Greg LeMond is a living legend in American cycling, though his brand is even more recognized and revered outside the States. He remains the only American to win the Tour de France, and he did that on three occasions. His story is one of humble beginnings and overcoming adversity. First, he had to break through and prove himself in Europe, something no American cyclist had done before. He battled his teammate and five-time Tour winner Berdarnd Hinault, along with the French cycling establishment, to claim his first Tour victory. Then he was the tragic victim of a hunting accident that left him fighting for his life. But he fought back and won two more Tours in ‘89 and ‘90.
LeMond retired from professional cycling in 1994, in part because the practice of doping had become so widespread. His reputation was attacked throughout the Lance Armstrong era for expressing doubts, only to be vindicated when the largest doping scandal in cycling history was finally exposed. But not before his partnership with Trek Bicycles was ended in the process.
Today, Greg lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is also headquarters for LeMond Bikes. The iconic American cycling brand has been reborn.
Rob Reed (RR): You have a new company, a bunch of new models. What iteration of LeMond bikes is this?
Greg LeMond (GL): I started my bike company in 1986, after I won the Tour de France on a carbon fiber frame. I realized the importance of good equipment and especially weight. At that point when you’re racing, you race on whatever the team is sponsored by. Fortunately, I was on La Vie Claire. There was no main bike sponsor and Look had just developed the clipless pedal.
Once you win the Tour de France, in theory, you can impose things. You have a little power to insist on things. For me, I didn’t ever want to be at a disadvantage of not having the best equipment. I decided I would create a company, LeMond Bicycles.
When I got done with cycling in 1994, I was done with racing, then I started looking at how do I really build a bike business and at the same time, Trek had approached me. At that time, I think they bought Fisher, Bontrager and they came to me to see if they could buy the company. We ended up working out a licensing agreement. That started in 1995 and it went ‘til 2010. It ended prematurely in 2008. It was a very stressful partnership. At a point—at the end of, let’s say, 2008, 2010, it really—I was burned out in the bike industry and really had a bad taste in my mouth. Three or four years later, I decided I really loved design. I had a lot of good design ideas.
I also realized that if I wanted to get back in the industry, I should really try to control the supply side myself and figure out how to make bikes myself. That started me on a quest of seeing how I could build a manufacturing process here in the United States. That led me in 2015 to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We ran into a team that had invented a new process to make carbon fiber for industrial use at 50% lower cost, which is significant. I realized the huge opportunity and I’d met with the team and talked with Oak Ridge and tried to figure out how I can get into the carbon fiber business. Of course, you have to know how to make carbon fiber, which I didn’t. So I hired a whole team of inventors, and we started LeMond Carbon in 2016.
RR: And how did you start down the path of e-Bikes?
GL: I rode a couple of them in Europe back in 2013, and I really believed that the e-Bikes have a huge future in terms of transportation, but also getting people that might not ride a bike into cycling. It’s the closest thing you get to a bionic person, when you’re on an e-Bike. You literally feel like you’re in a great shape. I do believe one of the reasons people really love cycling and why it becomes addictive and why people want better equipment is the inertia. When you go faster on a bike, you create more inertia. It’s proven with more inertia, even from a physical perspective, you can work out harder in a rhythm. When you’re out of shape and you’re riding a very heavy bike, a poor-quality bike, it is painful.
Imagine going on your mountain bike with a flat tire, a brake rubbing, it’s painful. Now a high-quality bike, you’re going faster, things feel better. I really believe e-Bikes have a way to transform people into healthier people. Because cycling is a sport where, once you get to a level of fitness, it is incredibly pleasurable. You hurt, but you feel good. I think that’s where I really got excited about e-Bikes. Now there’s a huge group of people—older people are getting into it. For me it’s all about having fun on a bike. So we came up with two e-Bikes. The first one is a classic Dutch bike, and it’s my wife’s favorite bike. Mine too, if I’m riding around town. It’s a carbon fiber, 26-pound e-Bike. Then we have a bike called the Prolog, and it’s pretty much a gravel bike geometry. It’s a fairly fast but stable bike. I’ve been riding it for the last three months. I don’t think I would go back to a road bike.
RR: The Prolog reminds me of my first e-Bike experience, which was the Specialized Turbo back in 2014. I was living in LA, commuting from Pacific Palisades to Santa Monica along the beach path. I’d wake up early in the morning and go for a 30-mile road ride. Come home, shower, and then get on the e-Bike and ride to work, so I could get to work without sweating. And I would have everybody in my company come out and just try it. You could see the look on their face, that bionic feeling. They’re like, “Oh my God. That is amazing.”
