Is Greg LeMond a crusader out to save cycling or one massively bitter maniac?
Credit: Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty Images
His tires sizzling on the hot pavement, Greg LeMond sprints past in a blur, blond hair blowing back in the wind, still looking like the powerful athlete who stunned the world by winning Europe's greatest bicycle race more than two decades ago.

Only it isn't Greg LeMond; it's his son Geoffrey, who at 23 is a dead ringer for his old man in his glory days. "That's how he trains," the real Greg LeMond says proudly, riding beside me. "Balls to the wall."

The famous mane is now silver, and there are 50 more pounds of him than back in the day, but at 46 the elder LeMond still resembles his younger self. His eyes are the same dazzling blue, though now they seem sadder and heavier, more like those of an old hound dog than the eager puppy he was when he won the Tour the first time.

We'd spent the morning watching coverage of the 2007 Tour de France. LeMond's mind seems troubled by the race he won in 1986, 1989, and 1990. He's horrified by the extent to which performance-enhancing drugs have distorted the contest. Just the day before, a key contender had been tossed out of the race for an illegal blood transfusion – basically, for having someone else's blood in his body.

"I can't come to grips with how corrupt it has become," LeMond told me earlier. "I want to be a fan, but I know too much."

For years he barely even rode his bike, until he started riding with Geoffrey two years ago. LeMond thought it might help his son beat back the depression and substance abuse problems that had haunted him since his teens. Geoffrey has considered trying to turn pro, but LeMond opposes it because he doesn't want his son to be tempted to use performance drugs.

It's not clear he'd need to, if he has inherited the tiniest strand of his father's DNA. From the moment Greg began showing up at bike races around his native Reno, Nevada, as a teenager, he won just about everything. In a tough race up Mount Tamalpais, outside San Francisco, 15-year-old Greg placed second only to the great George Mount, who'd finished sixth a few months earlier in the 1976 Olympics.

LeMond was gifted with an ungodly VO2 max of 93; sometimes he puts it at 94 or even 95, but at any rate his would have been among the highest VO2 maxes ever recorded. (The VO2 max measures an athlete's aerobic activity; a typical fit man's score is 60.) By age 19, LeMond had a pro contract to race in Europe, so he and his new wife Kathy moved to France, and later Belgium. He won the world championships in 1983, and in 1984 he finished third in the Tour de France. "When you're good," he tells me, "you're good from the beginning."

He rode under the wing of his superstar teammate Bernard Hinault, who had basically adopted the LeMonds, kicking them some extra prize money to supplement Greg's $12,000-a-year salary. Once he even changed a tire on LeMond's Renault. The great Hinault, changing a tire for l'Americain! In 1985 he finished second to Hinault in the Tour, and finally, in '86, this blond kid with the gleaming Colgate smile led the entire Tour de France peloton onto the Champs-Elysées, a conquering hero who was nevertheless adored by everybody in France.

It should've been so perfect after that; his life an athlete's fairy tale. Yet even then there were hints of trouble to come, rumblings of conflicts and conspiracies. It started with Hinault, who had attacked LeMond relentlessly during the race, despite promising to help him win. "He was a fatherlike figure who let me down," LeMond says. "It just crushed me."

Then the legal wrangles started, a torrent of lawsuits that has continued pretty much unabated since. LeMond sued anyone who tried to use his image for profit. A series of tough negotiations between LeMond and several team sponsors yielded the highest salary ever paid to a professional cyclist – $5.5 million over three years – but also bred acrimony. "He was a businessman on the bike – the very first," says his former trainer, the renowned Dutch physiologist Adrie van Diemen.

In the spring of 1987, LeMond's life took another dramatic turn when he returned from Europe to recover from a hand injury. While hunting on opening day of turkey season, he accidentally stood in the path of a blast from his sister's husband's 12-gauge. He lost three-quarters of his blood and endured a collapsed lung. That he went on to win the 1989 Tour de France, two years later, with 35 pellets still embedded in his body – three of them next to his heart – might qualify as a Vatican-worthy act of God. Yet there he was, hurtling down the Champs-Elysées on the final day, winning the race by a razor-thin margin of eight seconds.

The next morning Americans who barely knew what a derailleur was awoke to read about Greg LeMond's amazing comeback. 'Sports Illustrated' named him Sportsman of the Year, a first for a cyclist, and the next six months disappeared in a blur of awards banquets and celebrations. "I was overwhelmed," he recalls. In 1990 he won a third Tour, staking his place among the greatest athletes ever.

He didn't know yet that this was the peak, as good as it was ever going to get. The following year he struggled to finish seventh, and each year after that the pace of the pack got faster, especially on the climbs. In one mountain stage of the 1992 Tour, LeMond finished nearly 50 minutes behind the winner. He used to win in the mountains. He quit the race the next day. "It was a very confusing period," LeMond says. "But it makes sense today."