LeMond's Mental Toughness

In his fascinating new book "How Bad Do You Want It?", coach Matt Fitzgerald examines more than a dozen pivotal races to discover the surprising ways elite athletes strengthen their mental toughness. Each chapter of "How Bad Do You Want It?" explores the how and why of an elite athlete's transformative moment, revealing powerful new psychobiological principles you can practice to flex your own mental fitness.

In this excerpt from the book, pioneering American cyclist Greg LeMond races against the clock—and his rival Laurent Fignon—in an individual time trial stage of the Tour de France. LeMond has set challenging time-based goals to pace his race.

Greg LeMond woke up in a strange bed. For a second or two he knew nothing more, his mind hovering in that narrative-free state of animal consciousness that greets each of us at the threshold of wakefulness. Then it all came back to him. He was in a hotel room in Versailles, France. The date was Sunday, July 23, 1989. At 4:14 that afternoon, he would compete in the final stage of the Tour de France. It was going to be the most important race of his life.

He dressed in a yellow T-shirt and baggy blue shorts and made his way down to the ground floor, where he sat at a long table and ate a hearty breakfast of pasta, bread, cereal, eggs, and coffee with his teammates on the ADR cycling team. An hour later, they were on their bikes, just cruising, loosening up their legs for later. Overcast skies loomed above them as they pedaled away from the hotel, but by the time the ride was complete the clouds had burned off and the air temperature had risen into the low 80s. Greg later told writer Sam Abt what he told his trainer, Otto J?come, when he returned to his lodgings.

"My legs are good. I'm going to have a very good day."

There was plenty of time left to kill. As the second-place rider in the General Classification (G.C.), or overall race standings, Greg would start the conclusive 24.5-km individual time trial next to last among the Tour's 134 surviving competitors, 2 minutes before Frenchman Laurent Fignon, the race leader. A two-time winner of the Tour de France, Fignon stood merely 50 seconds ahead of Greg after 20 stages and more than 2,000 miles of riding. Greg was the stronger time trialist, but he would have to make up an improbable 2 seconds per kilometer between Versailles and Paris to overtake Fignon in the G.C. and claim his own second Tour de France victory. Whichever way it went, it promised to be the closest finish in the event's 76-year history.

Greg's many fans in America and around the world considered it victory enough that he was even in this position. Two years earlier, Greg's brother-in-law Pat Blades had plugged him in the back with a shotgun from a distance of 30 yards. The accident happened on April 20, 1987, on Greg's uncle Rod LeMond's property in Lincoln, California. Greg should have been in Europe, racing with the La Vie Claire team and preparing to defend the Tour title he had won the previous July, but a crash in Italy had left him with a broken bone in his left hand and he was sent back to the States to convalesce. Near the end of the six-week recuperative stint, Greg's uncle talked him into taking a short break from training to hunt wild turkey. Greg remembers every detail of that life-altering morning, and has recounted it publicly many times in interviews and speeches.

Greg and Rod LeMond were both experienced hunters. Pat Blades was not. They set out at 7:30 in the morning, splitting up to cover more territory. Greg went to the left, Uncle Rod to the right, and Blades up the middle, all three men wearing camouflage gear. Greg crouched under a berry bush to wait. After some time had passed, he heard Blades whistle. Wary of alerting nearby game to their presence, Greg elected not to respond. Instead he stood up, intending to creep forward to a new hiding spot. His movements caused the berry bush to quiver. Seeing this, Blades took quick aim and fired, spraying his brother-in-law with buckshot.

Greg found himself on the ground without knowing how he'd gotten there. He saw blood on the ring finger of his left hand, but felt no pain. In fact, his whole body was numb. He tried to stand up, became lightheaded, and fell back to the dirt. He tried to speak but could only croak, a collapsed lung making it a struggle for him just to breathe, let alone call for help. Only now did Greg realize, with cold terror, that he'd been shot.

"What happened?" Blades shouted from his hiding spot.

Greg couldn't answer. He heard crashing footsteps and then saw his brother-in-law looming above him. Blades's face showed no surprise, the effect of a reflexive effort to conceal his horror lest he send his accidental victim into a panic. No such luck. Greg began to babble. "I'm going to die! I won't see my wife anymore! I won't be able to race anymore!"

Soon Blades was shouting too. Rod LeMond heard the ruckus and came running. The sight of his nephew's blood-soaked, crumpled body hit him like a sucker punch. Blades and Uncle Rod conferred in tight voices, quickly agreeing that they had to get Greg onto his feet and out of the woods ASAP. But they disagreed on how to go about it. Greg pictured sand draining from the hourglass of his life while the two men debated.

"Just go get the ambulance!" he interjected.

Uncle Rod ran down to the house and dialed 9-1-1. Minutes later, he was back at the scene of the mishap. No ambulance could reach Greg where he lay, so Blades and Uncle Rod tried to lift him, but the movement stirred up an inferno of pain in Greg's right shoulder, which had taken the brunt of the blast.

"Go get your truck," Greg said.

Uncle Rod ran down to the house a second time and rumbled back in his pickup. With grunting help from the others, Greg hauled himself into the truck, where he waited for help to arrive. Ten minutes passed. No ambulance. Fifteen minutes. Greg's shirt was now drenched in blood. Twenty minutes. He was running out of time.

After 25 minutes had gone by, Uncle Rod started up the truck and drove to the edge of the property. They came to a gate, closed and padlocked, with an ambulance, a fire truck, and a police car sitting idly on the other side, as though staging for a small-town Independence Day parade.

A team of paramedics got Greg onto a stretcher, cut his shirt off, and set to work on him. The nearest hospital was 35 minutes away over bumpy roads. Greg knew he'd probably bleed out before he got there. As he reeled from this dark thought, he heard the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. A chopper from the California Highway Patrol that just happened to have been passing through the area had caught the radio chatter and made a beeline for Rod LeMond's property. Greg was hastily loaded in and taken to the hospital at the University of California–Davis, which specialized in the treatment of gunshot wounds and other traumas. The flight took 11 minutes.

He spent five hours in the operating room. The surgeon was able to remove only half of the 60 pellets that had struck him; most of the rest would remain inside Greg for the rest of his life, two of them nestled against the lining of his heart.

When he woke up, Greg was told that he would indeed have bled to death—at age 26—if not for the miracle of the passing copter, but he could now expect to make a full recovery. It would take a very long time, however, and in the interim he was destined to lose nearly all of the fitness he had built up through 12 years of competitive cycling. His comeback would start at zero.

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