Rouleur's top ten features: No. 10 - Greg LeMond: On the line
Cycling was only half of the battle for the sport’s comeback king, Greg LeMond. America’s only Tour de France champion on Lance, lawsuits, trauma, triumphs – and his dream of a return to the sport at 58 years old
As we eagerly await the 100th issue of Rouleur, we're counting down our top ten features ever published in the magazine. First up we have 'Greg LeMond: On the line' by Andy McGrath from issue 19.7.
Oakleys on, Greg LeMond is flying downhill. He whips smoothly through a pair of chicanes, energy returning to his jet-lagged body. It’s a familiar sight. But don’t call it a comeback. He’s had enough of those.
On this midweek afternoon, it is a pleasant hour-long pedal to a meet-and-greet. He is in the Franco-Swiss borderlands with his friend and former mechanic Patrick Chastagner as the ambassador of his Châtel Chablais Léman sportive. This is the latest on a whistle-stop July tour of Europe for Greg and his wife Kathy: they have seen old friends at the Grand Départ in Belgium and will go on to attend the yellow jersey centenary celebrations the following week in Pau.
Arriving at a car showroom, a partner of that weekend’s ride sportive, the gathering inside underlines the breadth of his appeal. Aside from the employees, there are the two founders of the Greg LeMond fan club, a Belgian and Frenchman, and a Canadian family from Toronto, all in homemade Z tees. A Swiss former professional footballer approaches: he admits he knows nothing about cycling but asks whether I can take a photo of him with LeMond.
Then there’s the supporter who drove 1,000 kilometres from Normandy, leaving at three in the morning. He has several lycra and wool jerseys slung over his shoulder, a snapshot of his hero’s career: a Renault-Elf one, ADR, a rainbow jersey, a yellow one. Asked the obvious question – why pick LeMond when you had Hinault? – he explains his parents got him a Renault-Elf jersey for “the Badger”, but he liked LeMond’s long hair, like his own, and supported him ever since.
The man of the moment signs photos, jokes around, chats warmly. LeMond has always had trouble saying no to people: ask for two minutes, he’ll give you twenty. “He’s a talker,” Kathy says. Two hours after their arrival, the snack trestle table long since decimated, they are still there, shooting the breeze. “I don’t know what we’re doing now,” Kathy says. It can’t be the first time she’s expressed that sentiment. They strike me as big kids, still excited by life, in spite of all the obstacles encountered in theirs.
It would have been especially easy for LeMond to lose his humanity and curiosity on the way up amid the success (the highlights: three Tours de France, three world titles and finishing in the top seven of all five Monuments), the adulation, the money, the pressure and the demands. And it might have been even easier to lose it in the rocky patches he has experienced afterwards. His cycle of success, adversity and comeback is a trope through his life. Doing it the hard way is the Greg LeMond way.
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The next morning, his fog of jet lag is clearing after a few coffees and his eyes, as blue as nearby Lake Leman, are opening after an allergy flare-up that left them looking like he’d been twelve rounds with Mike Tyson.
“I’m like an antique,” LeMond says, reflecting on the previous day’s meet-and-greet. “I kind of go, what’s the big deal? But it’s neat to see people that were 15-years-old [in my heyday] and are passionate about cycling.”
You wouldn’t know, but those personal interactions take a lot out of him. “I’m probably more of an introvert but an extrovert around people at times, I love meeting them. So, I look at being president or a politician. No way in hell. The energy that it takes. I mean, you’ve almost got to be false. I can’t, that’s why I can’t go in automated bullshit mode where you’re just saying one-liners and repeating them. It just seems inauthentic to me.
“I’m maybe too brutally honest,” he adds, laughing. “I say too much. That’s just me. I can’t change.” He pauses and amends that view. “I’ve changed a little bit. You have to change as you get older because people tend to take advantage or manipulate.” He inhales deeply. “Business, some of the stuff with Trek in the past… I probably voiced my opinion too much, but they end up using it against me too.”
“If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sport. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Eight seconds. No prizes for those who recognise that as the margin of victory for Greg LeMond over Laurent Fignon in 1989. Call it what you like: his most famous triumph, the closest Tour de France in history, the greatest bike race ever.
