After the storm: An exclusive interview with Greg LeMond
Editor’s note: To close out the year, we are counting down the top 14 stories of 2014. VeloNews and Velo magazine’s editorial staff voted this piece as one of our favorite articles of the year.
There are few men who have ever experienced a rollercoaster of highs and lows through a career in professional cycling akin to the ride that American Greg LeMond has taken.
LeMond was the first American man to win an elite world road championship (in 1983), the first cyclist to sign a million-dollar contract (in 1984), the first American to win the Tour de France (in 1986), and the first cyclist to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as its Sportsman of the Year (1989). In all “LeMonster” won two elite world titles and three Tours, as well as the Tour de l’Avenir, Criterium du Dauphine, and the Coors Classic, twice.
LeMond has also faced innumerable obstacles, and vicious opponents. During his racing career, he was forced to deal with betrayal, at the hands of his teammate Bernard Hinault, the most imposing rider of his era. Less than a year after winning his first of three Tours, LeMond nearly died due to a hunting accident in 1987, and he lost two of the best years of his career to his recovery. His comeback included two Tour victories, including one, in 1989, by just eight seconds, on the final stage time trial in Paris. His comeback also coincided with the dawn of the EPO era, forcing him into early retirement in 1994 at the age of 33. And LeMond’s post-racing career was, until recently, marred by an ongoing feud with Lance Armstrong — another American rider whose career in cycling strangely also included yellow jerseys, rainbow stripes, a relationship with Trek Bicycles, and a face-to-face encounter with death.
After questioning Armstrong’s relationship with Italian doctor Michele Ferrari back in July 2001, LeMond suffered the wrath of the Texan and his legion of followers. He was viewed by many as jealous, or bitter, and as their feud became more public, and more embroiled, American cycling fans seemed to take sides — you were with LeMond, or you were with Armstrong. The American cycling industry largely followed suit.
For or better or worse, their stories are now, forever, inextricably linked. And as Armstrong’s fortunes have publicly taken a dramatic turn for the worse, LeMond’s have improved, considerably, over the past few years.
When the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published its findings on Armstrong in October 2012, and Armstrong admitted to doping in January 2013, LeMond’s longtime suspicion was vindicated, and, for many American cycling fans, a moment of reckoning had arrived.
In December 2012, at a summit of cycling leaders called Change Cycling Now (CCN), LeMond declared that he was willing to serve as interim president of the UCI after CCN declared that its primary mission was to unseat former UCI president Pat McQuaid. Ultimately, McQuaid was defeated in his bid for a third term by Brian Cookson at the September 2013 UCI Congress in Florence, Italy.
In 2013, LeMond’s bike brand — which had been licensed to Trek Bicycles from 1995 to 2008 — returned, on a limited-edition basis, manufactured by French brand TIME. And just this month, Greg LeMond Bicycles launched the Washoe, a steel road model. The cassette-mounted LeMond Fitness Revolution trainer, which LeMond retained when he sold LeMond Fitness to Hoist Fitness in 2012, remains one of the best-reviewed indoor trainers on the market, used in 2014 by the Garmin-Sharp team.
The 2012 publication of Richard Moore’s excellent book “Slaying the Badger” — and a 2014 ESPN “30 For 30” documentary by the same name — have shed light on LeMond’s side of the intra-squad drama with Hinault at the 1985 and 1986 Tours. LeMond may have come across in those accounts as naïve, but Hinault was exposed for being, at times, diabolical in his desire to tie, and then break, the all-time record of Tour victories.
Also this year, LeMond signed on with Eurosport, providing on-site analysis at Paris-Roubaix, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, on a preview and review show titled “LeMond on Tour,” as well as a new monthly show called “LeMond of Cycling.”
After years spent in relative exile, LeMond, now the only American to have officially won the Tour, has emerged reborn.
