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LIFE, UNEDITED: Yellow Jersey

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Greg LeMond remains the only American to have won the Tour de France, as a wonderful new book details.

Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Bicycling was first published in 1987. As the flash on the cover explained to the many Americans who didn’t have a clue about the author, LeMond was the winner of the 1986 Tour de France — whatever that was.

Turns out, it was a monthlong bicycle race around France, and it attracted more fans worldwide than the so-called World Series or Super Bowl. Perhaps more than the two combined.

And LeMond — a skinny, easygoing, aw-shucks, all-American kid — was the first American to win it.

His victory garnered some press coverage at the time, but few Americans cared much about bicycle racing. Greg LeMond began to change all that. And his book became a bible to those in the know who were keen to emulate him.

It was perhaps not the first guide in the United States on how to race bicycles, but it certainly made the biggest splash. And it was quite simply the best — spiced throughout with hands-on, hard-won advice. In fact, although it may be quaintly out of date in certain aspects, it’s probably still the best such book today.

I not only read the book several times over, but also committed portions to memory.

As an all-American kid myself, albeit growing up in Belgium, I knew nothing about bike racing, although I saw Eddy Merckx flash by several times in a local race in 1974. (For more on this, see “On the Bike: The Inspirations for Another Springtime of Riding.”) That inspired me to saw off the chrome fenders on my three-speed Schwinn, raise the seat, lower the handlebars, and ride better, stronger, faster. At least, sort of.

I began racing in 1998, with a copy of LeMond’s book practically tucked into the back pocket of my jersey. That book became the dirt under the fingernails for many a wannabe American bike racer. His advice on pedal strokes, sprinting, climbing — even breathing — inspired a new generation.

LeMond went on to win the Tour de France twice again, in 1989 and ’90. But to many hardcore fans, it was his victories in the World Championships in 1983 and ’89 that stand out. These races are renowned for the almost total breakdown of commercial teamwork in place of national pride — which then, too, collapses into a race where each rider rides for himself.

LeMond is celebrated in a fabulous new book out this autumn, Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer, by Guy Andrews. The coffee-table-style book is packed with photos of each season, a foreword by LeMond himself, and reminiscences from his fellow racers, including Andy Hampsten, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Robert Millar, Phil Anderson, Jeff Bradley, Kent Gordis, and others. The commentary comes only from English-speaking cyclists; it would have been enlightening to hear what the rest of the peloton had to say, including LeMond’s mentor/teammate/archrival Bernard Hinault, the now-deceased Laurent Fignon (from whom LeMond grabbed the ’89 Tour by a mere eight seconds after a month of racing), Miguel Indurian (who ended LeMond’s Tour crusade), and others.

My fave chapter is the look at LeMond’s small collection of bicycles, including his original ’74 Cinelli Speciale Corsa from his juniors years, ’83 custom-fabricated Gitane, ’86 La Vie Claire Reynolds 753 team bike, ’89 Bottecchia time trialer, ’89 and ’90 carbon TVT bikes, and more. I would have loved to have seen more bikes — some of his early custom-built Roland Della Santa frames and especially a look under the paint of the several “Huffy” bikes he raced.

This chapter reminds you that LeMond was also a pioneer on the cusp of a new era in bike racing. He was one of the first to experiment with new technology that has by and large become the status quo today, including Avocet cycling computers, Look and Time clipless pedals adapted from ski bindings, Velcro straps on shoes, concealed brake cables, disc wheels, 26-inch front wheels for time trialing, tri- and quad-spoked carbon wheels, Cinelli aero time-trial helmets, aero TT handlebars, shifters on tri bars, indexed gear shifting, Campagnolo Ergopower levers, SRM power cranks and meters, heart-rate monitors, RockShox suspension forks for Paris–Roubaix, Giro foam and hard-shell helmets, carbon frames, even those now-wacky Oakley sunglasses.

After retiring from professional cycling, LeMond became an advocate for the sport, a bicycle builder, and an outspoken opponent of drugs in sports. This latter mission led to his famous feud with Lance Armstrong, as well as the downfall of his beloved LeMond bicycle company, which was for all intents and purposes shelved by the all-American Trek, which had ridden to glory and profit as one of Armstrong’s sponsors.

These days, LeMond bikes are back as an independent. Greg’s been vindicated in his views on Lance. And he remains the only American to have won the Tour de France (after Armstrong and Floyd Landis were stripped of their wins in doping scandals).

Living in Minnesota, which LeMond has called home for years now, I see him at pro-level cycling races here as a guest of honor. And he’s oftentimes spotted on the area’s cycling trails, still an avid rider. More power to him.

Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer is a wonderful worthy tribute. And if you began racing with a well-read copy of his original Complete Book of Bicycling by your bedside table, you’ll enjoy it all the more.

Photo credits: Photos republished from Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer by Guy Andrews with permission of VeloPress. See more at velopress.com/lemond. All photos: Offside/l’Equipe courtesy of VeloPress

is an Experience Life deputy editor.