I do not view athletes as heroes.
By the same token, I don’t believe many are solid role models given their conduct and escapades out of the arena of competition or what they will do to win.
The one exception is Greg LeMond.
LeMond is the first non-European cyclist to ever win what some claim is the world’s most grueling athletic challenge — the 30-day Tour de France. He did so in 1986. He repeated as the Tour champion in 1989 and 1990 plus has two World Championships.
Part of the reason I admire LeMond may have to do with the fact I was into road bicycling the same time he was tearing apart the world of cycling. I dabbled in racing — if you are generous enough to call it that — but was more into spending time hitting the road cycling. I went all over creation — well at least California, parts of Nevada, and New Mexico — in rain, 100-degree plus heat, fog and even six times in snow logging four back-to-back years of 10,000 plus miles. At one point I went 523 consecutive days of spending a minimum of 2 hours daily bicycling. I even bicycled 30 miles round trip to work when I could.
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LeMond raced in Manteca as a junior
Call me what you want but I wasn’t an athlete and I certainly wasn’t a bicycle racer.
Bicycling per se isn’t what sold me on LeMond.
The 1976-77 drought got LeMond into road racing. As a young teen living in the Washoe Valley in Nevada, he had already started training for his dream career as a trick skier. Mother Nature, though, wasn’t cooperating. So his father took him to a bicycle shop on South Virginia Street in Reno to buy him a racing bicycle to stay in shape for skiing.
His training route become the 88-mile loop with 8,200 feet of climbing that encompassed Spooner Summit, Mt. Rose, and Geiger Grade heading up to Virginia City. The route became my favorite as I rode it no less than 30 times during the course of 10 years.
LeMond impressed the world of cycling as a junior winning the quad busting Nevada City Classic criterium with its infamously steep grade.
His budding junior career brought him to Manteca where as a 13-year-old he raced in a criterium race in the Manteca Industrial Park. He spent a night with a Manteca family when his father — racing in the adult division — crashed and was taken to the hospital.
LeMond lived in Rancho Murieta in rural southeast Sacramento County when he was a pro rider for the La Vie Claire racing team. At the time I was 32, and had fallen in love with the “Rainbow Jersey” bicycle frame that LeMond had designed with a then revolutionary long stretch top tube that I saw him race with in the Coors Classic criterium in Old Sacramento. It set me back $2,800 — an outlandish price at the time. Twenty-six years later I still ride it and 26 years later bicycle shop mechanics still hyperventilate when I take it in for a tune-up.
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Chance encounters & didn’t realize it
Of course I had a Le Vie Claire jersey among others that I wore riding. In the dead of winter for several years I passed — always in the opposite direction — another rider with the same jersey occasionally when I rode toward Wheatland via Camp Far West, The other rider was always friendly and waved.
It was the same time that I was told by “Coyote” — a friend of my brother Ronald — that LeMond was stopping by his house a block over from where I lived in Lincoln for lunch during training rides. With a nickname like “Coyote”, I tended to believe he was pulling my leg.
Other people including Lincoln dairy farmer turned developer Joaquin Farinha also seemed to play on my fascination with LeMond. Joaquin pestered me for two weeks to go along with him to a 49er game in his RV saying I’d enjoy it because Greg LeMond and his wife Kathy were going with him. I passed not willing to fall for what I thought was a joke.
The joke ended up being on me.
On April 20, 1987 as I was putting the front page of the Press-Tribune to bed at about noon, a reporter mentioned that he had heard on the scanner about someone whose name he didn’t recognize getting shot in the Lincoln foothills while turkey hunting that morning and being airlifted to a hospital. He didn’t think it was pressing and would check on it for the next day’s paper.
By 2 p.m., the phones were ringing non-stop. We were getting calls from London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, and newspapers big and small all over France and much of Europe wanting to know what we knew about LeMond — the reigning Tour de France champion — being shot outside of Lincoln. It was big news in Europe with more than a few papers preparing to rollout special editions. To understand how big of a deal it was, for the reigning Tour champion to possibly be clinging to life for bicycle racing crazy Europe was the equivalent of planes carrying marquee NFL teams all going missing at once.
I had passed LeMond perhaps a dozen or so times with him waving at me and not even realizing it. I passed up a chance to meet him when he was having lunch a block away. And I passed upon a chance to ride to Candlestick Park and back as well as sit next to him at a 49er game.
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LeMond got Celtic greats to speak to my sister Mary
A few years later after his amazing comeback from the hunting accident LeMond won the Tour again. At the time I was covering the Sacramento Kings for the Associated Press. I always took someone to call the New York office with the short and long box scores after the game to speed things up for tight East Coast deadlines. The Kings were playing the Boston Celtics and my sister Mary happened to volunteer for the game. As the media coordinator for the Kings at the time Julie Fie was helping her get situated at a media table behind the Boston Celtics bench, I looked up and saw Greg and Kathy LeMond being escorted past the bench as the honorees to call the Kings’ court to order — a promotion the Kings did years ago.
I tapped my sister on the shoulder and said, “look Mary, it’s Greg LeMond.”
“Who’s Greg LeMond?” she shot back in a fairly loud voice.
The entire Celtic team — Larry Bird, Bill Walton, Danny Ainge and Robert Parrish to name a few — turned our way as did LeMond and his wife as they walked by.
Bird and Walton — as well as a few others — almost in unison said, “ You don’t know who Greg LeMond is?”
There were people who would have given their eye teeth to have a Celtic player from that era talk to them. My sister got at least seven of them to do so that night.
LeMond in 2001 as Lance Armstrong started his ascent accused him of doping and disgracing the sport and its riders after the Texan won his second of seven straight Tours. For that Trek dropped his LeMond bicycle brand and LeMond was shunned by many in the cycling community.
LeMond couldn’t keep quiet. His entire career was one of honoring tradition and respecting others as well as struggling to keep his cool under tremendously unfriendly pressure of being an “upstart” American who was doing the unthinkable — winning the Tour de France. The unassuming LeMond also rarely signed anything believing hero worship of athletes wasn’t exactly a healthy thing.
During last year’s Manteca-Lathrop Boys & Girls Club Telethon Chuck Crutchfield presented me with a signed LeMond jersey that took him years to find
It was a huge honor. Not just having a signed LeMond jersey but also as a gift from a man who conducts his life in much the same manner as LeMond but not as athlete but an unwavering advocate working tirelessly for kids.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.