Familiar questions raised about U.S. cycling's future

July 24, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IT WAS IN JULY 1986 when I arrived in Paris for an extended stay. I already knew more than most Americans about the Tour de France - the monthlong bicycle race that captivated that country every summer but was virtually ignored in the United States. I knew about legendary Belgian champ Eddy Merckx, and that Jock Boyer had become the first American to ride the race in 1981.

I also knew that Greg LeMond was supposed to become the first American to win the Tour in 1986. But what I didn't know is how captivated I would become by the daily two-hour TV broadcasts of each stage.

It turned out to be one of the race's epic battles. The year before, LeMond had sacrificed a sure victory so teammate Bernard Hinault could win a record-tying fifth time. Hinault was supposed to help LeMond in '86. But instead the Frenchman seemed to be going for a new record, a sixth victory.

LeMond was dazed and confused by what appeared to be the treason of his friend and mentor. The team - the storied La Vie Clair outfit - split along linguistic lines. It was an amazing drama played out on the peaks of the Pyrenees and the Alps, and on that tiny black and white screen in the corner of our apartment.

In the end, LeMond won, Hinault was second. I was on the Champs Elysee to hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" played for the first time at the end of the Tour. An unforgettable moment.

LeMond had an amazing story ahead of him. Months after his Tour win, he was almost killed in a hunting accident, hit by the blast of a shotgun. His recovery and related injuries kept him out of the next two Tours. He returned in 1989, not expecting to compete for the title. Indeed, second place seemed his fate when he lined up on the last day for a 13-mile time trial from Versailles to Paris. The 50-second lead of France's Laurent Fignon was considered unbeatable in that short distance. But LeMond overcame it, winning by 8 seconds in the most stunning and thrilling - and closest - finish in Tour history.

LeMond went on to a more conventional win the next year but then began to fade, his strength probably sapped by a disease linked to the lead shotgun pellets he carried in his body. Though that era had plenty of other good U.S. riders - Davis Phinney, Andy Hampsten, Frankie Andreu - there were dire predictions about the future of cycling in this country without LeMond.

But there were already reports coming out of Texas about a young man who, inspired by LeMond, left a promising career as a triathlete to race bicycles fulltime. Lance Armstrong soon fulfilled that early potential, winning the world championship road race in 1993 and stages of the Tour de France in 1993 and 1995 as well as a variety of other one-day races. The top-ranked racer in the world when the 1996 season began, Armstrong was the heir to LeMond's mantle. But there were doubts that he could ever climb mountains well enough to win the Tour, a victory he would need to become known beyond the cycling cognoscenti in America.

Then the cancer struck. To anyone following Armstrong's story, it was clear - he was a dead man. When testicular cancer has spread to the brain, it's just a matter of time. But, as we all know, not only did he survive, he soared, flying higher than anyone in cycling ever has and becoming one of the great sports stories of all time.

In part, his Tour de France success was, ironically, owed to the cancer. The disease took 15 pounds off his upper body, weight he no longer had to carry over mountain passes, making him a much better climber.

Armstrong won a record-breaking sixth Tour last year. But to some, he will not pass LeMond until he wins his seventh today in Paris. LeMond might well have been the first to win six - the three he won plus the one he gave up to Hinault and the two he missed because of his accident.

In many ways, LeMond's story is as inspiring as Armstrong's. He was very close to death when a helicopter plucked him from the farm in California where he had been turkey hunting with two relatives. This is what he later said about the treatment: "I never thought I'd be the type that needed painkillers. You think you're used to pain on your bike, but that's not pain. The suffering you feel on your bike is nothing compared to real pain. I think of that sometimes when I ride."

Sound familiar? Lance has said similar things about his cancer treatment.

But recovering from a hunting accident doesn't resonate with the public the way recovering from cancer does. No yellow bracelets for LeMond.

There's one thing LeMond and Armstrong do have in common - the familiar dire predictions about the future of U.S. cycling as Armstrong's tour career comes to an end.

Armstrong might well be a once-in-a-lifetime story, and the public profile of cycling in the U.S. will certainly decline without him in the peloton, but that doesn't mean the sport isn't healthy here. This Tour should end up with three Americans in the top 10 and five in the top 20 - more than any other country.

But, more important, there are a lot of youngsters out there inspired by Armstrong - just as he was by LeMond - who are trying to make their bicycles go a little faster.

One of them might win the Tour eight times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.