Reassessing LeMond, rethinking cycling icons

Cycling coverage when I was growing up in Colombia was exhaustive. Both the fans and the press were alarmingly literate about the sport. Having said that, there was also an urge to oversimplify matters, perhaps in an attempt to make the sport more enjoyable and less like watching paint dry at times (let's face it). The most common way to do this was to break the peloton into several tiers, which themselves were bookended by two groups: the good guys and the bad guys, with a few others in between. Even as a little kid, I could see how overly simplistic the approach was.

Gods and demigods
This being Colombia in the 1980s, it should come as no surprise that all of "our" riders were the good guys. Those who rode for Cafe De Colombia or Postobon were the really good guys. Gods. Then there were those Colombians who rode for teams from other countries. They were good guys to be sure, but were downgraded to demigod status. Just ask Fabio Parra, who rode for Kelme, or Pacho Rodriguez who rode for ZOR. To this day, their popularity pales in comparison to many others who accomplished far less.

The allied forces
Colombians aside, there were also allies. Non-Colombian riders who were well liked as a result of riding for our teams (Lithuanians in Postobon, or Danes in Cafe De Colombia). There were those who had raced with panache in Colombia, or had spoken positively and respectfully to the press about Colombians, while riding alongside them. Some of these riders are still loved by Colombians to this day (I spoke with Andy Hampsten about this).

From Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper: "Thanks to God...and to Hampsten! Thanks to God Almighty, in the most critical moment—as though sent by the Holy Spirit—Andy Hampsten appeared to help the leader of the Motorola-Postobon team, Alvaro Mejia."

From Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper:

"Thanks to God...and to Hampsten!

Thanks to God Almighty, in the most critical moment—as though sent by the Holy Spirit—Andy Hampsten appeared to help the leader of the Motorola-Postobon team, Alvaro Mejia."

Bad dudes

Where there's good guys, there's also bad guys. For us, this meant the French.

Hinault and Fignon were demonized by the Colombian press, something that was only exacerbated by tales of discrimination and mistreatment of Colombian riders (see here, here and here). One such incident even prompted fellow Frenchman and Olympic road champion Jose Beyaert—at the time working for Colombian radio—to threaten Fignon, and tell him he'd gladly break his jaw if he spoke about Colombians that way again (this came up in my interview with Matt Rendell about his biography of Beyaert).

Somewhere in the middle
Then there were the riders who we were largely ambivalent about. Not disliked, not loved...just there. Dutch and Belgian riders were largely in this group, and at the top of this pile was one Greg LeMond. Surprising, considering his many accomplishments.

Some didn't care too much for him ("he's too American" they said, failing to see that if any group of riders was stubbornly hanging on to every bit of their nationality, it was Colombians), but I can't say he was disliked. In retrospect, the similarity between the experience of North American riders and South American riders should have made Colombians love the Americans. But Latin American politics being what they were/are, seeing any bit of ourselves in a gringo was beyond impossible. We were "the exploited, the victimized, the second or third class citizens under neo-colonalist rule". This had always been drilled into our head, so true affection for Americans was hard to come by (the fact that I'm married to an American would both amaze and surprise a 5-year old version of me).

Never mind the fact that at the Tour, Americans were met with similar disdain as Colombians. Forget the Colombians falling to pieces on the pavé, while the 7-Eleven team collapsed at a team time trial. And by all means, disregard the Colombians bringing foods like bocadillo and panela to Europe, while Americans had a thing for eating burritos while in France (not American food, mind you, but you get the point). Riders like LeMond were respectful of the countries in which they raced and lived. They tried to learn the language , and acclimate as much as possible. But this was lost in the shuffle. As much as we were painfully aware of how Colombians were treated due to (according to riders) their dark skin, perhaps we were unable to see past LeMond's blue eyes and blond hair ourselves. That was our loss.

Yes there were inherent differences between American and Colombian riders and teams, sizable ones. But as a young cycling fan, the similarities that existed between them were beyond me. And lost in all this, to Colombian fans at least, was Greg LeMond.

