Changing the face of cycling with innovative ideas, a resilient spirit, and a deep understanding of the science of carbon fiber
As I sit in the research and testing facility for LeMond Bicycles, flashes of Greg LeMond’s story that I’ve recalled from the media over the years course through my mind. The first American Tour de France winner. A man unflappable in the face of corporate America when it was time to speak up about illegal performance drug doping in the sport. An early adopter of the carbon fiber bicycle frame. Thinking back to my earlier days I recalled my own experience with carbon fiber. I had never really connected the dots, but in a way, I have something in common with this man.
In 1973 my entire family was involved in the manufacture of custom whitewater slalom racing canoes. Fiberglass cloth, polyester, and epoxy resins were the materials of the day, but somehow my dad came home one day with a large roll of carbon fiber—then in its infancy—which we incorporated into some of our layups. I look at the LeMond bicycles around me and am amazed at just how far the use of this material has come.
Greg is an expert in the uses of this material and its potential in a variety of industries. I mention using carbon fiber when building my race boats, and he takes the lead. For the first few minutes he interviews me, truly interested in my story. It turns out that Greg and I are kindred spirits. Whenever I had heard the name Greg LeMond, “Tour de France winner” came to mind, not fly fisherman, hunter, alpine skier, and more. And so we spend some time swapping stories from the past. I even learn that he has visited High Adventure Company’s Tipiliuke Lodge in Patagonia and that fly fishing for trout is one of his favorite pastimes.
When I found whitewater canoeing as my sport, you couldn’t keep me off the river. I defined myself not as a tennis player nor as a baseball player (though I did those things), but rather as a whitewater slalom racer. I wonder about the path that led Greg to embrace cycling as his life’s passion. Turns out, the path was much more convoluted than I would have imagined: “Honestly, I was an alpine skier. I grew up on the snow. I was born in L.A. and when I was seven and half years old, we moved to Lake Tahoe…Alpine sports became what I loved.”
It’s a part of Greg’s story that I had never heard. “I was the type of kid that wanted to be doing things, rather than watching on the sidelines,” he says. And while he didn’t grow up in a family “at all into sports,” after the ’72 Olympics, which his mom watched passionately, his sister took up gymnastics. “She ended up becoming a champion on the national team. She also went to Russia to compete. So she took up that sport. And it’s kind of out of this competitiveness that I came to be a freestyle skier. That was kind of our competition.” The fight to be the most talented sibling began.
“By 1975 for my birthday because I had gotten more serious about skiing—I was mainly a mogul skier and my sister was really doing double flips and everything and I wanted to learn—my parents bought me a week camp to Wayne Wong’s Ski Camp in Whistler. So that was a big deal. When I went there, I did a flip and I don’t know how many times, but I injured my back. It was kind of weird that that was kind of my last real experience skiing. At the end of the camp, they said, you know, the best thing to get into shape for skiing is bike riding.”
This statement laid the groundwork. And I laugh as Greg tells me about the strange, coincidental experience that took him from skiing to biking. He worked all summer to earn up enough to buy a bike to train for skiing. By the end of June of that year, he purchased himself a Raleigh Grand Prix and began preparing for camp. “The day I was leaving to go to that ski camp, the national championships of cycling is on our front road blocking our way to go to San Francisco to fly to Whistler. I jokingly said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll pick cycling for my Olympic sport.’” It’s funny how things turn out.
So, there you have it: Greg LeMond didn’t wake up one morning declaring he’d be a competitive cyclist. Who knows, had things turned out differently, perhaps we would be interviewing him now about his Olympic gold medal wins in skiing. I find this fascinating as we sit together in his space, dedicated to the science of cycling technologies. But it also has me wondering how, after he fell into the sport, he found his way to the competitive sphere. Turns out, this was also by happenstance.
“There was no snow that winter, and I just happened to be in a bike shop where somebody asked if I ever thought of competitive cycling. I said, ‘No.’ And so they invited me into the Reno Wheelmen Club…They did a race on the same circuit as the national championships that were in front of my house, and I got second place out of about 40 riders.”
Things seemed to be happening for a reason on Greg’s journey. During the race, there were some national champions in the peloton—the word used to describe the lead group of cyclists in a race. “They said to my parents, ‘Wow, your son might have a lot of talent. Two weeks later, I won my first race and that hooked me.”
And so, the chapter of Greg LeMond’s story as a world-renowned cyclist began.
I know how Greg felt as a young person finding his sport. My first race hooked me, too. I began a journey across the Southeast and then to the national level to compete in whitewater slalom. But for me, those races and wins ended with small trophies and a pat on the back. For Greg, however, as he began winning, he began earning. “I made probably $2,000 worth of prizes my first year. In my second year—because I moved right up to the top—I probably made $8,000 or $9,000. And get this, at 18 years old, I made $30,000 racing my bike.”
It had to have felt like all the money in the world, I tell him. “It was really addictive, and it was really a magical period for me,” he says beaming.
