Greg LeMond began last Friday by drawing a syringe of his own blood (by doing it himself, he could avoid fasting) and then driving two hours from his home in the quiet Belgian town of Kortrijk to the university clinic at Hasselt. There he underwent tests to help doctors figure out why he was riding, in his own words, "very poorly."
Two days earlier a strange illness had compelled LeMond to pull out of the Route du Sud—the third stage race he had had to abandon since beginning his European season in February. Now, on the eve of his 32nd birthday, the ailment was forcing him to announce that he would not compete in the event that he has won three times, the Tour de France.
"My immune system is not functioning properly," said LeMond. "I have had a hard time recovering for the last month." The illness is unrelated to the fact that he still has 30 shotgun pellets lodged in his body from a near-fatal 1987 hunting accident. "It's a combination of allergies with asthmalike attacks and a sore throat and chronic fatigue," he says. "If I start a race and I'm overtired, that, in combination with my allergies, makes my immune system get out of whack."
On the advice of his doctors, LeMond planned to return this week to his U.S. home in Medina, Minn., with his wife, Kathy, and their three children, Geoffrey, Scott and Simone. But LeMond hopes to be back in Europe next month, aiming for the world championships in Oslo, on Aug. 29.
His frazzled condition has its roots in a stormy winter in the U.S. Much of his time and energy went into reorganizing his bicycle company, which entailed the painful task of replacing his father, Bob, as manager of the firm. It created a strain in their relationship that Greg says they have since healed. In January, when it came time to prepare to return to Europe, LeMond's training sessions in California were disrupted by 17 straight days of rain.
This has been LeMond's first season racing for the French team Gan, which is paying him $1.3 million over two years. "The team is all upset that I'm not competing," said LeMond, "but there's nothing I can do. The Tour is special." LeMond won the race in 1986, '89 and '90, and he refuses to disgrace it—and himself—with a poor effort.
He speaks hopefully of next year's Tour de France, but it is a race LeMond is unlikely to win again. The Tour is won in the mountains, and LeMond hasn't been able to climb with the elite of his sport since his Tour victory in 1990. Kent Gordis, a cycling expert who has known LeMond since they raced together as youths, recently told Bicycling magazine, "In every racer I know, the sign of aging is an inability to climb." Yet LeMond has no plans to retire. After one more season in Europe, he will probably restrict himself to races in the U.S. His goal will be the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, in which pro racers will be allowed to compete for the first time. "Right now I feel fried," said LeMond, "but this is not a career-ending disease." Still, as he blew out his birthday candles last Saturday, it was hard not to think of a great career on the wane.
The ex-Tour champ will have more time for Geoffrey (left) and Scott.