June 16, 2009 (Tokyo, Japan) – Greg LeMond, winner of the Tour de France in 1986, 1989, and 1990, was in Japan recently to award the Points winner jersey at the 13th annual Tour of Japan, a 6-stage bicycle race. Christopher Philip Madden, a Canadian and former roadie from Halifax who is a Special English Instructor at the University of Shizuoka in Japan, caught up with LeMond on site to find out more about his visit to Japan and his illustrious career. Madden also sent us this great video of the Tour of Japan race with footage of LeMond…
Interview With Greg LeMond
When was the first time you raced in Europe?
Greg LeMond: It was 1978, and I went to Geneva, Switzerland and raced there and in France for a few months.
How old were you?
GL: I was 17, racing as a Junior, and basically just went by myself. (Juniors refer to bicycle racers aged 16-18)
What was the main language at the races during that time?
GL: French was most common, and I was immediately approached by a French coach, Cyrille Guimard, to race on a French team for the next year. I went over again in 1980 on the US Olympic team, and Guimard signed me to the pro team Renault after that.
When did you begin to study French?
GL: Well, I had two years of it in high school, but it didn’t really help me. Classrooms, textbooks, and grammar don’t help communication much.
So when you began to race for a French team, how long did it take you to be able to communicate?
GL: The Renault team paid for me to take a two-week crash course with Berlitz, which helped a little bit. But really, I went to the initial training camp on February 1, and basically couldn’t speak a word. I used to bring an English book to read at the dinner table! I couldn’t understand when people spoke French to each other, it was too fast. But, little by little, I would pick up a word or two here and there, and after six weeks I could understand things a lot better.
So just jumping in with sudden immersion really helped your proficiency?
GL: Yes, but you see, I was young, and living and training with cyclists, so they taught me all the swear words first! But I would say that after three or four months I was able to communicate fairly well.
I’ve seen many interviews with you conversing French and you’re very competent in the language.
GL: Well, I never really did learn the polite version of the language. Years later, being interviewed by French TV, I would make grammar mistakes and sound really rough. For example, the first year I won the Tour de France, I had diarrhea on one stage, and when they interviewed me afterwards I said; “I had the shits” on TV. That night, a French professor drove something like six hours and sat in front of my house waiting for me to get home. When I finally did, he told me I should be using the polite grammar forms and to never swear on TV – but I never really changed much!
Did you notice a change over time in the language used in professional cycling in Europe?
GL: Oh, yeah. When I first started it was mostly French, but by the mid-to-late ’80s it became English.
Even in France?
GL: Yes, and even the official language for the Tour de France became English!
That’s hard to imagine with all the international fields it seems makes sense. So, what language did you use in your own home?
GL: Well, my wife studied French in college, but she couldn’t speak it until we moved to France. Also, we had a home in Belgium for years, and my oldest son was raised there. It’s funny, but at home we used to speak French to each other when we had something private to say, so he wouldn’t understand. And after a few years he finally said; “I understand what you are saying, you know. I always have!” Which makes sense, because his friends were speaking French outside the home. He speaks Mandarin, now, too. And my son Scott here is studying Japanese.
That’s great. Do you have any advice for Japanese riders who want to race overseas, regarding language?
GL: Really, English is all they need, unless they get hired specifically on a team in Italy for example, then they should learn Italian. But with English they can get along fine just about anywhere.
Any comments as to how to help develop cycling in Japan?
GL: Well, it’s the same advice I have for America: Start with individual time trails in Junior High School, with local and national championships. Young guys don’t need to get thrown into their first race with a pack with 50 or 100 guys, have a crash, and quit the sport. They can start with time trials, and then move to team time trials in High School, and learn the basic skills of echelon riding. Then a college and university cycling program comes next, which can lead to anything.
Thank you very much for your time today, and the great stories you shared.
GL: No problem, you are welcome.