The following is an excerpt from The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France, a new book from Atlantic Monthly Press.
Greg LeMond awoke before dawn on April 20, 1987. It was the day after Easter. He was about to return to Europe, to rejoin the peloton and resume preparations to defend his 1986 title in the Tour de France, the first victory by an American in that great race.
In ordinary circumstances, Greg would have been in Europe already. But this morning found him at home, outside Sacramento, convalescing. A month earlier, Greg broke his hand in a crash at a race in Italy. He returned to the United States, where he could be with his wife Kathy at their lovely house in Rancho Murieta, a gated community built around a pair of golf courses.
During six weeks of recovery, Greg had done little but train on his bicycle; the cast on his left hand precluded golfing and other cathartic pursuits.
Greg’s uncle, Rod Barber, had repeatedly invited his nephew to drive out to his own property, a thirty-acre ranch on land more remote than Greg’s. With the return to Europe looming, Greg finally agreed to make the trip the Monday after Easter. He would join his uncle for a turkey hunt in the morning, pedal the forty miles home, and then visit his doctor in the afternoon to get the cast removed from his hand.
Greg packed his bicycle into his car and left at 6:30 a.m. for the the ranch community of Lincoln. He arrived an hour later, and uncle and nephew readied for the hunt. Joining them was a third man, Pat Blades, the husband of Greg’s older sister, Kathy.
The men set out on foot across a dry riverbed, bound for a hill dotted with blackberry bushes and trees a few hundred yards from the house. The hunters slowed and split, Greg’s uncle heading off to the left, his brother-in-law to the right. Their plan was to pad haltingly across the prairie in pursuit of their quarry.
Greg was an experienced hunter; his brother-in-law was not. After a time, Pat became disoriented and began to whistle, hoping his fellow hunters would respond in kind, so that he could discern their location. All three men wore camouflage gear and nets covering their faces to conceal themselves from the skittish birds.
Greg had settled into a patch of cover among the berry bushes. He heard the whistling but did not respond; he assumed that if he could recognize Pat’s whistle, then the birds would recognize his.
Eventually, the whistling stopped. Greg wondered where the other men were hiding. He finally gathered himself up to stand.
The moment he rose, Greg heard a shot. It was so loud, so close, that at first he thought his own gun had somehow discharged.
Greg sank down into a crouch. After a moment of confusion, he glanced at his left hand and saw blood. Then he felt numbness wash over his body. He tried again to stand, and suddenly felt as if he was going to pass out. He sank again.
He tried to speak but found that he could only gurgle. Greg’s lungs were flooding with blood; he could barely breathe.
Oh, my God, he thought. I’ve been shot.
Pat came running. “What happened?” he cried. “What happened?” Greg’s life—or, more precisely, its end—was flashing before his eyes.
“I’m going to die,” he gurgled. “My God, my life is going to end.”
Greg was in shock. Pat was calm—until he heard Greg’s words, whereupon he became hysterical. Greg’s uncle heard Pat’s screams and ran over to join the younger men, prying the shotgun from the stunned shooter’s hands.
Soon, Greg’s hunting companions had succumbed to a muddled panic, yelling at each other and trying in vain to lift Greg’s wounded body.
Their hysteria calmed Greg, who had made a career of enduring pain. He shouted back at them, “I’m going to die if you guys don’t calm down.” His companions collected themselves.
Rod ran back to the house to call an ambulance, placing the call at 8:49 a.m. Then he returned. The two men again attempted to lift Greg, but he was in too much pain to stand. Greg instructed Rod to “back up your truck.” Rod departed.
By the time he returned, twenty minutes had elapsed since the shooting. Greg felt his breath shortening and his body weakening. The men led him to the truck, still a good distance away. Then they awaited the ambulance.
Five minutes stretched to ten, ten to twenty. Forty minutes had now passed since the shooting. Growing impatient, they finally decided to steer the truck up to the main gate of the sprawling ranch. There they met an armada of rescuers who had arrived at the property to find the gates locked.