You just cannot describe what it’s like to ride an e-Bike for the first time. Once you do it, you get it. I remember thinking at the time that if everybody had one of these, the world would be a much better place.
GL: That’s right. I bought my wife a Roland Della Santa—a frame builder from Reno, Nevada, he made my wife a road bike. I think she’s ridden it 10 times. That’s it. She rides the Dutch e-Bike around town. She’s putting at least three times as many miles than she has in our 40 years of marriage. I’m riding road bikes, she’s riding the e-Bike and we ride together.
RR: I have to say that the Prolog does remind me of that original Specialized, but it’s evolved in so many ways. The first thing I like is having the motor in the rear hub. I think for that type of bike—I’ve ridden some where they’re in the bottom bracket and maybe mountain bikes have to be that way. But for this type of bike, a commuter bike, I just feel it’s better in the rear hub. And you’ve somehow miraculously got the thing to 26 pounds. That Specialized was 50-plus pounds.
GL: The thing is, there’s never been a lot of good development on hub motors. In theory, the torque, the power should be equal out of a hub as out of mid-drive. I think what happened in the early rear hub motors, they had some overheating issues. I think Bosch really started to focus on the mid-drive. That became the rage.
I chose this because we have an omnichannel distribution model. One of the issues about e-Bikes is how do you service them? We can do remote diagnostics on the motor. If the customer has a problem, they can remove the wheel and ship it back. If it’s the battery, they could take the battery out, we could ship them a battery at the same time, so there’s no downtime.
RR: What can you tell me about the forthcoming road bike? Sounds like it’s shipping in the spring?
GL: We have developed a new core material that will strengthen the frame by two times, maybe three times. It’ll make the bike almost indestructible. We’ll run prototype production in March and then production in May for June delivery. We want to do a lot of iterations, but there’s so many limitations today with components, so we are literally trying to time things when we can get components. It’s been crazy, the supply chain, because of –
RR: The COVID boom.
GL: Yeah, the COVID boom. I’m really excited in this one process we’re going to bring to an aero gravel bike based off this aero road bike. I don’t believe you need two bikes. You don’t need an endurance bike, an aero bike, and a lightweight bike. It’s just going to be both. It’s going to be aero and lightweight.
RR: It’s an e-road bike, or –
GL: No, road bike. Traditional road bike.
RR: Traditional road bike. Oh, nice. Okay.
GL: Yeah, yeah. We have a whole product plan of road and gravel, both will have e-Bike versions. In 2022 we’ll have mountain bikes. When we do a mountain bike, we’re going to do it because it makes a difference between winning and losing. I want to have a reason why you’re coming up with a bike. There should be a reason that we’re doing it. We have some exciting products that we’re developing that will make things lighter and stronger and more reliable over the next 24 months.
RR: Are you going racing with these bikes?
GL: Yeah, we will. I want to have bikes and equipment that pro teams want to use, because they need to use it, because they’re going to win the race with it.
RR: Nice. LeMond back in the Tour. Let’s talk about some career highlights. How about the 1989 Tour? Can you recap that final stage and final time trial?
GL: Oh, that’s easy. I went fast. No, I think, well, if I go back before I got to that stage, I won the Tour de France in ’86. Following year, I was shot in a hunting accident, a freak accident. I did a lot of suffering. Really, almost six weeks before that tour, I was ready to give it up and just couldn’t stand getting dropped anymore. Somehow, I don’t know, released pressure, but I had some other physiological things that might have improved. At the last time trial in the Giro d’Italia, I had raced against Fignon. He was winning that race. I decided I had to really test myself because I started feeling good the last week.
I did a time trial with the same equipment, no aero bars, and I beat him by about a minute and 21 seconds in a 50-kilometer time trial. I lost the lead of the yellow jersey in ’89, I think three days before. I had two tough days in the Alps that I just wasn’t feeling good. Three days before the last smaller alpine stage going in, my legs came back. Just feeling great. I won that stage. The next day before the time trial, Fignon came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder. He said, “Well, congratulations on your second place.” I’m like, “What? You’ve lost the race.” We had the same coach from Renault. The one thing he taught me, the race is never over ‘til the finish line, ever.
RR: In that particular Tour, it was literally the case, because it was the final time trial to Paris.
GL: Right. When you believe you have it, you become cocky or overconfident. Even a road race, if you think you’re going to win it, you’d end up making mistakes tactically, you end up wasting energy.