On-screen and in person, LeMond comes across as anything but bitter. An affable gentleman with smile wrinkles burned into his face, LeMond was very much in demand at the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month, signing autographs and posing for photographs at every turn.
LeMond was also the marquee presenter at the Interbike Awards dinner — this reporter joined him onstage to present several athletic achievement awards. Afterward, VeloNews caught a few minutes with LeMond, to ask about his reemergence — his life “after the storm.”
The conversation was, like the man himself, scattered in many directions, with no end in sight.
VeloNews: You seem to have returned, after a few quiet years, on many levels. You’re on Eurosport, every day, at the Tour de France. Your brand was on a limited-edition run of beautiful carbon bikes, manufactured by TIME. The Revolution trainer, by LeMond Fitness, is regarded as one of the best on the market. And we’ve seen, or read, your side of the story of the 1986 Tour, in “Slaying the Badger.” You’re everywhere.
Greg LeMond: Well, I’ve had LeMond Fitness since 2001… that was sold to Hoist Fitness, and it’s still a great brand, the indoor exercise, in the fitness category. I took the Revolution and bought it from Hoist. I started that a year ago, a little more than that. It was a good product, and I wanted to keep it going. The reality is, I didn’t intentionally step away from all of it. A few things forced my hand. It became very awkward. I’d come to the bike show, and dealers who sold a lot of bikes of mine wouldn’t look me in the eye. It was awkward. There was a lot propaganda that was spread, and it made it very awkward for me. I guess I may be more sensitive than I think. I’m not quite the… you know, things affect you. I go back to France, I go back and watch [the Tour de France], I think back to when I rode there, and those were powerful moments in my life. For me, it’s less so than even for my family and my kids. My kids think of Belgium as their “real home.” You can get so negative… there was so much negative mojo over the last 10 years, it was hard to break through that and see the great aspects of the sport.
VN: It may have been awkward for you to come to Interbike for a while, but in the aftermath of USADA and Armstrong’s admissions, you’ve emerged vindicated.
GL: Well… I’ve always thought of vindicated as meaning I’d been vindictive, and it was never about being vindictive. I mean, with the stuff that I knew, I remained so reserved, but I don’t know how I held it back, maybe I thought it was suicide.
VN: Well, there are things that you hear, versus things that you ‘know’…
GL: No, no. I knew. I’ve known since probably around 2000. [Former U.S. Postal Service team mechanic] Julien Devries,, he told me everything — about the bribery, about everything. It was a no-win situation… Regrets, whatever, why did I waste that energy? It was very stressful, but I wouldn’t have changed anything about what I did. I couldn’t have changed anything about what I did.
VN: There were a lot of people who said ‘Greg LeMond is jealous, he’s bitter, it’s sour grapes, he’s been over shadowed’…
GL: You realize that when Trek, and their PR firm, when they linked up with Armstrong, that it was their strategy. If there was any negative news about them online, it would bounce right off of Google. If it was something negative or controversial, it would bounce right off the internet. I don’t mean to get too much into that, but it’s just that I gave four of five interviews between 2001 and 2008, out of hundreds of requests. The point is, that they used a political strategy to repeat that Greg is a sore loser and they were successful in implanting that impression. I knew there was no place for me, because of the influence he [Armstrong] had, he had the ability to take control and persuade the governing body and the major races, and I was upsetting the party. The irony is… Armstrong made it a bigger deal than it was. It could have just been, well, we had a disagreement. I never called him a fraud. He said that I called him a fraud, which I didn’t.
But to be honest, it was a difficult period because a large part of my life had been taken away. What’s interesting is when I went back to Eurosport, and was looking at getting back into the bike business, I saw that not anyone in Europe had a clue what sort of negative image that America had, or the bike industry had. Like I said, it was propaganda, it’s a classic tactic. You can destroy people with misinformation. That’s what Armstrong tried to do, and that’s what Trek tried to do. And it worked.
