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Thursday, March 24, 2022

Review: The Comeback

 The Comeback is a biography of Greg LeMond, the only American to win the Tour de France (all subsequent American winners having been disqualified for doping). I was familiar with parts of the story, but found the book compelling in its centering of the story around the 1989 Tour, which was won by LeMond by 8 seconds, the closest margin in tour history.

The story covers both LeMond and Fignon, but covers LeMond's childhood and rise in American cycling in much more detail, and of course his hunting accident which nearly cost him his life and ended with a few pellets of shotgun shots in his heart. It's clear that so much of unenhanced performance cycling is reliant on genetics - while LeMond was a kid winning races, his father, despite only taking up cycling because of his son, also won races as a senior, keeping up with and placing high amongst men in his 20s while he was in his 30s.

The book described with attention and detail the tenseness in LeMond's first victory in 1986, when Hinault was favored to win:

That night the Tour director, Jacques Goddet, walked up to Greg and his family at the dinner table. He congratulated Greg and said how happy he was to see an American win the Tour. Then his eyes darkened. “Be careful,” he said. “There are many who do not want you to win.” Goddet told Greg he would do all he could to protect him; but he could do only so much. “Watch your bottles,” he said. “Watch everything.” (Kindle Loc 2544)

No story of LeMond's victories would be complete without describing the rise of EPO, which made the Peloton's speed faster and faster. Daniel de Vise, the author, claims that this accounts for LeMond having won his final two victories without having won a single stage in one case. Of course, maybe his getting shot full of shotgun shells might have more to do with it --- LeMond so genetically gifted that his VO2 Max was an astounding 93, while Lance Armstrong's was 79:

Still seeking a medical explanation for his maladies, Greg consulted with one doctor after another. Finally he saw a sports doctor who was well acquainted with the peloton. “Greg, there’s nothing wrong with you,” the doctor said, according to Greg. He gave Greg the name of a prominent European colleague, a name synonymous with doping. “You need to contact him,” the doctor explained, “because if you’re not on EPO, you don’t have a chance.” (kindle loc 4475)

Doping does affect race results --- people's bodies are affected by doping differently, so the winners would be different if doping was legalized. But the story of occasional professional cyclists who died in their prime (because racers were still learning how to dope safely) probably meant that some died who wouldn't have if doping was legal and had to be done in the open, subject to safety standards. Of course, that means that the sport would no longer be the same, and people wouldn't consider sporting winners to be heroes, but I've always considered that a dumb thing to do.

Regardless, the book was compelling reading and full of great stories. Recommended.


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