Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Last Rider: The Greg LeMond Comeback Story

Cycling's greatest showpiece event has lost seven years of its history. With that in mind, Greg LeMond’s final 1990 Tour de France victory does not seem quite as long ago. That was the last time an American won the Tour, fair and square. However, LeMond’s 1989 Tour de France was more dramatic and more hard-fought. Alex Holmes chronicles LeMond’s career, placing special focus on the 1989 Tour de France in the documentary, The Last Rider, which opens this Friday in New York.

Greg LeMond was the great American cycling hope, at a time when most Americans hardly spared a thought for the sport. The young cyclist’s talent was so evident, he was recruited for the legendary Bernard Hinault’s team. After helping Hinault win his fifth Tour de France, LeMond was promised 1986 would be his turn. However, he was betrayed by his team, his coach, and his mentor. John Dower’s excellent documentary
Slaying the Badger covered that race stage-by-stage, whereas Holmes gives the broad strokes, saving the fine detail for the 1989 Tour. In between, LeMond suffered a life-threatening hunting accident that temporarily shattered his body and his confidence.

Nobody expected LeMond to be in contention when he returned to the Tour de France in 1989. Most of the attention was on Pedro Delgado (one of the film’s other primary talking heads) and Laurent Fignon, who died in 2010. Each rider had his highs and lows. However, Fignon’s nasty behavior in the media does not exactly burnish his reputation.

Holmes previously featured Greg LeMond and his wife Kathy at great length in
Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing, an expose of Armstrong’s criminal enterprise and his attempts to smear critics, like the LeMonds. Holmes’s two cycling docs and Dower’s film together provide a comprehensive portrait of LeMond. However, each film individually fully establishes the cyclist as a sympathetic underdog champion, of tremendous resilience and integrity. Obviously, he is a much more worthy role model than Armstrong ever was.

Holmes skillfully builds up the suspense of the 1989 Tour de France for viewers who are not intimately familiar with the back-and-forth history. Even if they are, they are likely to get caught up in the tension, as the Lemonds and Delgado relive it all. Clearly, Holmes was blessed with a lot of amazing archival film from the live coverage of the race. Those 1980s film crews really did a heck of a job.

The LeMonds also went through a heck of a lot together, which they discuss with frankness that is downright courageous. Given the adversity he faced, LeMond should be considered one of the great American athletes. He is the only American to ever win the Tour de France, now that Armstrong and Floyd Landis have been stripped of their victories. Both of Holmes’ films help put LeMond’s life and career in perspective, but
The Last Rider also captures the thrill of a great sports comeback, whereas Stop at Nothing exposes a liar while celebrating LeMond’s profile-in-courage. Highly recommended, The Last Rider opens Friday (6/23) in New York at the Village East.