But what’s great is that it didn’t work in 90 percent of the world. I have more friends in Europe, I realized, from a business perspective, that’s my big opportunity. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but when I was at the Alpe d’Huez stage at the Tour last year, and people were cheering, ‘LeMond, LeMond, LeMond, LeMond for President!’ But I think that everything connected well in Europe, especially with the people who love cycling. Over there, they didn’t get the negative publicity like we saw in the U.S. because there weren’t any politically styled counter attacks driven by the Lance engine — he had his whole team, and it was truly an engine.
VN: It was a team effort. When questioned, Armstrong often answered referring to using the editorial “we,” referring to Johan Bruyneel, Bill Stapleton, and the rest of his brain trust.
GL: Yes, and he still does. That’s what you’ll find out with this whistleblower case, and everything else that’s going on. It was really organized. He did it as a team, it was a really organized deal, and unfortunately, I believe Armstrong has a fixation on me and that he has anger toward me that’s beyond normal… if you don’t back what he says…. Well, he either likes you, or he hates you, but I don’t really think he likes anybody. If he can use you, he’ll like you, but I wasn’t willing to be that.
VN: Well, I don’t want to talk too much about Armstrong. It’s hard not to, in the context of your return to the spotlight, but that wasn’t my intent.
GL: I don’t want to either, but I’m just trying to explain how all of that impacted me, being back. It’s good to be back in cycling, and it was never really about Armstrong, but about pro racing, and the system in general, and the only good thing about Armstrong going down was that he took down the old guard of the UCI that was part of the problem. I don’t want to say… [Former UCI president Pat] McQuaid wasn’t the whole thing, but there was a pact there, maybe to protect the sport, or for economic benefit.
And the reason I took the spot at Eurosport was to be a part of the new system, with [new UCI president] Brian Cookson coming in. Looking at the data and the speeds of racing, they are within the realm of human performance. I thought a lot about doing the stuff for Eurosport. I can see how difficult it is for journalists, you get to know the riders, they are good people, they are not bad people, most of the riders… they are part of a team, and they get dragged into it. But I feel confident that the sport is going in the right direction, and work being done on new testing is great. Within three or four years, the testing will be infallible, which will make the sport completely credible.
VN: It seems that over the last 18 months, when take into account the USADA report, “Slaying the Badger” (both the book and the documentary), so much has come out from under the shadows of Armstrong’s reign. Any ambiguity around 1985 or 1986, between you and Hinault, the light has been shown, and now with Cookson in office, you’re on Eurosport, it seems that you are enjoying a true renaissance. It’s as though the curtain has been lifted. The air is clear.
GL: It is for me (laughs).
VN: It seems that way. People are now, once again, able to recognize and respect what you’ve accomplished — and what you stood for, even when it came at a cost.
GL: Well, I can understand people, the way it appeared, because it was portrayed that way, and even some clips of interviews can be extracted and played over and over again. One of the issues I had was that, the hope of what was going into what was happening, once that was exposed, an opposite reaction could happen, and it could actually hurt the sport. Fortunately, I think it might have impacted some, but people are hooked on the sport itself.
VN: Many people who followed the Armstrong narrative closely thought ‘Oh, Greg LeMond is just bitter.’ It wasn’t that simple. But that was the spin.
GL: If people knew me… There’s not one person I’ve ever felt envious of, or jealous of, in my life. It’s just not how I live my life, and if people really knew me, they’d see that. I never finished a race where I got beat and said, ‘hey, I’m jealous,’ because I lost, or because someone made more money than me. It’s just not worth it. It’s just not how I live my life. I mean, maybe I’d be jealous if my wife liked another guy, but that’s just normal.
But this is something that’s always been awkward for me because I couldn’t express myself, no matter what I said, it would come out wrong, or it would be taken differently. Everyone said I should have a PR person, but all they’d do would be to tell me to shut up, and I didn’t want that, I wanted to ask the questions that needed to be asked. So eventually I left the sport so I didn’t have to deal with it. I had to walk away, because the only questions that were interesting, for the media, and the sport, were regarding Armstrong.