That’s also how long it took for Greg LeMond to make the “innocent comments” in July 2001, motivated by hearing that Lance Armstrong was working with Doctor Michele Ferrari, that would wreak havoc on his life.
After a similarly miraculous comeback from adversity, the Texan was on the way to a third Tour win, equalling LeMond’s own mark.
LeMond knew Armstrong was cheating; he had been told so by a mechanic confidant. He had courage of conviction, but no irrefutable proof. It was brave – foolhardy, even – to raise his head above the parapet eleven years before the USADA Decision came out.
In Lanceland, you’re either for or against him, friend or foe. Armstrong saw the couched statement as a broadside and demanded a retraction. It was the beginning of a messy quarrel between America’s two most influential racing cyclists.
At this point, both men were affiliated to Trek Bicycles – Armstrong was sponsored by them, LeMond was licensing his name for production and sale of a line of bikes. Armstrong stoked the fire, later implying LeMond doped to win his second Tour in 1989, and threw his weight around in the industry to discredit him. Many came to denounce American cycling’s elder statesman as bitter, whiny, deluded.
“All that stuff adds up, it gets you down,” LeMond tells me. “What you realise in politics, you can try to destroy people by one-liners. ‘Lock her up’ type stuff. He’s sour, he’s jealous and all that. People take that first impression and start building that as the truth.” He felt gradually marginalised by a concerted campaign of misinformation and propaganda against him.
It was a dark period in LeMond’s personal life too. The Nevadan was deep in a period of drinking and depression, for which he went into therapy. That winter, he had revealed to Kathy the secret of childhood sexual abuse by a family friend he had concealed from everyone for 35 years.
After a rocky patch, 2008 saw an official end to his 13-year agreement with Trek. LeMond claimed that they hadn’t properly supported his brand; Trek felt that LeMond hurt theirs by publicly disparaging Armstrong, who they endorsed. He served a complaint against them for breach of contract and they counter-sued. A protracted legal battle ended in settlement two years later.
“It drained me, wiped me out. It was very difficult to be threatened with the ruin of your business life by just saying a couple of innocent comments. But when you get with predators and people whose only goal in life is money, that’s what happens,” LeMond says. “I spent so much time defending myself and millions in legal fees where I could have been building something instead of trying to preserve. So I’d never recommend anybody get in litigation: try to settle right away. It’s a brain drain. But for me, the truth is it was very difficult to build and save a business when you’re already branded as bad for a business.”
Whether it was Bernard Hinault, accidentally shooting him in the eye on a US hunting trip, his brother-in-law, famously and accidentally, in 1987, or the likes of Armstrong and Trek Bicycles management, a lot of people have taken shots at Greg LeMond.
“I’m a target,” he says. And often, he fires back with interest, sticking to his guns and often too open for his own good. No courtroom naïf, he was also involved in notable Noughties cases against his long-time manager Warren Gibson, Floyd Landis and former billionaire Tim Blixseth over an investment in a private ski and golf resort. He has the money to protect himself and it seemingly isn’t in his nature to easily back down. He told the Irish Times in 2009: “I am a fighter. And I will go down in flames.”
For someone who’s been shot a couple of times, broke his neck in a car accident and even popped in a dislocated finger after a crash during his triumphant 1990 Tour de France, LeMond is well acquainted with physical pain. The effect of all this was less superficial, a creeping accumulation of stress and psychological hurt. He went to several Tours of the Noughties, feeling excommunicated, like the ghost at the feast. He came to believe that he had no future in the world he once ruled.
“I didn’t want to see it [the cycling world] again,” he says. “It was almost intolerable to watch cycling since I stopped because I knew what was going on with EPO and Doctor Ferrari. Late ‘90s all the way through till 2013; even then, there’s some stuff that really bothers me in the sport. But I decided I love cycling and it is way better today. Way better.”
He has faith in the likes of Thibaut Pinot, for instance: “When I see a guy like him performing well, who’s released all his data, and can see the fatigue and look at some of the wattage output, it’s more in line with historical output. I don’t believe doping is all eliminated but let’s just say it’s at a level where possibly a clean rider can really perform.