Paramedics laid Greg on a stretcher, took his blood pressure, inserted an intravenous tube, and cut open his shirt, trying to stabilize his body for the half-hour drive along bumpy roads to the provincial hospital. Greg found it progressively harder to draw air into his lungs.
I’m never going to make it, he thought. Then he heard the whirring blades of a helicopter.
The California Highway Patrol chopper had departed McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento bound for a traffic accident. En route, the pilot had learned two things: that the injured motorist was beyond help, and that a man had been shot on a remote ranch. The copter rerouted, touching down at 9:40 a.m., an hour after the shooting.
A rescuer asked Greg his name and address. He could barely speak for lack of breath. She asked him to repeat it three, four times, laboring to keep him conscious. Finally, affable Greg lost his patience: “Damn it! Greg LeMond, 745 Anillo Way, Rancho Murieta, California, 9-5-6-8-3, and don’t ask me again.”
Greg was loaded onto the helicopter, which regained the air and flew twenty-five miles southwest to the University of California at Davis, whose hospital specialized in traumatic injury. The flight took eleven minutes. As he arrived at the hospital, Greg felt relieved. Maybe it’s not so bad, he thought. Then a doctor began to yell instructions, and hospital staff rushed Greg into the emergency room. His fear returned.
The human body holds eight to twelve pints of blood. By the time Greg arrived at the hospital, he had lost between two and three pints. Much of the blood that remained had pooled into the pleural space that surrounded his lungs, causing them to collapse. Blood had also seeped into Greg’s pericardium, the membrane that enclosed his heart. Shotgun pellets had perforated both organs.
Few other human beings would have survived an hour with those injuries. In the previous summer, Greg’s massive cardiovascular engine had powered him to victory in the Tour. Today it would save his life.
Rescuers loaded Greg onto a gurney, ripped open his shirt, delivered a local anesthetic, and plunged a tube into his chest to drain the space around his lungs. He arched his back in agony. Hospital staff then rolled him into the prep room and sponged him down for surgery. Greg slipped into sleep and surgery commenced.
At the LeMond home, a very pregnant Kathy was making pancakes for her son when the telephone rang.
“It’s UC Davis Medical Center,” the voice said. “Your husband has been shot.”
As the weight of those words sank in, Kathy hurried into a bathroom to conceal her welling tears from three-year-old Geoffrey. Kathy hung up the phone and sobbed. Then she collected herself and her child and drove to the hospital. She had forgotten all about the hunting trip. She wondered whether Greg had been caught in a holdup at a 7-Eleven. “Please let him live,” she thought.
Greg’s life now passed into the hands of Sandra Beal, a critical-care surgeon. Dr. Beal had been called in to treat a stabbing victim from nearby Folsom State Prison who was bleeding to death. Her presence and immediate availability were part of a long chain of small miracles that availed Greg on his darkest day.
More than one hundred lead shotgun pellets had entered Greg’s body. Dr. Beal knew that to remove them all would harm his vital organs. The two pellets lodged in the lining of his heart could not be touched; there was too much risk. Most of the others had already done their damage; leaving them where they lay posed no immediate risk. The seven-person surgical team sealed two small holes in Greg’s diaphragm and two more in the small intestine. Two additional holes in his liver were left to heal on their own.
When a terrified Kathy arrived, doctors told her that Greg would be in surgery for two hours, and that they would do all they could. Kathy sat in shock and waited. Two hours stretched to three, and hospital staff told her nothing.
Reporters began to trickle in. The shooting victim had been identified at last, and word had leaked out. Some broadcasters in Europe interrupted their programming to announce that the great LeMond had been shot.
Kathy telephoned her mother, Sacia, in La Crosse. Sacia could hear panic in her daughter’s voice. She also noticed that Kathy’s speech was punctuated with little gasps, as if some silent pain were passing through her body every few minutes. She finally interrupted Kathy to ask, “Are you in labor?”
