By John Wilcockson
Greg LeMond had a surprise visitor at L’Alpe d’Huez during the 1984 Tour de France. He was relaxing in his hotel room after placing sixth on the stage up the fabled alpine climb when there was a knock on the door. He recognized the female visitor as a motorcycle driver on the race. She said to the young American, then 23, “Greg, do you know who Bernard Tapie is? He’d like to see you in private.”
Yes, LeMond did know that Tapie was the mysterious, ambitious French businessman who that year had started a new pro cycling team, La Vie Claire, which had hired four-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault away from the then-dominant Renault-Elf squad. LeMond wondered whether Tapie now wanted him. LeMond was then a co-leader on Renault with Laurent Fignon — the young French rider who at that moment was on his way to winning a second consecutive Tour.
LeMond hopped on the back of the woman messenger’s moto and headed to Tapie’s hotel further up the mountainside ski resort. Tapie was a darkly handsome, charismatic personality in his early 40s, a sort of French Donald Trump. Tapie was a singer in his 20s, then became an entrepreneur, buying up companies that were in bankruptcy protection, turning them around, and subsequently selling them at a big profit,
Among the companies Tapie acquired were La Vie Claire (a chain of health food stores), Wonder (batteries), Look (ski and cycling equipment) and Terraillon (kitchen and bathroom scales), all of which appeared as sponsors on his bike team’s jerseys. Tapie would later buy and sell adidas France (he recently received $150 million in damages in a claim against the Crédit Lyonnais bank that handled the 1993 sale. He also spent almost seven months in jail following a conviction for fiscal fraud; served as a French government minister in the early 1990s; and was on the cast of the Claude Lelouch movie, “Men, Women, a User’s Guide” in 1996).
This was the eclectic character that LeMond went to see that July evening in L’Alpe d’Huez 21 years ago. Sitting together in Tapie’s hotel room, the Frenchman said to the American: “Greg, how would you like to make double, triple what you are making now?”
LeMond, who was the reigning world champion and on a then-outstanding $125,000 salary with Renault, said he was happy where he was. Tapie went on to explain: “But we need you to build this team. We want to make this the best team in the world … and we feel like you’re the next guy that’s going to come up and beat Hinault.”
Tapie ended the conversation by saying, “We’ll talk again after the Tour, but we want you to know that we want you.”
Discussing this conversation after his retirement in 1994, LeMond explained that money wasn’t the main factor in his eventual decision to switch teams. He also had to consider the “Frenchness” of the Renault team, particularly the dynamics between Fignon and team manager/coach Cyrille Guimard.
“I could see that Guimard was definitely going to favor Fignon,” LeMond recalled. “[But] I felt that if I could win the Tour, it was going to be with Guimard. The only thing that made me want to change was a talk with Guimard the next month. I’d kept up the conversation with La Vie Claire, and they formalized their offer to me, but I didn’t want to approach Guimard until I knew it was in writing.
“When I saw him, I just said, ‘Cyrille, I’ve got a real tough situation. La Vie Claire has offered me almost double what you’re paying me, plus the possibility of making almost three times as much with royalties [on sales of Look pedals]. I really want to stay. All I want to know is if there is any way you can come in between. I’m not asking you to match it. I just want a little bit extra.’
“I actually asked for $150,000. Guimard said, ‘All I can say, Greg, is you raced the Tour de France on one leg this year compared to Fignon, and look where Fignon is. He won the Tour. And he won it because of me. You need me. I don’t need you. I’m not giving you an increase.’
“Then he just said, ‘I guarantee that if you don’t stay with me, you’ll never win the Tour de France.’ That’s when I decided to leave.”
Being the consummate showman — today he’s a television personality and plays the title role in a detective series — Tapie threw a flamboyant news conference that winter to announce that his La Vie Claire team was signing LeMond in a three-year deal that would make the American the highest paid cyclist in the world.
LeMond said, “I let Tapie announce that it was a million-dollar contract. In reality, it was $225,000, $260,000 and $300,000 for the three years. I think that was definitely the stepping stone for cycling [in terms of salaries].”
Instead of Guimard, LeMond connected with a new coach at La Vie Claire, the enigmatic Swiss Paul Köchli, a former Tour rider who ran a coaching academy before being brought in to head Tapie’s team. With both Hinault and LeMond on board, Köchli had the makings of a dream team. Besides the two big stars, on the 1985 roster were Danish strongman Kim Andersen, Canadian all-rounder Steve Bauer, Swiss climber Niki Rütimann and a host of powerful French domestiques.
LeMond soon won the respect of his new teammates at La Vie Claire, with strong spring results — fourth at Het Volk, second in the Basque Country tour, fourth at Paris-Roubaix. Then, in their buildup to the 1985 Tour, LeMond and Hinault cruised through the Giro d’Italia. They easily controlled defending champion Francesco Moser, and Hinault ran out the winner over the Italian, with LeMond taking an excellent third place.
They were ready for the Tour….