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Colonial-era American legislators commissioned a gold medal in 1776 to honor George Washington, who was soon to win the Revolutionary War. Since then, the Congressional Gold Medal has been bestowed on Ulysses Grant, Thomas Edison, Jesse Owens and Rosa Parks, among other illustrious Americans. It is one of the nation’s two top civilian honors, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The congressional medal is conferred only by full votes of both U.S. legislative bodies, and with the signature of the president.
Now, Congress is well on its way to awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to cyclist Greg LeMond. On September 19, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would recognize LeMond for his accomplishments in and contributions to U.S. sport. The legislation passes now to the Senate and, if successful there, to the president’s desk.
Greg LeMond’s stature as an American hero is deeply personal for many cycling fans, including me. I grew up around the sport. I wore out an old videotape of Greg’s miraculous 1989 Tour de France victory.
Last year, I received an e-mail from Mike Thompson, the congressman representing the Napa and Sonoma area of Northern California. Mike, who is a cyclist, had read my book about LeMond and wanted to honor him for his achievements. The congressman talked of perhaps creating a new sportsmanship award and naming it for Greg, or appointing him to some federal sports panel.
Months later, in June, I heard from an aide in the congressman’s office. Mike was introducing legislation to award Greg the Congressional Gold Medal. He warned me to expect an uphill battle: Because of its stature, the medal requires a supermajority vote, two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate. It could take months, if not years.
More months passed. And then, in mid-September, I heard from a staffer in the congressman’s office. Mike had collected the necessary support, and his bill would go to the floor for a vote of the full House.
The bill focuses on Greg’s stirring comeback story and on his subsequent leadership role across many worthy public causes, including his stance against doping in cycling and his support for male survivors of sexual abuse.
“Greg LeMond stands atop the list of the greatest American cyclists in our history,” Congressman Thompson said last Thursday on the House floor. “His accomplishments speak for themselves: the only American in history to officially win the Tour de France, a three-time Tour de France champion, the youngest American ever selected for the U.S. Olympic team, the first American in history to win a major cycling tournament in Europe, and the winner of 22 [major] races overall.”
The congressman concluded, “More than any other cyclist in our history, Greg LeMond was the epitome of the Breaking Away culture: a young kid on a bike, trying to do things no American had ever done.”
And that is the heart of the Greg LeMond story. For anyone old enough to remember, Greg was the real-life Dave Stoller, the hero of the dreamy coming-of-age film ‘Breaking Away.’ His authentic arc was in many respects better than Dave’s largely fictional story, because it was all true.
Who knows whether Greg’s congressional medal will emerge victorious from the Senate. The bill need only gain sixty-seven votes there, rather than 290. An aide told me Thursday that Congressman Thompson is “bullish” on the chances.
And how would President Donald Trump greet the bill? Well, we know Mr. Trump was once a cycling fan. Thirty years ago in May, Greg and 113 other riders competed in the inaugural Tour de Trump. The president, then a real estate developer, lent his name to two editions of a formidable American stage race. Congressman Thompson’s bill might put Greg’s story back on the national stage where it belongs.
Greg himself sounded typically modest in his comments for the official press release when the bill passed. “I am truly humbled to be recognized for my career by the U.S. House of Representatives,” he said. “Cycling changed my life for the better, and I’ve been proud to help bring this great sport to so many across our nation. For years, it’s been my deep honor to represent the United States on the world stage. I hope this award continues to bring cycling to many more as the sport has the potential to help everyone be healthier and more active. The bike plays an important role in our modern mobility and infrastructure, and it can only get better from here.”
Daniel de Vise is a frequent contributor to The Outer Line, and is the author of The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France.