There are no mountains in Minneapolis, so it’s odd that I live there because mountains have always been a big part of my life.
At the age of eight I moved from Los Angeles to Washoe Valley, near Reno. I remember the car drive up there from LA into the Sierra Nevada Mountains – the landscape was so dramatic compared to the city, I’ll never forget that journey. Those early years were all about hiking, fishing and camping in the mountains; the crystal clear skies, the trees, the rocks they all held a fascination for me. Then, when I started skiing, it was all about going fast, downhill.
During the summer I took up cycling as a way of staying fit and I was soon riding 15km climbs once, or twice, a week. At that stage the purpose of riding the bike was to train for skiing but that winter was one of the worst droughts ever and there was no snow, so I just kept riding. I was enjoying the sensation of riding hard and getting wiped out and then seeing how I recovered. Later in life as a pro, it was my ability to recover that helped me succeed; the last week in a three-week-long Grand Tour is where guys fall apart and where the differences are made.
During training I had time to really enjoy the mountains. I would go down to the Alps before the Dauphine or the Tour de France to do a 10-day training camp. An area that was good for training was somewhere with a lot of ramps to train on. Chambery was ideal – I could do a different course and different climbs every day.
Suffering is the difference between racing and training. You never push yourself as deep as you do in a race but that’s why I loved racing so much. In a race when you have the rabbit chasing the carrot you dig deeper, it’s almost impossible to duplicate that kind of effort in training and that’s why I did 100 races a year. When I did train I trained hard, at ‘critical endurance’, which is just below your lactate threshold. I didn’t believe in training easy, so I’d go out and do intense, seven-hour rides. In the mountains you really test your body and it takes concentration and focus, so your training has to replicate this.
In a race when you’ve suffered to reach the summit with the lead group there’s a huge sense of relief. As you pop over the top I used to think to myself, ‘here comes the fun.’ I was never nervous or scared on a descent and I never thought about getting hurt because I knew my limit. Going down is what I liked most about the mountains.
A lot of people don’t understand how far good bike handling goes in making up time on a descent but it can make the difference. I won the 1986 Tour on a descent. I was in yellow and my teammate Bernard Hinault, who was in second, went on the attack. I got stuck with Urs Zimmerman who was in third place in the GC and I expected him to chase but he just sat there and the gap grew.
There was 20km of valley riding between the bottom of the Col du Télégraphe and the Col du Glandon, and I knew that if I didn’t bridge the gap pretty quickly it would be difficult to make that up by myself. I had to make it back up to Hinault but Paul Köchli, the DS of La Vie Claire, drove up alongside in the car and told me I couldn’t ride with Zimmerman. “You must drop, him,” he said. By now, Hinault had a minute and a half on me but he had five or six riders up there working with him, including Ruiz Cabestany and Steve Bauer, and they were riding flat out.
I could see my chances of winning the Tour slipping away – I had to make it back up to the group. As we came down the Galibier and through Valloire, there’s 1km ramp that leads to the top of the Télégraphe. A few hundred metres from the summit I sprinted as hard as I could trying to drop Zimmerman. We started the descent and as we entered the first hairpin I heard his wheels lock up behind me, so I pushed on really hard and flew down the mountain. Normally it’s easier to follow another rider down a descent but Zimmerman was unsettled and I was feeling confident. I came up on Hinault so fast that I surprised him – I’d made up the 90-second deficit and I’d done it in 10km. For me it was far easier to make up that time on the descent than on the flat where there were six guys working together.
Grand Tours are won and lost in the mountains. One bad day and your GC hopes vanish. Although I wasn’t a mountain specialist I was never afraid of the climbs. My physiology was ideal for the Grand Tours, I had a VO2 max figure in the 90s plus I rode for really strong teams – Renault and La Vie Claire. The only riders I had to worry about were my own teammates; when I was at the top of my game I never really believed anyone could beat me other than Fignon or Hinault.
But I always had real admiration for climbers like Lucho Herrera. He was one of a group of Colombians including Parra who came over to Europe lacking history and tactical sense but it didn’t hold them back, and as soon as the races got to the mountains they just attacked. They certainly lacked some bike handling skills and the ability to rest and recover but they were impressive on the bike. In many ways the Columbians were like us. We came over to Europe with no pre conceptions and there had been no one before us. We carved our own path and probably changed the sport in many ways, and we certainly had our own ideas about racing and training.
That said there was only one rider who was a pure climber. Watching Federico Bahamontes ride his bike was beautiful; he just floated on the pedals and danced up the climbs. Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo, made lasting impression on me. He was truly head and shoulders above anyone else there has ever been.
Compiled by Susannah Osborne, from an interview with Greg LeMond