Professional cyclist Greg LeMond was the first American to break into the European peloton and the first to win the gruelling three-week Tour de France bike race in 1986. He would go on to win it twice more - both times in dramatic fashion - and was also three-time World Champion. Hugely popular in his day, LeMond introduced the elite world of professional cycling to an American audience.
LeMond was born in 1961 and grew up in California. He was an avid athlete from an early age, focusing originally on skiing, but becoming enamoured of cycling when he saw a road race pass his home as a teenager. As an amateur, he showed great promise, placing second in the local Tour of Fresno while only sixteen - he had to get special permission to enter because he was so young. Then in 1979, he won a gold, silver, and bronze medal in different events in the junior world championships, a singular achievement. The following year, he joined a European professional team, impressing his teammate Bernard Hinault, with his ability. Hinault, himself a five-time Tour winner, predicted that LeMond would be the next great champion after him.
In 1983 LeMond won several stages of the Dauphiné Liberé; in his first Tour de France, 1984, he finished third. The next year, obeying team management, he sacrificed his own chances of winning and rode in support of Hinault, coming in second at the finish. In gratitude, Hinault publicly promised to help his teammate win the following year, but when the race came it was not to be. Though they rode over the famed mountain Alpe d'Huez together in a show of unity, Hinault was clearly riding aggressively against LeMond, who felt betrayed and bitter and rode the race for himself. After an epic battle on the roads, LeMond crossed the finish line with the leader's yellow jersey, beating the great French champion by more than three minutes.
In 1987 disaster struck: his brother-in-law accidentally shot him while the two were out hunting. Dozens of shotgun pellets were lodged in his back and legs and in very dangerous locations such as his small intestine, liver, diaphragm, and even the lining of his heart. After using a cell phone to call for help, they waited for a helicopter to airlift him out, and during the wait he came close to death: one lung collapsed, and he lost three-quarters of his blood supply. Miraculously, though, he survived: surgeons who specialized in gunshot wounds saved his life, but had to leave 37 pellets embedded in his body because of their proximity to vital organs. Naturally, everyone assumed his cycling career was over.
But LeMond was determined to race and win again. His rehabilitation process was long and painful, exacerbated by surgery for appendicitis and tendonitis. It would be two years before he would race in the Tour again. In the meantime, to compensate for lost fitness, he began to focus on technological advances which were innovations at the time but standard practice today: wind tunnel testing to improve postitioning on the bike, use of aerodynamic bicycle frames and helmets, and fitness measuring gear like heart rate monitors and power output gauges.
In 1989 LeMond returned to France, and, incredibly, beat the defending champion Laurent Fignon in the final time trial on the streets of Paris by a mere eight seconds. Soon after, LeMond won his second world championship and became the first cyclist to be chosen "Sportsman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated magazine. He won the Tour again in 1990 without winning a single stage. His final major victory was the 1992 Tour of Dupont, the short-lived American stage race; he abandoned the Tour de France that year. Soon after, he announced that he had developed mitochondrial myopathy, perhaps as a result of the lead in his body from the hunting accident, and was retiring from professional bike racing.
Since his retirement, LeMond has built a business around cycling and fitness, and has an eponymous line of bikes that is now a division of Trek Bicycles. He drove race cars for a while and did pretty well in some professional road races. More recently he's also managed to get some press - and some controversy - by intimating publicly that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong achieved his victories by taking performance-enhancing drugs. The two men's stories are similar: both are Americans who overcame life-threatening conditions to break into a European sport and win the most prestigious of the races multiple times with the assistance of tactical sense and technological innovation. Armstrong has expressed disappointment that his childhood idol would stoop to such depths, and indeed LeMond's veiled accusations sound more like sour grapes that Armstrong's fame has eclipsed his own than anything based in fact.