“It’s not the rider, it’s never been about the riders. Armstrong was a different animal,” he continues. “For me, it was about paying off the UCI, getting an advantage nobody else got riding off his cancer. Teflon. You got Pantani being treated like a criminal, riders who were caught losing everything. But he made money off of it.
“People like Armstrong need to be outed and pay the consequences. It was justice,” he says of the Texan getting caught. “Not for me, just for the sport. He could say all he wants, that everybody else was doing it. But you know what? Not everybody was bribing the UCI,” LeMond says, referring to a $100,000 payment Armstrong made to the governing body in 2001. “And I still don’t believe it was just doping ‘cos I know his VO2 max, 78 millilitres of oxygen [other sources put it at 82 and 84 - Ed]. Somehow he made up 30 per cent performance; I don’t know of any drug that makes up that much. Someday that’ll come out, whatever that is.
“But it still comes down to not even Armstrong. It comes down to the UCI, the governing body. If you’re corrupt at the top, you corrupt the sport.” In a scathing 2012 open letter, LeMond called on then-president Pat McQuaid to resign, as “the epitome of the word corruption”. He even briefly put himself forward as an interim head. “So it’s always up to the leaders there – and the Tour de France. They have a responsibility too. They could truly control the sport if they want… they can do their own drug test.”
Ultimately, LeMond emerged vindicated and re-established as America’s only Tour winner following Armstrong and Floyd Landis’ removal from the record books. He points out that was never his objective and that more would be better for their sport. “I definitely earned my Tours,” he adds with a sigh. “I did not cheat, I didn’t dope. I’m proud of that, and I think I beat two of the really great cyclists of my era, Hinault and Fignon.”
There was a sense of déjà vu when LeMond landed in Geneva this summer. Forty-one years ago, his teenage self arrived there with friend and fellow racer Kent Gordis. His first time in Europe made a lasting impression. He cycled up the Joux-Plane to watch the Tour, which hardened his resolve to race it one day. He won, and kept on winning, around Switzerland and Belgium.
“I never had this idea that anybody was better than me,” he says. “That was a huge advantage. Americans had this [belief that] Eddy Merckx was like a god and we couldn’t compete. And I’m kind of going well, I’m beating most of these riders in Europe. That’s when I decided ‘why can’t I shoot for the Tour?’ That’s really what drove me: I set some goals out. I found that was really important for me, I was goal-oriented but had a sensible logic to it.” The famous list he jotted down in October 1978 reads:
1. 1979 - Win JR World Championship Road Race
2. 1980 - Win Olympic Road Race
3. By age 22 - win pro World Champ Road Race
4. By age 25 — win Tour de France
*He got three out of four. One was void, missing out on the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to the American boycott.
Within a few years, he went from being the adolescent who mowed lawns to save for a bike to being the best in the world. “Me and my dad got so into it, we were every weekend racing in northern California. But it was the most exciting part of my career because I really had a good sense of tactics and I was very talented physically,” he says.
Cycling allowed him to change himself: it was a way for this ADHD-affected kid to channel his energy, a boost for his self-esteem after getting in trouble at school. His fifth-grade teacher later told him “I thought you’d end up in prison”.
The other transformative influence is his wife, Kathy Morris. Within a year of their first date at the 1979 Red Zinger Classic, they were married. “I was blessed with meeting Kathy. I’m certain I would never have had the career I had without her,” he says. The teenagers hadn’t planned on getting hitched so soon, but he’d signed a contract to join Renault in May 1980 and was soon to be Europe-bound.
Racing in France that summer was certainly no honeymoon. They turned up in Paris to an empty apartment and a big mattress with a hole in it – “eaten out by rats,” LeMond says. “It was so horrible. There was another American couple we were supposed to share with, but I went ‘I can’t do this.’ We just went home.”
