On This Date in History: I have to confess, I was not really aware of the Tour de France until the mid to late 1980′s. My only real consolation is that I bet that I was not too much different than most Americans. ESPN had not been around too long and it was filled with the non-major sports. Largely, it was Sportscenter with Australian Rules Football and rodeo mixed in. I suspect that they had Tour de France coverage then but I really didn’t pay much attention until an American got some headlines. Cycling is one of those sports that has just got to be extremely difficult and requires perhaps the most endurance and leg strength of any sport. Americans, for some reason, never really got too enthused about it though. The Tour de France is one of the premier events of the sport and, until 1986, no American had sniffed a championship for years since the first race near the turn of the century.
A shot in the arm to the sport in America came from speedskater Eric Heiden, who had gained fame by winning 5 gold medals in speed skating at the 1980 Winter Olympics. During his career he set 15 world records on the ice. But, that wasn’t enough for him. Heiden took up cycling and even won a few American professional races and while he was doing that was working toward a career as a orthopedic surgeon. With all of his personal accomplishments, his push in the sport of cycling may have affected the most people. His goals were not just personal, but he also planted the seed for an American sponsored cycling team patterned after those in Europe. That dream came to fruition as the first American cycling team, the 7-Eleven Team. He participated on that team in the 1986 Tour de France.
While Eric Heiden was planting seeds and creating dreams, a young man from California was setting out a path to not only live out his dreams, but also make his own history. On October 18, 1978, the young man wrote out a list of goals. His first task was to win the 1979 Junior World Championship Road Race. The next was to win a 1980 Olympics Road Race. He wanted to win a professional World Championship by the age of 22 and finally, top it all off with a Tour de France Victory by the time he turned 25. The 17-year-old California Kid reached just about every goal. He won the 1979 Junior Championship and made the US Olympic Cycling Team for the 1980 Olympics but was thwarted from going farther thanks to President Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1983, at age 22, he won the professional World Championship. And, on this date in 1986, Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France.
It was not particularly odd that LeMond did not win the final stage nor that he only won one of the 23 stages. The 2010 winner, Alberto Contador, did not win any of the stages. The tour championship is determined by overall time and LeMond edged out Bernard Hinault by 3 minutes 10 seconds. After nearly 5000 km of racing, that doesn’t seem like much but apparently it was a reasonably comfortable margin. What was perhaps a little strange is that LeMond did not compete on Heiden’s American 7-Eleven team. Instead, he was part of the established La Vie Claire team that featured 5 time Tour de France Champion Hinault. There was also an odd thing about the championship due to the teammate relationship between LeMond and Hinault. The previous year, Hinault was attempting to win his 5th Tour victory which no one had done to that point. One story is that LeMond was way ahead, presumably during one stage, but was told by the team coach to slow down to allow Hinault, who was supposedly trailing just behind during that stage, to catch up so that he could be in a position to win his 5th Tour de France. As it turns out, Hinault was over 3 minutes behind and the action created somewhat of a controversy. Because of LeMond’s sacrifice, Hinault went on to win. To express his gratitude, he told LeMond that he would help him win the next year.
According to LeMond, it did not matter to him whether or not Hinault would try to keep his promise or not because he was determined to win. As any champion, Hinault was extremely competitive and so it is debatable whether or not he really was working toward the benefit of LeMond. But, in one of the stages through the Alps, Hinault rode extremely hard and it was difficult for observers to believe that Hinault was doing LeMond any favors. But, Hinault ran out of steam and LeMond survived. Later, Hinault claimed that it was all part of his strategy to tire out all of the other competitors because he knew that Greg would be the only one who could keep up. While its not likely too many people bought the story, the end result was the same. LeMond proved stronger than anyone, including, Hinault and he went on to victory. The video (titled “LeMond Drops Hinault”) of that fateful stage is grainy but it does exemplify how tough it was and the perserverance and determination of LeMond to defeat his teammate turned nemesis. Humbly, LeMond recounts that another teammate, Andy Hampsten, made a personal sacrifice to help LeMond to victory in Paris.
Greg LeMond went on to win the Tour de France 2 more times. It is quite well known that Lance Armstrong overcame cancer to win the Tour de France which is a true testiment to Houston Rocket’s head coach Rudy Tomjanovich’s admonition to “don’t ever underestimate the heart of the champion.” Armstrong’s achievement has been a true inspiration to millions of people who suffer from the disease around the world. Less known is the struggles of Greg LeMond and the obstacle that he overcame. LeMond’s website lists the event in 1986 but most accounts say it was in April 1987 that he, his uncle and brother-in-law were turkey hunting when his brother-in-law accidently shot Greg in the back with a shot gun. For that reason, LeMond did not participate in the 1987 or 1988 Tour de France. But, he came back from his injuries to win in 1989 and 1990. The remarkable thing is that he did it with 35 shot gun pellets still lodged in his body! Three of those pellets remained in his heart and five in his liver. The blast had also cracked a finger, broke two ribs and collapsed a lung. LeMond credits the medical team of Dr. Sandra Beal with saving his life. He thought that was going to die as he had lost nearly 3/4 of his blood. Yet, like Armstrong, he came back from a near death experience to reach the pinnacle of his professional.
Before Lance Armstrong, there was Greg LeMond. A great example of how, no matter how bad things get, perserverance, effort, determination and the human spirit can overcome the longest of odds. We have remarkable abilities and potential if we try. It’s something I try to get across to my students and to kids whom I visit at schools. It’s also something I need to remind myself of from time to time. You never know what can happen if you try. But, if you don’t try, it’s almost a guarantee of the result: nothing.
Weather Bottom Line: Look for the cold front that came through over the weekend to return today. While it did not bring much in the way of rain on Sunday, I don’t think we can count on that today. Look for several showers and t’storms by the afternoon. With the abundant moisture in place, if you find yourself under a t’storm it could bring some pretty healthy rain totals. The other day, I pooh poohed by earlier forecast from about a week ago that the biggest impact of Tropical Storm Bonnie would be the rains it brings to the Tennesee Valley. I had surmised that it went to West Texas. While that assessment was correct in the sense of the main shortwave energy, I think my first thought was also correct as it would appear that it swept up a whole mess of moisture and instability into Tennessee. This warm front will represent the leading edge of that stuff so, after today, look for continued hot and humid conditions but there will be a chance every day of scattered storms in the afternoon for most of the remainder of the week.