I was standing in the middle of my grandmother’s cabin in Maine. It was July. So, every rider knows that the Tour de France was happening. But, this was 1989. A time when you had to dig around to find what was happening in the cycling world. There was no instant gratification. You might wait days or weeks to find out what happened in a big race. But, CBS, for some reason, was covering the last day of the Tour. I don’t think it was live, but it was on TV the same day, so it might as well have been.
I was riveted to the last stage of that year’s tour. The closest tour in history. I can’t force you to feel my excitement. But I had just finished four years of intercollegiate road racing from 1985 to 1989. So, you knew Greg Lemond or you were in a coma.
Imagine that video coming through the rabbit ears into my grandmother’s old TV set next to a lake in Maine. Imagine Greg not wanting to hear his splits and driving his bike with the newfangled aero handlebars and aero helmet at 30 miles per hour. Still one of the fastest individual time trials in tour history. It was the American putting his head down to do the impossible. His French opponent was leading before this last day, a race against the clock. He had to buy back fifty seconds in 15 miles. It was just impossible. Laurent Fignon, the Parisian, wore no helmet and had drag inducing bullhorn handlebars. It was going to be a victory parade into the finish line in his home town with his ponytail blowing in the wind. No way he’d lose that much time in a relatively short time trial.
2:22 into the video below is my favorite part of that day. Fignon’s coach is yelling to him from the follow car. He yells the splits that Lemond is throwing down. You see Fignon do a double-take back to the car and then stand up out of the saddle and pedal for his life. Lemond wins by the smallest margin in Tour history. I was jumping up and down and yelling inside a cabin on Highland Lake in Maine. It’s still the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in sports. American sticks it to the Euro’s. Don’t tell me my splits. Just go. Awesome.
Now, back in the 80’s, I still idolized sports heroes. Especially in sports that I did. Cycling. Cross Country Skiing. Running. Over the years, I’ve become disillusioned. Lance. Floyd. Tyler. Cross country skiers whose names you won’t recognize. Full of drugs. I have vowed to just idolize the people who are studly in my neighborhood. People with jobs and kids who still go out and do the aerobic freak thing.
Lemond previously won the tour in 1986. The first American to do so. And now, the only American to do so, now that Floyd and Lance have been stripped of their titles. And in 1986, he did it in a famous battle with his own teammate, Bernard Hinault. Hinault won in 1985 when Lemond was strong enough to win. Lemond held back so that his teammate could win. Hinault, promised to help Lemond win in 1986. Hinault went back on his word in 1986. He fought Lemond, his own teammate. Loyalty was not a two way street, apparently. Lemond won anyway. Lemond was my hero. I’ll admit it.
Following that 1986 Tour, the World Championships were at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. (Just learned that the Worlds is returning to the US in 2015 for the first time since 1986.) I had just finished my first year going to school there. I had just finished my first year of racing bikes. And the World Frigging Championships landed in my lap. Between classes while the teams were in town from around the world, we used to get on our bikes and go out and ride around campus and try to jump in with the teams that were out practicing and checking out the courses. We couldn’t believe our luck. You might see somebody famous like Sean Kelly on your lunch break. Or Laurent Fignon. Or Greg Lemond.
The day of the World Championship road race at the Academy, I got several rolls of film and went out to go around the course and watch the best riders in the world go after it in the place where I lived. My cycling teammates and I waved the American flag in the Rocky Mountains.
On one segment of the circuit, the pack came by at thirty-plus miles per hour. I panned the camera in front of me and snapped the shutter. I swung the camera as fast as a baseball bat and hoped that somehow, I managed to get a good picture of somebody I recognized. Remember, this was film. No little screen to see how you did.
Weeks later, when I got my film developed, I found what could be the most amazing photo I’ve ever taken. I randomly snapped a picture of Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond riding next to eachother. In perfect focus. In 1986, the year of the first American victory at the Tour. Bernard Hinault’s last professional road race. At the Air Force Academy. You can’t make this stuff up.
The picture was so embedded in my old photo album, I couldn’t peel it away from the backing. Maybe I should take better care of such an amazing photo. Get it framed or something.
But, I’m more likely to frame my results from the American Birkebeiner in 2001. It was the first time I did it. I flew in from Utah, before I knew I would live in Duluth, just a short drive away from the race. I figured I couldn’t call myself a skier unless I went to the largest cross country ski race in North America. Kind of like a pilgrimage.
There was fresh snow the night before. The snow was deep and slow. Like skiing through a Slurpee. And in one of those strange convergences, Greg Lemond did the Birkie that year. I believe it was the only one he did. And I beat him. Look it up. His only Birkie and my first.
I probably shouldn’t get such charge out of that. But, I do. You’re damn right, I do.