Kathy was eight months pregnant; the due date was a few weeks away. The emotional force of the morning’s events had propelled her body into premature labor. Now she had to choose between waiting for Greg to emerge from surgery and rushing off to admit herself into the maternity ward of a different hospital. She chose to stay.
Kathy pleaded with the staff to let her see her husband. Finally, at 2:30 p.m., she prevailed. Greg was sedated, but as Kathy walked into the room he moaned, as if he sensed her soothing presence. He was stripped naked, his body suspended above the bed by a harness so nurses could change the sheets, which were soaked crimson. Greg’s body looked “like a colander,” Kathy recalled, his skin a patchwork, dotted with sixty holes, each one dripping blood.
She was overjoyed to see her husband alive, but horrified at his grievous wounds. “Are you sure he’s going to be all right?” Yes, they replied, Greg would probably live.
Kathy gently kissed Greg, and then reluctantly departed his hospital for her own, where doctors administered drugs to calm the contractions.
In the meantime, her brother-in-law Pat Blades had been taken to yet another hospital. Unable to bear his role in the day’s events, Pat had suffered a nervous collapse. When he spoke of ending his own life, police had him admitted.
Greg survived, barely. He had lost nearly half of the blood in his body. The perforations in his small intestine had leached waste, inviting infection. Greater perhaps was the danger to Greg’s damaged kidney. It was Greg’s only functioning kidney. The other had failed in childhood.
Greg had arrived at the hospital twenty minutes from death. Had a helicopter not magically appeared above his uncle’s ranch, he almost surely would have bled out or suffocated on the half-hour drive to the local hospital. Had he survived the trip, he likely would have died in that hospital’s emergency room, which lacked a surgeon with the expertise to save him.
Five shotgun pellets remained in Greg’s heart, five in his liver, and two dozen more in his back, arms, and legs: more than thirty pellets in all, each one roughly half the size of a BB.
The blast from a twelve-gauge shotgun had broken two of Greg’s ribs and shattered his left ring finger. Thirty more pellets had been removed from Greg’s body, some of them preserved in a plastic specimen bottle, which was later presented to the patient and became a macabre memento in the LeMond home.
The shooting was news in the United States, but even bigger news abroad. Journalists flew in from France. Dr. Beal spoke to the assembled media. “Because he’s young and in very good condition, he’ll recover,” she said. “He’ll probably lose about two months of training.”
Little in her remarks hinted at how close Greg had come to death. Greg’s body was his livelihood. If anyone in the professional cycling community learned the full extent of his injuries, there was little chance he could return to the sport. Without telling any untruths, Greg’s doctors and his loved ones did what they could to spin the narrative as a minor setback.
Brighter days would follow. Geoffrey, Greg’s three-year-old son, came to visit. It was a tender reunion—until Greg leaned forward and his son saw the dozens of circular scabs that covered his back.
That night, at the family home, Geoffrey asked his Aunt Mary if she would put spots on his back, too. She dotted Geoffrey’s back with a felt-tip marker.
On April 26, six days after the shooting, Greg went home. “It’s my best day,” he told reporters—and it was, provided one’s memory reached back no further than six days. Doctors had predicted a two-week hospital stay, so Greg’s prompt release was a victory in itself, sufficient, perhaps, to quash the rumors that his cycling career was finished.
It was time, though, to face one cruel fact. “The Tour de France is out of the question,” Bob LeMond told reporters in a press conference shortly before Greg’s release.
Greg returned to a home that now resembled a sick ward. He convalesced in one room, Kathy in another. Their mothers slept on cots in the living room. Whoever wasn’t watching Greg would mind Geoffrey. One evening, as an exhausted Kathy and her equally spent mother trudged along a manicured street in the LeMond’s gated community with Geoffrey in their pajamas, Sacia Morris thought, “My gosh, what has happened to us?”
Greg now found his world confined to the distance between a bed and a chair, where he would sit and shake, sweat and tears running down his face, never able to find a comfortable position. He was allowed pain medications every four hours; the fourth hour was torture.
