GREG LeMond stands at the door of the Limerick Leader office and surveys the main thoroughfare of Oâ€™Connell Street. Asked if he needs directions back to his hotel, he laughs and swats away the question.
â€œI know Limerick,â€ says the American cyclist with a smile, a three time Tour de France winner and double world champion who has been coming to the city annually for the past six years to take part in the Get BACk Challenge Cycle.
â€œI raced through Limerick multiple times in the Nissan classics,â€ he reminisces earlier, seated in the board room of the Leader office, a smile plastered all over his tanned and healthy looking face.
In late 1995 the Californian and his grandfather paid a trip to Ireland to explore their family roots, which run deep in Cork. Despite his best intentions, ten years passed and he had still not returned.
A chance call in late 2007 from Focus Consulting - then BDO - accountants and business advisors who are based in Michael Street in the city, resulted in his involvement in the Get BACk cycle, at a time when he was at a low ebb.
â€œI get a lot of requests like that, but it was Ireland and the idea of raising money for inner city and also getting kids into sport, was key,â€ he explains of the cycle, which last year raised over â‚¬50,000 for the Local Sports Partnerships in Limerick and aims to help children living in socially disadvantaged areas and those with disabilities.
The company estimate that in excess of 7,000 children have benefited from eight years of fundraising through the event.
â€œThat was the trigger, the catalyst. Coming to the Get BACk in 2008 - I had just been counter-sued by Trek and I almost cancelled. I was so stressed out and then I came here and had a blast. It was like my reprieve, my one time of the year that became fun, over a three, four year period.â€
His despondency stemmed from a dispute with the now disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, who had such power that he managed to disrupt LeMondâ€™s business when he attempted to stand up to the bullying Texan.
â€œI had a bike company that was stopped - I canâ€™t even say it went out of business, it was one of the best selling road bikes in the country,â€ he explains. â€œIt was very difficult to make forward movement in the bike industry.â€
LeMond had always been interested in product development, pushing design and innovation to help power and performance, replicating outdoor conditions in gyms, using a machine developed for him in the late 70s.
He was instrumental in developing modern day helmet and sunglasses design for cycling, while physiology fascinates him. He developed a business around these things, but admits his prowess is not in financial methods. Thus, his relationship with Focus has blossomed in the years he has been coming to Ireland.
â€œI got to the point where you donâ€™t know who to trust, or which direction to go,â€ he explains. â€œI was having issues and that is where Focus came in and helped me move towards the right direction and they were a tremendous help. It was done purely to help me, which was really good.â€
Focus chairman Brian McGann has been instrumental in this process, to the point where some of the companyâ€™s Limerick team are now in America, working directly for LeMond.
â€œBrian has talked to me for quite a while about bringing back my bikes and my brand; I got pretty burned out on everything about three or four years ago, but he has been really pushing me,â€ says LeMond.
â€œI have had such a good time coming to Limerick and it has turned into probably one of my best relationships that I have.â€
The result is that LeMond will continue to return to Limerick and to Ireland, continue seeking to innovate and create opportunities, and continue to raise funds for local projects through the cycle, which took place in Kilkee last weekend, and to and from the University of Limerick last year.
â€œI love riding here, I donâ€™t think people know how good they have it,â€ he says. â€œTo be able to have a team here, the proximity to Europe is brilliant. I get excited about it.â€