rounders, Kim Andersen of Denmark, Régis Clere of France, Theo de Rooy of the Netherlands and Serge Demierre of Switzerland. They soon had a three-minute lead.
With all the other Americans out of the race except for Boyer, LeMond was in a perfect situation. His friend Anderson was in the seven-man break, doing most of the pulling with Andersen, while Italy would soon have to start a chase. Beccia was not a prospective winner, so the Italians stepped on the accelerator with six laps (90km) remaining. Within a lap, the gap was closed to 1:39, and then the break gradually folded, with home favorite Demierre going ahead alone on lap 15.
With the 100,000 paying spectators roaring on the solo Swiss and only three laps (45km) to go, the championship seemed to be headed for an exciting conclusion. Moreover, most of the Italian team had pulled into the pits, leaving Saronni and Argentin with just a couple of teammates. LeMond knew that the moment had come to “make the difference.”
“I think it was Robert Millar [of Britain] who did an attack with two-and-a-half laps [38 kilometers] to go,” LeMond recalls. “That was a good moment [to make a move]. I remember going after [Millar], passing him — whoosh! And then Moreno Argentin and [Faustino Ruperez of Spain] came up.”
Demierre was caught on the descent by LeMond, Argentin and Ruperez — a solid Spanish climber who had placed top 10 at that year’s Giro and Vuelta. When the four reached the end of the lap with 26 seconds’ lead, and with two more laps to go, it looked like the winning break had been formed because the Italians were banking on Argentin. But after Demierre fell back on the first of lap 17’s hills, the Venetian shockingly cracked on the climb to Wartensee.
“From that day, Argentin hated me,” LeMond comments. “I think he got so much crap from the Italian team for working with me and then getting dropped that he took it out on me [in subsequent years].”
With Argentin gone, Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon of France tried to bridge across the growing gap to LeMond and Ruperez, but he soon faded, and the two breakaways took the bell with a lead of 72 seconds over the 38-strong peloton. “All I remember is just feeling good and holding it till the last lap. I didn’t want it to come down to a sprint,” says LeMond, who seemed to have the measure of the surprisingly strong Ruperez. “Just before the summit [on lap 17], I put a little pressure on my pedals and Ruperez came off, only a meter or so, but I didn’t want to attack him then. I knew that I’d attack him — not really attack but just increase the tempo — on the first climb of the [last] lap. It worked.”
Not only did it work, but by the top of the Wartensee climb he was 38 seconds ahead of the Spaniard, who was being chased by Roche, Dutchman Adri Van der Poel and Belgian Claude Criquielion. These four joined forces on the descent but they never looked like catching the blond American, who rode the final 11km alone to win the race by 1:11 ahead of the second-place sprint taken by Van der Poel from Roche, Ruperez and Criquielion.
The radiant LeMond, who had trained for and timed his race perfectly, was mobbed by thousands of fans that invaded the finishing area. Some pulled at his stars-and-stripes jersey, others grabbed at his hair. When the peloton arrived 1:36 back (Kelly took the sprint from Anderson), several riders crashed into the mob. Spectators were falling over themselves, it was hard to breathe, and LeMond’s mom was almost knocked on her back.
“Now I know what it’s like to be a rock star,” said Bob LeMond, as his son finally extricated himself and mounted the podium to receive his awards. He was presented with the white jersey that has rainbow stripes around the chest, a UCI gold medal, and a heavy, brass cowbell that reminded him of the herds of Swiss cattle he’d passed during his long training rides earlier in the week.
LeMond’s victory received a mixed reaction from the European riders. Some were respectful, others were angry that a 22-year-old American kid had “stolen” their rainbow jersey, which never before had left the Continent. But the media generally hailed LeMond as a true champion, perhaps one who’d prove to be the natural successor to Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, the most recent men to have won the rainbow jersey and gone on to take multiple Tours de France.
Greg LeMond wouldn’t make his Tour debut until the following year. But that story will have to wait for another edition of “Inside Cycling.”