Anyways, I went into that last stage. I felt great in the warm up. It was a very fast time trial. It started –
RR: He had, what, 40 seconds on you at that point?
GL: 50 seconds. It was 26 kilometers. It was a fast time trial. I knew that I had to take the time immediately. I knew that in his cockiness, he would start off slowly and build into it. I think I took 10 seconds in the first couple of kilometers on him. In fact, I think Fignon started panicking about the time he lost, because he was standing up. He might have lost even more time because of that. He actually did a good time trial. I do believe that. I couldn’t tell where things stood until I got to the finish line. Even then, I didn’t know if I had a 20-second, 10-second lead, or 30-second lead. Then I got to the finish. Somebody said, “I think you’re in the lead,” and I was trying to just get the information. Another minute later, they told me I won. I was like, “Holy cow.” I believed I could, but until you really win it, you never know.
RR: You’ve said that that ’89 tour was your favorite, or your most fulfilling of the three. Is that true?
GL: Well, emotionally, I mean—I won the Tour de France in ’86 and it was athletically—I think I was at the very best physically. I think I raced a race against one of the greatest Tour de France winners, Bernard Hinault. I raced against him. We were teammates.
RR: You were on the same team. Yeah.
GL: Yeah, we were on the same team, which is very unusual. I had very little teamwork. If I look at it, what’s my best tour as an athletic achievement, ’86. But ’89 really was about—I thought I was going to quit cycling. I mean, I almost died in 1987. It was good, I didn’t think about – I didn’t realize. I mean, I was really seriously injured. The trauma surgeon said, “Well, we didn’t remove your lung and you’re all there. There’s no reason you can’t come back.” With trauma like that, I lost, I don’t know. I think I lost 30 pounds of muscle mass. I was 18% body fat versus 3% or 4% at 148. I lost that much muscle mass and my right lung collapsed. That never came back.
I lost about 70% of my blood. That type of trauma takes a long time to come back. I wish I would have had some of the training tools that I had later on, with the SRM power meter, because I could have actually monitored myself, got to a better level of conditioning before I ever entered a race. Because racing is very intense. You have to go there in decent shape. I had this yo-yo cycle of – part of it I was a survivor. No team would take me as a pro after I got shot. They didn’t believe I’d come back.
I started ’89 pretty much from scratch. I tend to forget, but I had some decent results earlier on. I was sixth place at Tirreno-Adriatico. A lot going on there. I wasn’t getting paid from the team. I wasn’t performing like I wanted to. Around April, May, I really hit rock bottom. Then I went to the Giro d’Italia in the last 10 minutes of the first stage and it was just – I went from floating into the peloton, never hurting as a pro all the way. I mean, I don’t remember suffering, truly suffering, in pro racing. The only time I remember suffering was the ’84 Tour de France when I got bronchitis. And the Tour de Spain, which I also got bronchitis two times.
Besides that, almost every race I’d never suffered. The suffering was pushing myself to win or to be competitive. When you’re dropped off the back and you can’t breathe and your legs are burning all the time. I never experienced that. For two years, I rode that way. Finally, at the end of the Giro d’Italia, I started getting my legs back and I started feeling good. I’ve always used the Giro as a training race overloading myself. Then, after a week of recovery after the Giro, my legs were just flying. I still hadn’t tested myself. When I got into the Tour, I still had no confidence. I took the lead after the first time trial. Even when I got to the Pyrenees, I kept waiting to get dropped. The whole time, I was waiting to get dropped.
When I got to it, when I entered that ’89 tour, my hope was maybe a top 20 or 30 and a stage win. Then I started getting a little better. I went to top 10. Then top five and then finally, I got through the Pyrenees. I thought, well, why not top three? I got a few days in the Alps. Well, why not winning it? If you’re coming from that mindset, I was prepared to lose, because I was so happy to be back.
RR: Yeah. It’s good to be the underdog.
GL: I didn’t have expectations, but I kept surprising myself. Then I moved up the goal to win it. At the end of the day, I was just happy to be back racing. To go from literally nearly quitting the sport, in midway through the Giro, I lost another 17 minutes in the mountain stage and I said, “I just can’t do it. I’m quitting.” My wife convinced me to stay in the sport ‘til the end of the year, knowing I may regret it the rest of my life.
The pressure was intense. I put the pressure on myself for two years and I kept judging myself, every race was a do or die. You do that for two years, it gets old. When I got to the end of the Tour and winning the Tour that year, honestly, the first thing you think about is all the difficult periods. I said to my wife, “Can you believe I was ready to quit six weeks before?” That would have been a huge mistake.
