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Young American has special twist on making it big

By Larry EldridgeSports editor of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 1980



New York

Greg Lemond of Reno, Nev., is a rising young star who plans to sign with a pro team this summer and hopes eventually to hit the big money in his sport. A familiar enough story, except that Greg's sport is bicycle racing -- which means that his "ballpark" will have to be in Europe.

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"there's a lot of money to be made," the 18-year-old racer said. "It's like a star basketball player over here. But you have to go to Europe to do it. That's where the competition is -- and the money. I plan to sign with a pro team this year -- then spend the next 10 years competing over there."

This is no idle, "Breaking Away" dream, either. It's true that few Americans have ever had much success on the tough European circuit, but Greg has already proved he has the potential, winning gold, silver, and bronze medals at the 1979 world junior championships in an almost unheard-of series of accomplishments for a US racer. And he obviously isn't lacking in confidence.

"Too many Americans seem to have a negative attitude," he told me during a break in the two-week, seven-race international Grand Prix event in which he is currently competing. "they think of the Europeans as supermen -- as inhuman," he said. "I just go out there to win. I like to jump away from the pack. I've won a lot of races that way, and I feel I'm just as good as the Europeans are. I'm never intimidated by them."

Lemond was an avid skier as a young boy, and originally started cycling primarily as a means of getting in shape during the summer. Pretty soon, however, he found himself taking longer and longer tours -- and then the day came when at age 14 he entered his first race.

"It was for beginners, 13 to 15," he recalled. "I won the race, and that got me started."

Before this, Greg had played football and the other usual sports in elementary school and junior high, but by the time he got to high school he was already seriously into bicycle racing -- so he concentrated on that. He won the junior national road race at age 16 in 1977, took second in the same event and third in the junior world team time trial in 1978, then really came into his own last year.

It began with a first place in one leg of a Grand Prix series, continued with another junior national road race title, then reached a climax at the world junior championships in Buenos Aires, where he took a bronze in the 70-kilometer team trial, a silver in the individual pursuits on the track, and gold in the 120-kilometer road race.

Since then he has spent time racing in Europe and the United States while weighing his options for next year. He has several offers, and says he is leaning toward one from the top French team, Which has some 15 riders and a multimillion-dollar operation.

"One thing is different over there, though," he said. "you don't get any big contract right away. A rookie gets rookie pay -- the way it used to be in American pro sports. The big money is only for the veterans."

Greg accepts that situation, along with the fact that in cycling it almost always takes a few years to develop into a top competitor.

"These riders are so great," he explained. "There's a big difference between the amateurs and the pros. Look at Bernt Johannson of Sweden, who won the road race in the 1976 Olympics. He joined the circuit, and you didn't even hear of him for a couple of years."

But Lemond is willing to put in his time. He doesn't even expect to compete in the Tour de France (the biggest cycling event) for acouple of years, and he figures it will be a while longer until he attains the skill and experience to have a chance at winning it. But winning races like this is, in fact, his ultimate goal.

"Cycling is so big in Europe," he said. "At the end of the Tour de France, when they go around the Champs Elysees they have about 350,000 spectators. And 15 million or so watch the race at some point along the way.

"If I can do well in races like that, I'm hoping it will help to spark interest in the sport in this country."