Six months later, they turned up in Nantes for the start of his pro career speaking rudimentary French, loaned a car with a warped windscreen and punctured tyre, living in a freezing house without heating or promised furniture. LeMond had given up an annual income of $30,000 racing in the US to earn nearly a third of that for Renault-Elf. “It’s weird but I know that if I’d made a lot of money at 19, it would almost give you an out when you’re having difficult times,” he says. “As hard as it was, it ends up being part of your memories.”
His path to success was carefully guided by Cyrille Guimard at France’s foremost team, alongside Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon. By the time he debuted at the Tour in 1984 with third place, LeMond already had a senior rainbow jersey and podium finishes at the Tour of Lombardy and Liège-Bastogne-Liège to his name. And yet, there was chagrin from some quarters during his heyday that he failed to win a Classic. “LeMond is no real world champion … he only rides well in the Tour, and there is nothing difficult about that,” Eddy Merckx once said.
The following year, on the big-money La Vie Claire team, he appeared to be stronger than Bernard Hinault, dutifully waiting for his leader on a key mountain stage on the way to second. 1986 was the inevitably dam-burst of talent, desire and what he deserved – five-time winner Hinault, a big brother figure to the American, had promised to help him while racing in a questionably aggressive way. LeMond was naïve, but still got the better of him. “From a pure sporting point, my best performance for sure was ’86. I was significantly stronger than Hinault and never had one bad day,” he says.
Watch: Greg LeMond live on stage at the 2019 Rouleur Classic
This blonde-haired, all-American champion was quite literally a fresh breeze blowing through a fusty, conventional sport – after all, against the received wisdom of the time, he liked having air conditioning in his hotel rooms. He had a Mexican in a cowboy hat waiting for him at the finish, soigneur-assistant Otto Jacome. He was questioning of new coaching methods and curious of technological gains, an early adopter of bike computers, tri-bars, wind tunnel work and SRM. He even smashed the salary glass ceiling in the sport, well aware of his value to a sponsor: “I was shocked when I found out Hinault was making $125,000 – he’s the most popular guy in France. And you had American baseball players making three million a year … you have a very limited career. So you’d better make money while you’re racing because it could be over in three years.” Or even quicker, in the pulling of a trigger.
Bang. The noise was so loud that LeMond thought his own rifle had gone off. He shows us the fingernail that still grows out ragged after being shattered by a pellet. He looked down and it was bleeding – the first sign he had been shot. His brother-in-law Patrick Blades ran over in disbelief, “suicidal” at what he had done. LeMond had to calm him and his uncle down and get them to call for help.
He survived the April 1987 incident, but went from 69 kilos to 54 and lost 70 per cent of his blood volume. His collapsed right lung never came back to full size and he still has 35 lead pellets in him, too close to major organs to be removed. “You lose everything,” he says. “Most people don’t come back from a hunting accident like that. It was way more severe than I ever let out there. I was near death.”
Two years followed where he was “the worst of the bunch”. The following year, he was affected by shin tendinitis. At the 1989 Giro, he was prepared to walk away from the race and cycling. He had not been paid a penny by ADR and was grey from lack of iron. Mid-race, LeMond was at his lowest ebb after losing 17 minutes on Tre Cime di Lavaredo. “You go from winning the Tour in front, breathing through your nose, and now you’re off the back. I saw Roche attacking and thought ‘I’ll never be that good again.’ I would never have continued as a domestique. I couldn’t do it.”
A pregnant Kathy called and convinced him to keep at it to the end of the year. He broke down in tears, received an iron injection and several days of rain took away the pollen that had been acting like a brake on him. Something shifted. A runner-up placing in the race-ending time-trial was a glimmer of hope.
As Armstrong fell from grace, LeMond’s reputation started to rise again. Another helping hand came from his broadcasting role at Eurosport, covering Tours and Giri between 2014 and 2017. On camera, he endeared himself to viewers with his puppyish enthusiasm and knowledge, despite regular anxiety. “I must have done 150 shows with Greg and he was nervous before every single one of them,” co-presenter Ashley House recalls. He would occasionally ask House to help him formulate what he wanted to say, something the American is perfectly capable of doing off the cuff with great eloquence.
Off camera, he was a live-wire, always willing to have a prank (“If you want to play practical jokes on people, Greg would always be the person I’d do it with”) or a whisky nightcap after dinner.
