Greg LeMond is the first American to win the Tour de France, and he was skilled and gifted enough to win it several times.  However, during an off-season after one of his wins, he went hunting near his home in the Sacramento Valley with his uncle and brother in law.  The group got separated, and his brother-in-law inadvertently shot LeMond in the back and right side with a shotgun.  He was airlifted to UC-Davis hospital where he was told that he had lost 65% of his blood.  The doctors performed a series of surgeries over the upcoming months to remove the bullets from his body as he rehabbed. 

LeMond had no intentions of retiring from cycling, even though he still had 35 unremovable shotgun pellets in his body after the surgery.  Sure, he was warned that racing with three bullets in the lining of his heart and five more in his liver was risky.  He was comfortable with “risky” as part of being in a grand tour is learning to descend in the Alps at 100 kph (I know this to be true from my experience!) 

The powerful Fignon, racing on the last day of the 1989 Tour de France.

What he needed was a competitive edge that not rely on his athletic skills or his fitness.  LeMond needed to get serious in what he measured and how he measured it. 

In cycling, the only metric that gets used to determine the general classification winner is your cumulative time.  Add your total time from Day 1 to Day 20, and that is your score.  Sure, there are some little bonuses here and there that you can’t control, but your total time, you do control. 

LeMond was fast on the flats and was a great climber already.  He was pretty good in the time trials, as well, but was what missing was the measurables that make incremental differences. 

Thus, began his change. 

To start, LeMond is 5’ 10”.  In 1989, two years removed from the last time he had participated in Le Tour, he committed to the next race and he began his preparations.  He decided to race at 148 lbs.  That meant that there would be less weight to carry up the hills and less stored energy in his body in the form of glycogen and fat.  This meant he needed to eat smarter, while racing. 

He also knew that there were 3-time trials during that year’s race, with the first day, last day and a mountain day in the middle being places where it would be him against himself.  Therefore, he also spent hours and day doing wind tunnel testing to get his riding position as efficient as possible, and during that wind tunnel time, he discovered some elements of his body’s natural aerodynamic positioning that he could alter to gain an advantage.  This “ace up his sleeve” could be used to take time away from everyone, but he could only use it one time, before everyone else would see and take his idea as their own. 

LeMond did well on day 1 and he was in the lead for the race during some of the middle sections.  He was able to climb with less effort than the past, due to his reduced weight, and his team was strong to help him stay even on the flat portions of the race, where teamwork is perhaps the most important. 

Going into the last day, he was 50 seconds down on the race leader, meaning he had to make up 3 seconds per mile to win.  Laurent Fignon was in the yellow jersey at the start of the day, and he was widely considered one of the best time-trialists in the world.  The last day was a time trial.

Taking the yellow jersey from Fignon seemed improbable.  However, on the final day, LeMond played his ace.   LeMond pushed his bike to start the event with his head turning setup.  He cut off the back of his helmet, as he had learned this reduced the effect of drag on his head, and he used aerodynamic handlebars that put his arms ahead of any other body part, as he had learned that the cylinder was the least aerodynamic share with regards to wind resistance.  Instead of straight arms, he bent them, breaking up the cylinders into small, less resistive objects.  He put a disk wheel on the back of his bike (think no spokes) but used a traditional wheel in the front.  From a side profile, he was more than a foot closer to the ground than Fignon. 

Lemond with his measurable improvements

His ace wasn’t, “be better.”  He decided that he needed to “just be faster.”  Nothing slows a cyclist down like wind resistance.  LeMond was sure that he now had less wind resistance pushing against him than Fignon. 

Fignon stayed true to his perfect climbing form and probably pushed harder that day. Fignon had the lead by nearly a minute on a race that would take less than an hour.  LeMond probably didn’t have the push Fignon did, but the science of aerodynamic drag and his science of incremental gains mattered more than Fignon’s strength and confidence.

LeMond average nearly 34 mph that day and finished his time trial 58 seconds ahead of Fignon.  Up to that point, there had never been a faster time trial in the nearly 100-year history of Le Tour.  On the last day, on the last stage, LeMond was awarded the Yellow Jersey.  Fignon collapsed on the tarmac on the Champs Elysees where he sat in shock and wept.  David just beat Goliath by 8 seconds in an 80 hour race. 

LeMond had no interest in non-measurable thinking.  He didn’t say, “I am going to just do my best,” the childlike thinking that populates social media.  Nor was there any self-deceiving “recreate yourself,” or “just trying to reach my goals,” comments.  LeMond measured it all, because it all matters. 

At the heart of all those comments is an anti-commitment to measuring your efforts both truthfully and consistently.  Cycling is about leg strength, suffering, and longevity in a multi-day race.  He had an advantage that the truth of his experimentation had revealed to him, and he used it.  He played his trump card successfully.

He won Le Tour again the following year but retired a year or two later. 

LeMond set some real goals.  His goals were measurable by everyone, not just him.  What did he do?

He engaged and enlisted help (think “coaching “) to get better.  He knew his best thoughts and efforts would not give him the advantage. 

Look at the tools LeMond used to get better.  Would you have thought about using them?

  1. A small saw to cut part of his helmet off.  Who among you buys something only to cut off part of it and dispose of it? 
  2. A wind tunnel that experimented with arm position in race that uses only the legs. 
  3. His bathroom scale.  He saw the number, and liked it, but science told him to go beyond what he liked to get to a place where he was better. 

All the while, bullets sat in his body’s core. 

You have items that you can use to help you get better.  They all include measuring.  They include getting help. 

Here are a couple of simple recommendations as you ponder that most of your life you have had the same body type. 

  1. Get rid of the empty calories that you like to eat at the end of the day.  20 minutes a day of cumulative tongue satisfaction results in a body that can’t run a marathon, swim a mile, or teach your kid how to dunk a basketball. 
  2. Get on the scale and measure your progress.  Come to terms with the truth.  Expose it. Don’t get embarrassed to talk about it.  Grow up. Lead by example.
  3. Map out what you need to do, on a day by day basis to get better.  Get accountable.  Get a coach. 

After all, you have an advantage in that you don’t have bullets adrift in your body. 

Get measuring and get better.