VN: The clouds have lifted, the sun is out … What are you most excited about now, with this fresh start?
GL: Well, the bikes with TIME are just a limited-edition thing. We were working on bikes that are independent of them as well. What’s nice is that I have my own team, the company, and I’m getting excited about product and making stuff. It’s a tough market, but we have a brand name, and Europe is a great market. There’s a whole change in the business model today. It’s going to be a mixture of consumer-focus, where we want to work with the consumers who want the product, we don’t want to shove it down their throat. I want to be able to bring in some stuff, that I wanted to bring in … It’s not any different than anyone who wants to make something. I think about things like ergonomics, and doing innovative things. When I was working with a bigger company, like I was before, I was just a figurehead, and I didn’t get to impact a whole lot. Now I get to control my own destiny.
VN: What can you tell us about your experience working with Eurosport this year?
GL: It was fun. They were really happy with it, and I had over 17 million viewers, which was like, holy shit, so … It helped me conquer my fears, and I had to be genuine to get over that. It was great being over there with the riders, and this year’s Tour was just unbelievable, with the cobblestone stage … and you get to see all the young riders … In America it’s easy to get caught up in the bicycle rumors, you’re just watching it, and not really understanding the personalities behind it, but we did a lot of interviews, one every day with the riders, which helps show off who they are and makes the sport more interesting — it’s not just a person on a bike. I’m excited because we are going to do a show called, ‘LeMond of Cycling’ which allows me to be more creative. It’s a show about what I’m doing, whether it’s about my business, or wind-tunnel testing — to vet what is reality, versus marketing BS — and explain things like power output, knowledge of physiology, or training, and other things like that.
VN: Do you see the recent turn of events as an opportunity for you to redefine your legacy?
GL: I guess I don’t think of it that way. It would be nice to actually … I just saw something that was written by a journalist about the American history of cycling, and I knew that Armstrong had some input on it, and the whole period of my career, it went from the 70s right into the 90s, as though I didn’t exist. The amazing part of this story is that we are total opposites, he and I, and I wonder how I got sucked into this whole vortex of negative energy.
VN: Well, it’s been well documented that Armstrong had father issues, and he surely looked up to you early in his career, either as a father figure, or an older brother, or an idol. And when you were disapproving of his behavior, things went downhill quickly.
GL: Yeah, and I believe there were people on his team, [former Motorola team manager and president of the USA Cycling board of directors] Jim Ochowicz and those guys, would tell him certain things about me. There was a story, and I don’t know if it’s true, but there was a time when I was too sick to race at one point, I was really having health issues, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t competing, and [Dutch friend and founder of ADA wheels] Cees Beers called up Massimo Testa and, this what the [Beers] told me, and [Testa told him] ‘Greg took too many drugs.’ [Further clarification of this story at the end of this interview. — Ed]
So that was Armstrong’s education. But the logic of that … if he knew anything about my career, and what I did before I got shot … it was sub-par performance, or what I’d consider sub-par, against [Laurent] Fignon in 1989. If I’d had the same fitness in 1989 as I’d had before I got shot, I believe, with that condition, I would have been minutes ahead of him.
VN: When were you at your absolute best, over your whole career?
GL: The 1986 Tour. I don’t remember suffering at that Tour, at all. Everyday was great. 1989, too, but I always felt I was limited a bit on the climbs, and it was part psychological, because I had spent the last two years getting dropped, so I was always waiting to get dropped. Like at l’Alpe d’Huez, and Superbagnères, I didn’t have the depth. I think a big part of that was I had gotten in shape right before the Tour and I just wasn’t fully ready.