Greg’s body was covered with scars. He walked with the stoop of an old man. The simple act of talking put so much exertion on his wounded diaphragm it would sap his strength. His lungs pumped at a fraction of their former capacity. X-rays showed the right one, more gravely damaged, now markedly smaller than the left.
Bit by bit, Greg improved. In week three, he summoned the strength to walk out his front door. A month earlier Greg hadn’t been sure he wanted to return to professional cycling. Now he feared the decision was no longer his.
On May 12, twenty-two days after the accident, Greg accompanied Kathy to the hospital for the birth of their second child, Scott. Though Greg was overjoyed, the journey proved too arduous; he wound up in a bed next to Kathy and their new baby.
Finally, the day arrived when Greg climbed back onto a bicycle. It wasn’t a racing bike, just a fat-wheeled ten-speed with straightened handlebars and a baby seat fitted to the back. He rode it around the garage of his suburban home, his chest heaving from the effort. Soon, Greg and his three-year-old son were riding together, Greg on his ten-speed, Geoffrey on his tricycle, wobbling down the street.
By the end of May, five weeks after the shooting, Greg found his body beginning to heal. The profound weariness that had gripped him was loosening, giving way to his native restlessness.
Yet Greg’s celebrated cardiopulmonary engine lay in ruin. He had lost thirty of his 150 pounds. His wounded body, deprived of food, had sought protein in Greg’s thigh and calf muscles, which had wasted away. His body fat, a measure of fitness, had swelled from 5 percent to 19 percent. Put together, those metrics suggested Greg had lost perhaps one-third of his muscle. The share of red blood cells, vital in moving oxygen to body tissue, had dropped by more than half, from his normal 45 percent to 19 percent.
The 1987 Tour de France began on July 1. Greg watched it on television.
The LeMond family traveled to San Francisco on July 12, 1987, and dined in Chinatown. On the drive home, Greg became afflicted with the most severe pain he had ever felt, before the shooting or since.
He returned to the emergency room at Davis, where doctors diagnosed an intestinal blockage, a kink that had formed at one of the scars. They were forced to cut along the fresh surgical scar of the original abdominal incision.
The second surgery reset Greg’s comeback schedule almost to day one. Greg could not lift weights until the new abdominal incision healed. He quietly scuttled his summer racing schedule.
That fall, the LeMonds sold their California home and moved into a five-bedroom, $725,000 mansion along Lake Minnetonka in Wayzata. Their plan to build a dream home in Rancho Murieta had unraveled after the shooting. With all Greg and Kathy had suffered, the gated community evoked too many bad memories.
The move marked a subtle shift in allegiances. Before, the LeMonds had lived within a few hours’ drive of Greg’s parents. Now they would live within a short drive of Kathy’s in La Crosse.
Greg and Kathy felt a bit like kids living in a grown-up’s home. They had purchased the house, along with all the furnishings, from a contractor. The LeMonds imported few items of their own.
After a decade of competitive cycling, Greg struggled for the motivation to pedal a bicycle for hours a day in the off-season. Even before the shooting, he had veered perilously close to quitting. Now, in the snowbound Upper Midwest, Greg would hang up the bicycle at autumn’s end and spend the winter cross-country skiing across frozen Lake Minnetonka.
Greg labored to spin the events of recent months into an inspirational tale of recovery and redemption. “There is always a time in your career when you need a break,” he told the Associated Press. “I’ve been a professional for seven years and had never had one before. Maybe everything happened at the right time. . . . I still believe I’m better than ninety-nine percent of the other guys. My prime years are yet to come.”
Greg would complete his unprecedented comeback two years later, winning the 1989 Tour de France by the narrowest margin in history. He would win the Tour once more, in 1990, before retiring from cycling to his home in Minnesota.
With the disqualification of Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis for doping, LeMond is the only American to have won the Tour de France.
The Comeback: Greg Lemond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France . © 2018 by Daniel de Visé. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
The conversations quoted in this story were culled from author interviews with the LeMond family and from LeMond's recollections to journalist Samuel Abt. Kathy LeMond recounted the hospital phone call to the Star Tribune.