When Cycling Legends Retire
Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong have between them won the Tour de France 10 times out of the last 20 years, and yet their departure from the race could not be more different.
Lance Armstrong, with arms aloft, final words in Paris at the end of the 2005 Tour de France were “Vive le Tour, forever." Seven Time Tour Champion, Lance Armstrong’s retiring moments on the podium in Paris were as remarkable as the man from Plano, Texas' cycling career.
Never before has a winner of the Tour de France been allowed the luxury of addressing the crowd from the podium and cycling has never seen such a spectacular and glorious career finish.
Cycle Racing, as Armstrong himself observed in his final speech, has “no secrets”. It is a sport of unique beauty and cruelty, and it shows no respect to the weak or weary.
While Armstrong had earned the chance for final farewell words, surrounded by the glamour of the podium and in the presence of family and friends, other Champions have had a very different farewell to the sport.
Consider Greg LeMond in 1990 - he seemed to be at the top of his game. Tour de France victories in 1986, 1989 and 1990 and victories in the 1983 and 1989 professional world championship road races had already been achieved. But there was a long shadow over his position. He had been seriously injured in a 1987 hunting accident that had cost him two years of racing. By 1994 the glory years were long gone, He was suffering from mitochondrial myopathy ("I can't spell it," he said with a laugh, "but I can say it's basically dysfunctional mitochondria, which won't help me produce energy. My energy delivery system has been off whack. It's a mild state that affects my performance
at a high level but not my day-to-day living”).
LeMond had not won a race since the 1992 Tour
DuPont and he entered the 1994 Tour de France with his star on the wane. The Gan team had just signed track sensation Chris Boardman, and Boardman was to win the opening 7.2km prologue, take the yellow jersey and the publicity and spotlights that LeMond had once enjoyed. The man who had won the Tour by the smallest margin, thanks to his ability against the clock, lost 42 seconds on the first stage. Stage 4, between Dover and Brighton saw LeMond in deep trouble; he lost over 5 minutes and Stage 5 saw a further loss of more than 2 minutes.
Armstrong and Lemond in 1994. Daily Peloton.
Stage 6, 270 kilometres between Cherbourg and Rennes, was LeMond’s final day in the Tour. Unable to hold the wheels of the peloton, he slipped off the back and got off his bike. He was not even given the courtesy of being picked up by the Team Car. With the TV cameras on him for the last time in a race, he waited for the broom wagon to appear. He did not answer the questions from the huddle of reporters and fans who had gathered around but silently climbed into the mini bus that collected those riders unable to continue. LeMond sat on the back seat and picked up a copy of L’Equipe and looked listlessly at its pages.
LeMond’s exit was further overshadowed by the day's result. Later that afternoon Sean Yates took the Yellow Jersey and the Press had a field day of taking photographs of him and team mate Lance Armstrong in their Yellow and Rainbow jerseys. Motorola reported -
Motorola takes yellow, that's all there is to say. Most people looked to Lance Armstrong as the team's best chance of taking a shot at the "maillot jaune", but in fact the honour went to one of the team's most dedicated team
workers, Sean Yates.
As if riding two stages of the Tour on British soil wasn't enough for Yates, he became the second British rider in this year's event to pull that coveted tunic
onto his shoulders. In fact he is only the third "Brit" in history to do so.
He joined a breakaway that was instigated by his teammate Frankie Andreu with thirty kilometers remaining. The gap rose rapidly to over one minute, it then
looked a possibility for Yates to take the lead, even though the GB team of leader Flavio Vanzella were chasing hard.
Even after the line Yates had to look back as the clock near the finish ticked the seconds away. When it hit 38, he knew "That's it, that's all I needed" and for the first time in his thirteen year career the most famous jersey in cycling was his.
"During the race in England there was so much happening that we couldn't concentrate on the race, but when the break went today there were no slouches, I knew I had a chance but didn't want to believe it", he gasped after the finish.
Jim Ochowicz told the press, "Motorola announced to us just before the Tour de France that they would continue sponsorship of the team for two more years, this
has to be the best thank you we can offer them…"
Sean Yates and Lance Armstrong. Daily Peloton.
LeMond was never to race again after that day in Normandy. He relationship with Gan became embittered, the Team were not happy that he had "justified his salary with the necessary results" and they had dropped his salary by $400,000. In September 1994 they stopped paying him and LeMond announced his retirement from the sport shortly after that.
Five years later, Lance Armstrong, returning from the sport after cancer had nearly ended his life, won the first of his record breaking 7 wins.
No broom wagon for Armstrong. He finished on the top step of the podium, and then added one final chapter in his extraordinary relationship with the Tour de France – he was allowed to make a podium speech.
Lance Armstrong and Basso. Photo
© by Ben Ross.
The 7 times winner, looking weary after his efforts over the previous three weeks, is one of the highest paid public speakers in the world. Here is what he said (Daily Peloton comments in italics).
“Sorry, I’m going to have to say this in English, because obviously my French is not good enough.
Armstrong can speak French quite well, it was curious he did not at least say this line in French, to appeal to the local audience.
"The first thing I’d like to say is that obviously to end my career with this podium is really a dream podium
Turns to Ullrich
"This is a guy who has challenged me and our my team in the race – I’m going to get to Basso just hang on – but he has challenged us on all levels for a long time and he is a special rider and a special person.
Turns to Basso
"Ivan is, I don’t know, it is tough to race with Ivan he is too good of a friend and he is perhaps the future of the Tour de France. So Ivan, this next year maybe this is your step, or Jan maybe yours, I’m out of it so it's up to you guys.
"I could not have done this without an excellent team and an excellent sponsor in the Discovery Channel - we have absolutely the best programme in the world, the best trainers, the best soigneurs and the best mechanics and I owe them everything, a lot of great people and a lot of great years have gone into this.
"But finally the last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics. I'm sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe it. You should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people. I'll be a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live. And there are no secrets - this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it.
"So Vive le Tour for ever. Thank you!"
Lance Armstrong says goodbye. Photo
LeMond and Armstrong have between them won the Tour de France 10 times out of the last 20 years, and yet their departure from the race could not be more different.
However, looking into the faces of Le Mond in the broom wagon in 1994 and Armstrong on the 2005 Tour podium there was one constant factor.
Both men had given their all to the sport and no one can ask more than that.
Sadly, however, both men seemed bitter and isolated in their final moments.
LeMond, a great champion in the broom wagon and Armstrong still facing criticism (and lawsuits) from the “cynics”, on the podium in Paris - both had the same exhausted look behind their eyes.
Tough old game cycling racing, but then,
Cycling has no secrets.