An American cycling legend: Author Daniel de Visé shares his new book on cyclist Greg LeMond at the Briar Path Co-op in Grass Valley | TheUnion.com

An American cycling legend: Author Daniel de Visé shares his new book on cyclist Greg LeMond at the Briar Path Co-op in Grass Valley

Daniel de Visé
Submitted to Prospector

(Editors Note: The following is adapted from "The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France," published June 6 by Atlantic Monthly Press.)

Greg LeMond was one of the 20th century's greatest athletes and surely the finest American bicycle racer of the modern era. And it was on the roads of Nevada City where, in the summer of 1976, thousands of spectators glimpsed him for the first time.

LeMond's remarkable performance in the 1976 Nevada City Classic, which was then perhaps the largest and best-attended single-day bicycle race in the West, introduced him to a wide swath of the cycling public and helped to seed the LeMond legend.

The young Nevadan would go on to conquer Europe and win cycling's capstone event, the Tour de France, three times. Today, with subsequent Tour winners Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis erased from the books for doping, LeMond stands as the only American to have won the Tour.

Northern California wasn't always the cycling mecca that it is today. In the postwar 1950s, according to cycling historian Peter Joffre Nye, the entire state had perhaps two hundred registered racers, and most races were informal affairs.

The Nevada City Classic helped change that. It started in 1961 as a race of 45 miles, contested by fifty cyclists and witnessed by 1,500 locals, according to the official race history. Perhaps they came for the prizes, which ranged from an outboard motor to a selection of genuine gold nuggets.

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The race debut was timely. By the dawn of the 1970s, Americans were becoming swept up in a national fitness boom and the ranks of bicycle racers were multiplying. By the mid-1970s, the Classic was already one of the largest and oldest cycling events in the nation, drawing ten thousand spectators.

Greg LeMond appeared on the Northern California cycling scene in spring of 1976 and immediately turned heads. Just 14, he won race after race in the "intermediate" age classification until victory itself began to feel hollow.

Mere weeks into his racing career, LeMond petitioned racing officials for permission to ride with the "juniors," boys of 16 to 18. They approved. Now, the blond-haired boy from Reno would face a much larger field of bigger, stronger boys, many of whom had been winning races for years.

Bit by the racing bug

On June 20, LeMond entered the Nevada City Father's Day Classic (as it was then known), riding as a junior. All of LeMond's prior races had played out before a thin crowd of parents and siblings. Now, as he glimpsed the vast throng in Nevada City, LeMond imagined what it must be like to race with the pros in Europe.

At the end of the race, LeMond managed a second-place finish, behind an older and larger junior named Clark Natwick (later a three-time national champion in the cross-country discipline of cyclocross).

"It was then," LeMond said, "that I realized I could compete with some of the best American riders."

LeMond turned 15 a few days later. He was now one of the best cyclists in Nevada or Northern California in any youth division. The Sierra Nevada Sportswriter and Broadcaster Association named him athlete of the month.

An interviewer from the Nevada State Journal asked LeMond to quantify his ambitions. "I'd like to turn professional and try to win the Tour de France, [and] the world professional championship," he replied. "That's the hardest kind of racing. I would like to win the Olympic gold medal in road racing — really, any medal."

They were bold words. No American had taken any sort of medal in an Olympic cycling event since 1912. No American had ever won the men's world-championship road race. No American had even entered the Tour de France.

Then again, this was Greg LeMond. In 1979, he would return to win the Nevada City Classic, becoming just the second junior to win the senior race. In 1980, he would win again, riding so far out ahead of the pack that he "lapped" it, catching it from behind. He returned in 1981 and won again, sealing his third consecutive victory in front of 17,500 fans.

By then, the Reno Rocket was a household name — at least in Nevada City households. "[T]the cheering was long and loud when he was announced to the line," the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported.

Daniel de Visé will discuss "The Comeback" at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 6, in an event sponsored by the Sierra Express Bicycle Club and hosted by Briar Patch Co-op Community Room, 290 Sierra College Drive, Grass Valley. For more information, call 530-272-5333 or visit http://www.danieldevise.com.

KNOW & GO

WHO: Author Daniel de Visé

WHAT: Book reading and signing of “The Comeback”

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, July 6

WHERE: Briar Patch Co-op Community Room, 290 Sierra College Dr., Grass Valley

INFO: Visit http://www.danieldevise.com or call 530-272-5333 for more information