Greg reiterates to me that his family, while his sister was a gymnast, was not a competitive sports family. So the time spent together doing sports was for fun and enjoyment amongst them, an almost exact parallel to my own family. And nothing was more exciting, he explains, than the day he raced alongside his dad.
“There was a race called the Red Zinger Classic. I was the youngest rider to ride it, and I should have won it but I crashed the last day, but my dad was the oldest guy to race it. He was 36th place and I was third place. That was a cool thing for us. I always think of child athletes with dominating parents and how miserable that would have made me because I was the person who pushed my dad, I’m the one who trained him. And I’m the type that it would have destroyed me having an overbearing parent. And that’s what I think was really great about it because it was something that I discovered.”
The feeling I was having was one of déjà vu, thinking of my own dad competing on the same slalom courses as I during the national open boat championships in the ‘70s.
Greg loves this sport through and through. And you can tell in the way he talks about it and the energy that exudes from his body as he does. “Cycling is truly a dynamic sport. It’s not like almost any other sport,” he says, adding after, “It’s way more dramatic, way more strategic, way more reactive.”
I sit fascinated as Greg flies through information on what goes through a cyclist’s mind during competition, like where you are on your wheel during a race and staying out of the wind. It’s always the nuances of any competitive sport that separate the winners from the losers. I find myself most captivated as he details cyclist power measurements and energy savings, proving to me that this sport requires not only a well-trained body, but a well-trained mind. My kind of sport. Greg puts it perfectly: “It’s not just the strongest that win the race; it’s the smartest.”
Greg eventually trailed away from this sport he loves. I can relate. I found myself trailing off of slalom racing, too, as I put more time into work. Though I know Greg’s story was different. After a rocky end with his long-time sponsor over Greg’s willingness and fearlessness to speak his mind about the rampant doping that was happening in the sport at the time, his interest in the competitive side of this sport waned. “That period really burned me out, truly. I lost interest in cycling. It was a sport I loved. It was my whole life. And then it was kind of like I was reduced to a soundbite,” he tells me. This chapter of his life seemed to have ended.
But it would ultimately be to our gain here in East Tennessee. I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason, and this end to competition catapulted Greg into the next chapter of his story. “About 2012 to 2013, I decided, you know what, I love design. I have a lot of ideas for products,” he says. “I had a fitness company design some really great products, but cycling was my passion and bikes are my passion. I had a lot of ideas for bikes, but I knew that I needed to control my own supply, just because of the nature of the business, and I decided I wanted really to figure out how to make bikes here in the US.”
But not just any old bike. The type of bike Greg is talking about is one of if not the ultimate carbon fiber bike made today. He told me early in our conversation that his first intro to this type of bike was back in 1986. “Bikes are really complicated to make, with basically the geometry and all the forces. And so when you’re riding, it can come apart. The first rider that used it in the Tour de France in ’84 got badly injured, so nobody would touch it.”
That’s probably why when he started out on his manufacturing path, it was challenging to find the right partners. “The first year, I couldn’t find anybody to help me build a bike here in the US. It doesn’t exist,” he explains. “I mean, there are very few carbon fiber engineers here that have any knowledge of making a bike. For me it was more of a supply chain issue. There’s a couple of big companies in the world that control the supply, and I wanted to make sure my bikes didn’t get diverted somewhere. And so I started looking at how I could do my own manufacturing here. I went to Delaware. Then I came here to Oak Ridge.”
This year will be a big one for LeMond Bicycles, which he officially incorporated in 2016. “We are going to be building frames this year. We have somebody working with us that’s in Alabama. We’re doing all the development here, and then we’re probably going to do initial production at the Alabama facility. And then we’re going to bring it up—as we produce a higher volume—to right here in Oak Ridge. This year, we’re gonna come up with a road and gravel bike made here in the US.” He adds, “Right now, we’re looking at building our first plant probably in Europe and then a second plant here within two years of making carbon fiber. So that’s our goal.”
As Greg works towards the development of a world-class carbon fiber bicycle utilizing some creative minds and research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (learn more about the science of carbon fiber at cityviewmag.com), he is also building electric bicycles, making cycling accessible to the masses, especially those of us who live in hilly locations. And his hope is that by making cycling more accessible and innovative, the nature of how the general public approaches cyclists on the road will change.
“People often look at bike riders as a nuisance, but if they could understand the benefits of cycling, it would change things,” he says. “Even if you’re an automotive driver, if you had a great cycling network, the traffic congestion would be dramatically lowered in every city.”
I walked into this interview with the knowledge of what I’d read about Greg LeMond, but I knew from the start I suspected there was more there. “I’m not just an athlete. I mean most people looked at me when the bike company started out and thought it’s because I had a licensing deal with Trek, but no. I’m involved, I mean truly into designing every speck of the bikes you’re buying, I had a part to play in every part of the design, truly.”
We are pleased and privileged to have this company in our community, but also to have a business owner who is so deeply committed to his craft. And I have a feeling that for Greg, this is just the beginning.