It remains one of sport’s most thrilling comebacks. Hunched over triathlete-style handlebars, head nodding in an aerodynamic conch-shaped helmet, Greg LeMond demolished a 50-second deficit from Versailles to the Champs-Elysées to win the Tour de France in 1989. It is still the fastest individual time trial in the event’s history.
And Mr LeMond is about to pump new life into his business career with a return to making bikes that bear his name. “I tell cyclists, if you’re not fascinated by the bike, you might as well be a runner,” he says.
The 52-year-old American is considered by many cycling experts and fans to be one of the most naturally gifted “clean” riders to have won the Tour in the past 25 years. After winning the race, Mr LeMond was almost killed in a hunting accident but came back to bag two more victories.
Mr LeMond looked set to carry into a successful business career his fascination for technological innovations – the aero helmets, tri-bars and Oakley eyewear were all LeMond firsts – until legal disputes with a manufacturer and acrimony with now disgraced Lance Armstrong punctured it.
Mr LeMond’s reputation for innovation had made him a magnet for inventors. A prototype of a lightweight helmet, for example, was brought to him in 1985 by Jim Gentes, a friend who was dating Mr LeMond’s sister. “He brought me this heavy, long-tail helmet and I said, you couldn’t pay me to wear that,” recalls the former cyclist. “But I took out a black marker and used his ideas to sketch some lines on a cheap Bell helmet I’d bought in Target the day before. I wore his second prototype in the 1986 Tour, and three weeks later Jim had 20,000 orders for the helmet.” The foam, Lycra-covered helmet helped Mr Gentes to build his company, Giro, into a successful competitor that was later bought by Bell.
“I didn’t invent the helmet, handlebars or eyewear on my own, but my mind is open to possibilities. I can spot the potential,” says Mr LeMond. “It comes from growing up in Lake Tahoe and learning to ski there, because equipment is a huge part of that experience. I’m a born sceptic, too. I was always more curious than other riders who’d just do what they were told. I wouldn’t take advice from anyone unless I trusted their knowledge.”
Mr LeMond started his own bike company in 1986, just so he could ride a bike that would keep him competitive. “At that time, the bike you rode depended on your sponsor,” he explains. “If you were given a 25lb bike by Peugeot, that’s what you were stuck with. But being a Tour de France winner gave me the freedom to build the best carbon-fibre bike I could. I wasn’t thinking at that stage about commercialising it – I just didn’t want equipment that would lose me the Tour de France.”
Mr LeMond’s racing career spanned the period when, he believes, doping shifted from individual choice to systematic use. He dared to challenge Mr Armstrong in 2001 on his relationship with infamous Italian doctor Michele Ferrari.
In 2008, Trek, the manufacturer that sponsored Mr Armstrong’s racing teams and made the bikes he rode in his Tour victories, chose to ditch the line of LeMond racing bikes it had been promoting since 1995.
Mr LeMond found himself isolated. There were lawsuits and countersuits, with Trek disputing sales figures and marketing efforts. John Burke, Trek’s chief executive, accused Mr LeMond of a “troubling pattern of inconsistent business dealings”.
“I was up against something much bigger than me,” recalls Mr LeMond. “I’d walk round bike shows and see dealers I knew but who wouldn’t look at me because of what Trek had said. I became Armstrong’s number-one enemy.” He says his lawsuit was not only about contractual issues: “I needed freedom in my life to pursue other opportunities.”
LeMond and Trek reached a settlement in 2010. Now, after Mr Armstrong’s lifetime ban from sport and confession to doping, Mr LeMond’s reputation is on the upswing and he is launching a new range of bicycles. Prototypes are almost complete and will give cyclists access, he claims, to the same kind of information that is available to professional teams.
“I want the bikes to integrate electronics and power output measurements, and have a balance of weight and strength. There’s lots of hype out there about new super-lightweight bikes, but if you’re racing down a mountain at 100km/h, you’re not going to take the lightest bike. I’m paranoid about equipment failures.”
Mr LeMond and his investors recently reacquired rights to sell his LeMond Revolution indoor training bikes, and he is keen to move into electric bikes too.
LeMond remains an advocate of transparency in this new “clean” era of cycling, when secrecy around training methods raises questions about remarkable performances.
“I want to enjoy cycling for what it is, but that becomes impossible if there’s a feeling of corruption or secrecy. It’s possible to eliminate the doubt, because the tools are available to measure power output and the maximum capacity of oxygen that cyclists can consume. I hear people saying we shouldn’t question it any more, but that’s wrong too, because people will take advantage.”
By his own admission, Mr LeMond will never be a conventional businessman. His recent offer to run Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body of cycling, was applauded because of his integrity but many doubted his ability to push pens behind a desk.
“The challenge he faces is his history as an exceedingly litigious business partner,” says cycling journalist Patrick Brady. “If he can find a business partner to bring new products to market, he is likely to do fairly well. He just has to find a business partner willing to sleep in that bed.”
Mr LeMond says that he has nothing to prove. “I don’t need to be the biggest bikemaker in the world,” he says. Having emerged from the shadows, he is enjoying a rediscovered freedom to go wherever the road takes him.
Athletes show their stamina in new careers
While many athletes lend their name to clothing lines (tennis player Serena Williams), fragrances (footballer David Beckham), video games (skateboarder Tony Hawk) and grills (boxer George Foreman), others choose to use their knowledge of their sports to advance their career.
● Craig Johnston
The former Liverpool FC midfielder invented the Adidas Predator, the best-selling football boot of all time, after trying to coach children on how to bend the ball. He went home, ripped the front off a table tennis bat and attached it by a rubber band to his boots.
The prototypes he designed were rejected by Nike, Reebok and Puma, but Mr Johnston convinced Adidas after he videoed German legends Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Paul Breitner trying them out.
● Greg Norman
The golfer is one of the busiest course designers in the world and has earned an estimated fortune of A$235m ($217m). This is thanks in part to designing more than 70 new or renovated golf courses from Bali to the Bahamas.
● Ashley Lloyd Thompson
The Californian surfer began competing at 15, before touring the world as a professional. But after trying out countless boards, she decided to make her own. Ms Lloyd Thompson has gained a following among surfers in Japan, Australia and Spain. She crafts up to 15 boards a month that sell for about $1,000 each.
● Giles Long
The British swimmer and television presenter, who won a gold medal at the 2000 Paralympic Games, created LEXI, a graphical system that explains Paralympic classification to television audiences. It comprises graphics that broadly illustrate disability types within sporting classes, with the type and level of impairment illustrated through the use of a traffic-light colour palette: green denotes no impairment through to red for a severe impairment. It was a key component of Channel 4’s coverage of last year’s Paralympics, for which Mr Long was a commentator.
● Victoria Pendleton
The UK Olympic cycling champion has designed a range of women’s bicycles for Halfords, the retailer. She also intends to design her own cyclewear range: “I’ve been wearing men’s ‘extra small’ my whole life and I think there’s something slightly wrong about that,” she recently told one newspaper.
Emma Jacobs is away
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