Then I had mono in 1990, and I was still really recovering from the hunting accident. If you watched the Vuelta this year, Valverde was riding better than he had at the Tour. Sometimes you’ll race the Giro, and there would be a high level of overload, recovery, and I would get better. Coming back from the hunting accident, it was only two years that I was out, but I went from 121 pounds at 18 percent body fat, up to 148 pounds, that’s almost 30 pounds of muscle mass, so to build that up as an endurance athlete was huge. By 1991 I felt better than I ever felt in 1989 or 1990, but I got seventh place at the Tour. The speeds started going up.
VN: The timing of your comeback from the hunting accident coincided with the beginning of the EPO era.
GL: Yeah, but I’m glad I was able to come back. I could be dead. But 1986 was my best year. 1985 and 1986 were my best years, by far. I was able to handle the load. It wasn’t like you were handed your calendar, so you had 100 days of racing … I believe that, at age 18, I was physically as good as I was as a pro.
VN: Is there a rider in today’s peloton that you most admire?
GL: Nairo Quintana. That guy is the biggest talent there is right now, by far. I worry just a little bit about his time trialing ability, but for a guy who is 24, to have finished second in his first Tour, then go on to win the Giro, lead the Vuelta — and I believe would have won the Vuelta — it’s really amazing. I was a bit critical, or upset, that he wasn’t included on the Tour de France team, but then I spoke with some of the guys at Movistar, and they told me that he didn’t get selected because he is still so young, and there was the cobblestones stage, and that after a second-place finish last year, there is only one place better, and he’s young.
There are so many good young riders, but … I was told a few stories from a team masseuse, who is Basque, and who admired me as a rider. He told me about Quintana, and what I like is that he stands up to bullies. He stands up for his friends and teammates, a lot like I did. I heard a few stories about this, one of which is from a sprint stage at Catalunya, and there was a sprinter on his team, and some Dutch or Belgian rider was giving Quintana’s teammate some shit, just hyper aggressive, so Quintana went over to the guy and just hit him right across the face. I heard another story, from the Tour de l’Avenir, where someone trying to crash Quintana’s teammate, so he just grabbed this guy’s handlebar and took him down, and [Quintana] said afterwards, ‘If you don’t fight back now, you’re going to get f—ed over later.’
Asked, on follow-up, for further clarification of the claim that Max Testa, who now serves as a team doctor at BMC Racing, had told Cees Beers in 1994 that LeMond had taken drugs, LeMond sent the following response via email:
“It was a Dutch friend Cees Beers, founder of ADA wheels, that talked to Massimo Testa in 1994. I met Cees Beers in 1992 at the Tour of Holland. He came to see me with a set of full carbon wheels and a new technology that he said would provide me insight to everything I did in training and racing. The system was called SRM. He put me into contact with Adrie Van Diemen, whom I consider one of the best physiologists in the world. In 1993 I started and using the SRM system on a fulltime basis, and I hired Adrie as a full time trainer in August of 1993. Between the SRM data, Adrie Van Diemen, Cees Beers, my vo2 max testing that I did in MSP with another physiologist, Dan Zeman, I started to see some weird results and a definite pattern. When recovered, and with time off the bike, I could test at a world class level with a high Vo2 max, 6.4 liters of o2 at max heart rate. If I tested when exhausted, as I did just after the1991 Tour de France, my o2 intake would drop by a significant amount, in 1993 it dropped around 10%. We thought it was an anomaly until the same pattern kept repeating itself in 1992 and again in 1993 and 1994. Each time when I would return home to the USA I would get a physical and do a Vo2 max test. We started to see uptake of o2 drop by 15-20% in 92,93, and in 1994. No could understand what was going on. In 1994 Cees Beers contacted Massimo Testa to see if he might have some insight to what was going on. Massimo supposedly cut to the chase with Cees and told him that I was finished and cooked because I took so many drugs in my career, especially after my comeback in 1989. Cees was shocked and told Massimo that I was not taking drugs and that there was something else going on. It never went further than that.”