RR: I don’t know that your comeback story has been well documented, at least from what I’ve read and seen. A lot of the documentaries and articles seem to skip right from your ’86 win to your ’89 win, without telling that story in between very much.
GL: It might have been because I downplayed the injury. Yet, I know that bike racers, they have no clue. I don’t think there’s been a racer ever injured like I have that’s ever come back. It was so much more severe than I even led it to be. I’m still suffering from lead poisoning from that. That’s why I said it. When I look back, I go, “I’m really glad I came back. I’m amazed I came back,” and still won two tours.
Although, I think I would have continued on doing really well. The EPO period came in and at 1991, I think I was better than ’89 to ’90, equal of ’86. I just got my rear-end handed to me. I took the lead right away in the Tour, even in a 70 kilometer time trial, I’ve lost maybe 8 or 10 seconds to Miguel Indurain. That’s the real test. The race never got slower, never slowed down on certain days, which it did traditionally, because everybody got tired at the same time.
Nobody was tired. If you’re not doing something, eventually you can’t keep up. Oxygen-wise, I still believe I had the capability of somebody on EPO. If somebody else was cheating to get on EPO, I had very good oxygen capacity, but it’s your recovery. People were recovering. It wasn’t just EPO. It was testosterone, growth hormone. Physically, I was recovering like everybody else and it hit me in the Pyrenees.
RR: Was there a moment during ’91, where you really became aware of the doping? I mean, do you recall that precise moment, like the a-ha moment?
GL: I didn’t ever think, “Oh, I’m losing because of that.” Only in hindsight, because I do remember the one stage. We had stopped for three railroad trains. We had to stop. I had never raced a stage that fast, ever. We averaged, I think, 53, 54 kilometers per hour for 140 miles, over 240 kilometers. I still remember Charly Mottet, looking at Charly going, “Oh, my gosh. We can’t understand it.”
Even then, we knew that one of my ex-teammates in PDM died of a heart attack, we suspected EPO. You hear some rumors, but it wasn’t apparent at that time. I never thought, “Oh, I’m not racing well because somebody else is cheating.” I’m just thinking, “What am I doing wrong?” Only in hindsight, I think it was really by ’92, ’93 that rumors started going around about Dr. Ferrari. The joke in ’93 was the highest paid rider in the Peloton was Dr. Ferrari, because he was getting a percentage of all these riders. He had 40, 50 riders.
If you have 200 riders in the Peloton, maybe it’s 50 in the beginning and then 75, 100, 125. When you have that many riders doping, that keeps the pace very high. Anybody else who’s not on it, they’re at a huge disadvantage. It’s funny, because I don’t even remember the last two, three years of my career, because it was worse than when I was coming back from my hunting accident. It was so fast and I was always tired. Literally, always tired. I was chronically overtraining.
RR: Did that single-handedly drive you out of the sport and into retirement? Was that the only factor?
GL: Yeah. The funny thing is though, I didn’t think that it was only that. I felt okay. I felt there was some health issues going on, because I didn’t know the advantage of what EPO, or what any of the drugs, was having. Even then, I believed people were doing something in the ‘80s too. Cortisone is what I heard. I still won. I still won. I had that same mentality, and I don’t think I looked at the dramatic increase in performance in the ‘90s.
RR: Let’s talk about the modern era for a bit. The 2020 Tour, I have to say, was one of the most exciting in my experience as a spectator. How do you rate 2020 historically?
GL: I think I would agree with you. I would say last year’s race was absolutely one of the most exciting. It was really great to watch two people from a country of two million people take first and second. I do think the racing in the last couple years is so much more like the ‘80s. You see people getting dropped, you see more fatigue. They’re going fast. I think it’s impossible to compare times on a climb. In fact, I feel bad for them, because there’s so much pressure to lose weight, lose muscle mass. In theory, if you lose muscle mass, your power to weight ratio goes up, so you climb faster. I don’t look at those times on the climbs, like some people are saying, “Oh, that’s proof of something going on.”
I think it’s an incredibly hard sport. I think the riders today have – the TV coverage is constant, radios, you’ve got the directors forcing these guys up front. It’s a very hard sport for these guys. I do think that the sport and seeing the riders race, it’s really close. There was a lot of robotic racing in previous Tours, especially in the ‘90s and 2000s. Today, you see more human suffering and faces that suffer. It really was unnatural when you saw riders get done with a mountain stage and they’re just breathing through their noses, no suffering. That’s changed, which is great.