And while Colombians were largely ambivalent about LeMond, fans in the United States logically embraced him. How could they not? His youthful face was almost a caricature of hopeful American enthusiasm. But as we all know, the passionate love affair between Americans and LeMond would not last. As the Armstrong era took hold, LeMond was not simply forgotten, he was suddenly disliked. Matt Rendell has said that the unbelievable rise from nothingness to stardom is part of the sports narrative, but so too is the apocalyptic fall. But in this case, LeMond's fall (maybe using the word "fall" is a bit too strong here) was not  his own doing.

Surely people reading this blog know how the shift in public discourse about LeMond changed, and how that came to be, so I won't go over it again. But I think it's fair to say that most of it revolved, in one way or another, around Armstrong and his relationship with Lemond and his sponsors. Being that I'm a fourth rate blogger (with the reading comprehension of a fourth-grader I might add), with no real connections to the bike business, I don't know all the specifics. But the press and many in the peloton very clearly turned their back on LeMond. He wasn't just disliked, he was seen as crazy, jealous, unstable, and a fool . By and large, American fans wanted LeMond to be one thing...which he most certainly wasn't: quiet. One example of how many Americans came to view him can be seen in this description of a 4-pack DVD set , for sale at Competitive Cyclist.

And then the pendulum swung.
Fast forward to today. Surely I don't need to recap the events that led to a shift in  attitudes about LeMond. The "fool", the man who was unable to "age with class" is being hailed by all as a prophet, a genius, a hero, and (it was only a matter of time) America's only Tour de France winner.

And while LeMond is finally starting to get the respect that I think he's rightfully earned, it seems odd to me that none of the people with a prominent profile in the sport who voiced such distaste for LeMond have apologized. Perhaps they have spoken to him in private, but a slight acknowledgement of this in public could go a long way (the Andreus too are probably appreciative of the shift in opinion, but are surely shaking their heads in disbelief as they remember the climate they lived in not long ago).

For now, it's good to see that at least some publications have stopped using unusually unflattering pictures of LeMond and Kimmage (see here and here), an obvious sign that public opinion is changing,. There's a lot of chest pounding and bravado to go along with the new pictures that publications have pulled out from their dusty archives, and that's probably because there's a great and intoxicating joy in big pronouncements of moral indignation, when everyone appears to be on the same page. Just as there was a great intoxicating feeling for many in praising Armstrong during his prime. The relationship between these two sentiments is slight, but important.

In the end, those with a prominent voice in cycling have skipped acknowledging their past characterizations of LeMond, and gone straight to the part where they praise him again. And much of that praise, I would add, is warranted. LeMond was a fantastically talented rider, one who was willing to take on grand tours and one-day classics alike. He fought back from amazing set-backs to conquer impressive wins, and has been steadfast about his views regarding the sport after his retirement. All these things are true. But just as the overly simplistic manner in which the Colombian media portrayed cycling (dividing it into tidy groups simple enough for a five year old like me to understand), I think the binary manner in which cycling fans of today approach the sport seems foolish.

To these people, yesterday, LeMond was one thing. Today he is another. I think he'd argue that he was the same guy all along, but public opinion is shifting awfully fast as of late. As a result, the pedestal atop which many placed Armstrong now stands empty, and it seems like there's a sudden urge to put someone else there. After all, how could it possibly be empty?

There has been no reassessment of Greg LeMond, merely a reassignment. A shuffling around that is convenient for fans, but (I think) disrespectful in many ways. And by the way, does he even want to be up in that pedestal?

Personally, I say that pedestal too stays vacated. We don't need it, and I suspect that even LeMond might agree. Give him credit, like him, remember him, admire him, and even thank him. Hell, some should really pick up the phone and apologize to him. But just remember that the world we live in is not always easily parsed through with binary logic, and just because you turn one switch off, doesn't mean you have to turn another identical one on. Maybe LeMond and other riders like him deserve their very own place in cycling history and in the hearts and minds of fans. A different, more dignified and human place. One that acknowledges their humanity, their triumphs, and yes, their human frailties. I say this because it's their ability to achieve great feats in spite of their humanity (not because of it) that continues to draw us to cycling. So acknowledging this is paramount.