This stint wasn’t just important for the public looking in, but to LeMond himself looking out. “Because he needed that validation from outside,” House says. “Every day I would have to tell him ‘Greg, you wouldn’t believe the [social media] responses I’m getting about you.’ And he wouldn’t believe it. His self-confidence was so low. I don’t know whether that was because of the way he’d been treated or whether it’s always been like that.”
LeMond also tells me that a belief that mechanical doping was taking place affected his job. “It got to the point I didn’t want to interview [certain] people at Eurosport because of it. Because I just said, ‘I don’t think he’s clean’.” He feels the sport’s governing body does not take the issue seriously enough and was keen to discuss it with UCI president David Lappartient later in the week. He often didn’t stand for the status quo in his career if he saw a hole in it, and still won’t sit idly by if he spies solutions. At times, LeMond is a surrogate problem solver – looking out for cycling and compelled to speak out without adequate thought for personal consequences.
But as for being that fighter who will go down in flames? There has been a shift in self-identification in the decade since making that comment. “There’s no doubt that I went through a lot of trauma,” he says. “Trauma rewires your brain. But I’m a survivor. I’m amazed I’ve been through some shit that most people can’t survive. That’s probably why I think I didn’t quit. I really do believe that I never give up,” he laughs. “Sometimes I should, but it’s been one of my strengths in life.
“There’s been some difficult stuff in our family, a lot to do with Trek, other stuff I’d prefer not to talk about, but it’s been very trying. But we’re here, and we’re good. But life is never perfect. I was talking to Warren Miller, who’s the most famous skiing filmmaker,” LeMond says. He sighs. “He said ‘Greg, if we took our own histories and put them on a wall, you’d still probably take your own. Because everybody has their own story.’ It shapes who you are. Really, it’s shaped me in a good way too.”
Zzzzzip. The sound of an orange line hurtling through the air before plopping into the water. In the mountains above Châtel, a chocolate box cliché is brought to life. The LeMonds fish at a little lake surrounded by pine trees, birds twittering, occasional shouts and laughter of children playing nearby.
This is LeMond at leisure: fly fishing has been this nature lover’s passion ever since his childhood roaming Nevada’s Washoe Valley. I watch him standing on the bank, polarised sunglasses and USA Cycling cap on, casting his line back and forth rhythmically through the air with a satisfying whoosh. Meanwhile, his friend Patrick lays out a lunchtime feast of pâté, cold cuts, fresh bread, fruit salad and cold beers on an adjacent picnic table. Little wonder Kathy later declares it “a perfect day”.
At times like this, cycling seems distant. But that past is still buried deep in Greg’s subconscious. “Sometimes I dream I’m in the Tour de France and forgot to train. ‘Can’t believe I got an entry to the Tour de France at 58 years old. Or usually, I’m at the race and I missed the start. It was exciting, a big part of my life. There are times, I go ‘I’d love to be racing again.’ But then you actually come back and see how hard it is. I can’t believe I even did that.”
He might be a grandfather nearing his seventh decade, but LeMond isn’t finished yet. He is embarking on “the most exciting thing” he has ever done in his life. Product design is another passion of his; in recent years, he has spent time at his local Tennessee facility Oak Ridge, working with the U.S. Department of Energy, and at Australia’s Deakin University on a carbon fibre revolution, trying to democratise its use. He wants to be totally independent of Taiwan and start producing LeMond Composites bikes in-house. “It’s more than cycling … We’re in a new future of material science and new materials are going to change the way everything’s made. We’re going to standardise our carbon fibre so anybody in the world can make a product out of it.”
I can’t imagine LeMond in retirement. His mind is always busy, seeking the next challenge. Even if today, it is as straightforward as scanning the azure water for the trout hiding in the rocks.
While Greg casts his rod from the other side of the lake, Kathy looks across at her husband. We have been chatting about the ongoing Tour de France – Mark Cavendish’s absence, Peter Sagan, non-conformity in sport. “Nobody can change him. Forty-two years and no change,” she says. “Some people have their path and you can’t knock them off.”