The Incredible Comeback of an American Hero

By Samuel Abt

Random House. 206 pp. $18.95

When the three-week Tour de France bicycle race started early last July, nobody listed American cyclist Greg LeMond among the pre-race favorites -- not even LeMond, who had won it in 1986. He was hoping to make the top 20.

A shooting accident in April 1987 while LeMond was hunting wild turkey in Northern California nearly killed him. Dozens of shotgun pellets tore into his right side, shoulder, legs and back. The blast broke two ribs and collapsed a lung. Surgeons cut him open to remove pellets that threatened his vital organs. More than two dozen pellets remain embedded, mostly in his back and legs, and two are still in the lining of his heart.

But on the final day of the 2,025-mile Tour de France last July, LeMond rode the perfect ride up the Champs-Elysees in Paris for the finish by the Arc de Triomphe. He raced faster than anyone had ever gone in the 86-year-old event to overcome a 50-second deficit behind French rival Laurent Fignon and win the race by eight seconds, about 100 yards. Succeeding joyously where talented Americans for decades had failed miserably, LeMond became a superstar overseas but remained relatively unknown in his own country.

In his new book, "LeMond: The Incredible Comeback of an American Hero," Samuel Abt provides insight into the man and the world of professional cycling, and writes with the grace of a cyclist sweeping a turn.

The first half of the book is a biography of LeMond, taking us to the young cyclist's victory in the 1986 Tour de France. LeMond, the first non-European ever to win the Tour, grew up in the ranch country of Nevada's Washoe Valley. He began racing in 1976 at age 14 in Northern California. He won his first four races and showed such exceptional class that he moved up to compete in older age groups. By 15 he was a contender in open competition against Olympians. With considerable support from his parents, LeMond began making excursions to France, Switzerland and Belgium, where the races were considerably longer than in the United States, the competition more intense. He continued winning and began to consider a career in cycling.

In Washington during the world cycling championships for juniors (ages 16-18) in Rock Creek Park, LeMond wrote his career goals on a yellow legal pad: to win the junior worlds in 1979, the Olympic road race the next year, the world professional road racing championship in 1983 and the Tour de France in 1986. No American had ever come close to one of these goals. Except for the Olympics, which were closed to him by the U.S. boycott, LeMond fulfilled them all.

How he accomplished these feats merits telling. He and his wife, Kathy, moved to France, learned French and adapted to life abroad. As a young professional, LeMond faced difficulties that had thwarted Americans in the past. A promised team car and furnished apartment were not forthcoming, wages were paid late, and Europeans were hidebound about cycling traditions, including diet, that were whimsical and frequently wrong. Yet he persevered with a single-mindedness that paid off.

But the 1987 shooting nearly ended his career, and his comeback makes up the second half of Abt's book. "Jamais deux sans trois," the French say, meaning trouble comes in threes. The American champion was beset by a terrible trio as he attempted to regain his past fitness. Shortly after he recovered from his accident, his appendix flared up and and he went to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Early in the 1988 season, he crashed in a race in Belgium, injuring a shin tendon that required surgery. Then he hit bottom emotionally and physically during the May 1989 Tour of Italy.

In that three-week grind, he was struggling behind second-raters. He cried in rage and frustration. From a shabby hotel room he telephoned his wife that he was considering quitting the sport if he didn't improve. But his masseur, Otto Jacome, diagnosed LeMond's ashen pallor as a symptom of iron deficiency. After a few injections, he started to make a remarkable recovery. Three weeks later, he again was dazzling the sports world in the Tour de France. The reviewer is the author of "Hearts of Lions: The Story of American Bicycle Racing" and a board member of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame.