A Yank hero in France

MONDAY BOOK REVIEWS

October 08, 1990|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Stephanie Shapiro is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

LeMOND: The Incredible Comeback of an American Hero," by Samuel Abt. Random House. $18.95. 206 pages.

ONE SUMMER, on an American Youth Hostel tour, I wabicycling in France during Tour de France season. Flying into villages along the Loire, we fancied ourselves racers in a dead heat for the yellow jersey -- le maillot jaune -- which belonged to the daily victor of the 23-day, 2,000-mile race.

"Tour de France, Tour de France," we yelled, as if to warn the indifferent French that we had arrived. And then one member of the tour would call out the name of one of the greats, five-time tour winner Eddy Merckx, to really grab attention.

Later, we viewed the day's reruns of the real Tour de France on storefront television screens.

Back then, in the late 1960s, we bicycle fanatics were just coasting in the draft of a sport alien to most Americans. No non-European, let alone American, had won the Tour de France. But in 1986, at the age of 26, American Greg LeMond became the first non-European to win the race that engenders a patriotic zeal American sports fans cannot match even in their wildest frenzies.

Undeterred by a life-threatening hunting accident, an appendectomy, untold viruses, bike injuries and a severe case of anemia, LeMond went on to win the Tour de France in 1989 and in 1990.

As he did so, LeMond, a stunning athlete with a will to match, has both endeared and alienated himself from the European bicycling establishment. In his consummately American approach to a sport characterized by arcane rules of etiquette, a punishing cycling season, superstitions about diet and a strict training regimen, LeMond has sparked lively debate.

His focus on winning the tour at the expense of other races, penchant for burgers and unorthodox racing strategies have irked some of the greats, including Merckx, who claims LeMond has no panache.

Samuel Abt's book is less a comprehensive biography than a time trial for cognoscenti -- those already familiar with the insular world of bicycle racing who savor racing minutiae, team talk and competitive gossip.

At a quick clip, Abt paints a picture of LeMond as a magnificent athlete, who by virtue of nationality and misfortune has become a perennial underdog. Though by now a household word in Europe, he is still obscure enough in the United States to be excoriated on sports talk shows for having been named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 1989, as opposed to some pro football hulk. This is also the LeMond, the family man, who can be quite generous with his earnings and advice.

But another LeMond surfaces in this book -- one who can be quite bitter about the difficulties of breaking into a European pastime, lost races, his stormy relationships with sponsors, former mentors and his less salary-conscious colleagues.

This is the LeMond who speaks pure and simple capitalism: "People think I'm in it for the money, but I think I deserve the money that is correct for my market value."

Abt, a former copy editor at The Sun and now deputy editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, has covered the Tour de France for that newspaper and for the New York Times since 1977. For the most part, he offers a breathless portrait of a fascinating hero who broke into a sport and claimed it, against fabulous odds, as his own.

However, Abt's admiration for LeMond occasionally takes on a defensive caste, as he allows the athlete to make excuses for races he dropped out of or did not win.

This is not becoming or inspiring conduct for a champion as talented as LeMond.

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