The Last Rider
An account of a fascinating slice of sports history demonstrates there’s more to documentaries than just finding the right story.
By Theo Macdonald
“Tell me you’re American without telling me you’re American.” On TikTok, an American answers the challenge by pumping his fist and gently chanting, “We the best,” tears welling in his bloodshot eyes.
The joke skewers the paradox of America’s self- mythology: America the conqueror versus America the underdog. The Last Rider, a new documentary about the first American cyclist to win the Tour de France, stumbles on this dichotomy. How to evoke an underdog spirit within the story of a lifelong winner?
Greg LeMond is regarded as the greatest American cyclist ever (ignoring one disgraced Texan). Raised in Nevada, he took to cycling as an off-season substitute for skiing. In 1981, LeMond went pro, and in 1984 he first rode in the Tour de France, supporting team leader Laurent Fignon. In 1986, he won the Tour, but a shooting accident prevented him from defending his title the following year. He returned in 1989, defeated Fignon in a stunning 10-second victory, and successfully defended this title in 1990.
The Last Rider tells LeMond’s story through archival footage, family photographs, present-day interviews, and the occasional drone shot of a misty mountain. LeMond and his wife, Kathy, dominate the interviews. Neither are natural monologists, and the film might be better without their commentary. Doubling the narrative through husband and wife entrenches their perspective, undermining the construction of LeMond as a dark-horse candidate.
Of course, there is more to this shaggy-dog tale. Throughout his professional career, LeMond struggled with the trauma and shame of childhood sexual abuse. A series of betrayals within the Tour re- ignited this trauma and risked alienating him from the sport. The shooting accident similarly spotlighted unspoken family pressures. Kathy comments, “That shotgun blast blasted apart our family.”
The film’s subject seems uninterested in going into depth on these topics, although the film’s point of difference is his ready involvement. Beyond a potted tour of childhood tragedy, director Alex Holmes (Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story) holds LeMond at arm’s distance. We spend time with him but meet none of his opponents, producing a deep-seated arbitrariness.
Commenting on the character of a documentary subject is risky. The documentary process reconstitutes real people into fiction. But “Greg LeMond”, the hero of the film The Last Rider, frequently expresses an ugly entitlement to the yellow jersey. The overall film inhabits a dubious puritanical morality, in which the virtue of cycling contrasts with the dirtiness of trauma and betrayal. This seems to underpin LeMond and Kathy’s belief that victory in the world’s premiere cycling event is the only adequate reward for a freak hunting accident. Therapy, perhaps?
This entitlement further reveals itself in the film’s construction of the late Laurent Fignon as a grotesque, Quasimodo-esque villain, spitting and swearing and disgracing the sport. In LeMond and Kathy’s moral universe, the swollen testicles that spoiled Fignon’s chances at victory in 1989 are an act of divine intervention. Another sporting nemesis, Bernard Hinault, is compared to the man who molested LeMond, an absurd character assassination that explains why Hinault was not interviewed. That The Last Rider ends with an epitaph for Fignon reads as one apology left too late.
Surprisingly, the film becomes completely engrossing in the final third, which follows the 1989 Tour beat for beat. This tightly-wound competition – with the aforementioned finale – deserves an entire documentary to itself. The Tour de France is uniquely televisual, with bright jerseys and a glut of helicopter and motorbike footage. When the audience is finally allowed to luxuriate in this footage, the rewards are immediate.
A little research reveals many thrilling threads to LeMond’s life that the film either sells short or ignores entirely. The title, The Last Rider, signifies the film’s contention that LeMond’s victory was the final call before doping scandals muddied subsequent decades of competition. LeMond has a history of accusing athletes of doping, being forced to recant his statements under severe industry pressure and being vindicated years later. To focus on his relationship with the doping scandals might be an equally contrived narrative, but it could fill the hole in the heart of this hagiography.
Theo Macdonald is North & South’s junior staff writer, a role supported by NZ on Air’s Public Interest Journalism Fund.
This story appeared in the July 2023 issue of North & South.