Gravel

Q&A: Geneviève Jeanson on her past and future as a bike racer

Next year, the 40-year-old Canadian will be back on the start line racing gravel for Floyd's of Leadville Racing.

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When it was announced that Geneviève Jeanson would be part of the new Floyd’s of Leadville Racing squad in 2022, many people had the same reaction:

I haven’t heard that name in years. 

And that’s because Jeanson, now 40, has been living a world apart from professional cycling since 2006 when she retired from the sport. In 2007, the multi-time Canadian national champ and Sydney Olympian was issued a 10-year ban for a positive EPO test in 2005; she later admitted she had used the performance-enhancing drug since she was 15-years-old.

Jeanson’s story did not end with the doping positive, although she told VeloNews that for years she was content to let it shape the narrative. She later spoke out about being abused physically, sexually, and psychologically by her former coach Andre Aubut; the drug use was simply one thread in the web of abuse.

In the 15 years since she left professional cycling, Jeanson has lived in Phoenix, San Diego, and more recently, back in Montreal, where she was born and raised. She worked in hospitality, studied neuroscience, and took up myriad hobbies unrelated to cycling. She met and married her husband, Paul Hillier, and for the past three years, she’s worked as a head coach at Hillier’s Orange Theory Fitness studio.

Jeanson has spent over a decade working to understand and emerge from the dark shadows of her past. And, she has rediscovered a love of riding her bicycle.

VeloNews spoke to Jeanson via video call last week to discuss her excitement about lining up in 2022.

VeloNews: How did this Floyd’s of Leadville Racing deal come about?

Geneviève Jeanson: I was not looking for a team or a full sponsorship. And with all the bike shortages from Covid, I didn’t even have a gravel bike! I had one before, but it wasn’t a real gravel bike just a bike with 31mm tires, max. Then, during Covid, no bikes were available. Squad Cycles is here in Montreal. My husband has a Squad TT bike, and he said, ‘you know they’re doing gravel bikes,’ and that’s how I connected. I was not looking for a free ride, I was just looking to get a bike and maybe with a small deal on it. We were closed at the studio for almost 15 months, and I spent almost a year and a half with no salary. So I was looking for help and Patrice [Lemieux, founder, and CEO of Squad Cycles] was like, I have two bikes for you, and we had a super good exchange.

Then he said he knew Floyd and had heard about the team and I should speak to Will. That’s how I heard.

VN: Why did you decide to sign up, to return to bike racing? 

GJ: I told Patrice that I realized the only power my former coach still has on me is in regards to racing and training. He took all the fun out of it. It was so stressful and so negative. I figured, ‘here I am and I want to take that back.’ I don’t want to wait until I’m too old and say I never had fun in my career. I love cycling. I want to recreate the connection in my brain, retrain the neurons in my brain between training and racing hard, and enjoying it. 

Jeanson and her husband Paul Hillier.

VN: Have you been riding since you left the sport? 

GJ: For a while, I kept training and I hated it. I was going out and after 5-10 minutes, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this sucks. I hate it.’ I would come back home until the point where I realized that if I wanted to understand who I am, I had to get rid of the bike. So I sold my stuff. I said ‘I’m 25-years-old. I’m gonna figure out what else I like.’ I did a lot of hiking, yoga, and running. All sorts of other exercises that I love. I continued training in the gym because I always liked that. I didn’t ride for seven years.

VN: What was your emotional connection to the bike during that time like? 

GJ: When I got my positive EPO test it was a relief. That decision was made for me. There are five different types of abuse you can have in sports. I had them all.

When I turned 16, I was anemic. My coach said, ‘you’re anemic, if we don’t fix that, your season will be over. We’re gonna go see that doctor.’ We got there and it was not iron, it was EPO. ‘Well, you’ll take it a few times, and then it will be over.’ It was never over. My coach had already told me that if I left him he’d commit suicide or he’d kill me. I couldn’t talk to anyone. Not my family. I didn’t want him to commit suicide or kill me. It’s weird to say now that I know he wouldn’t have killed me, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with the pressure that someone killed themselves because of me.  

Now, I’m 40-years-old, I know that if someone commits suicide, it’s not the fault of someone else. But I didn’t know that at the time. Then, I was under the hook and the manipulation and all the other abuse continued.

At the end of my career in 2005, I was 23-years-old, and I didn’t know how to get out. I didn’t want to continue, but I didn’t know how to make it stop. I thought, ‘maybe I could get injured, maybe I could have an injury that would be so bad I couldn’t ride anymore.’

So when I failed, I was relieved. It was a doorway out of the bad relationship. Of course, it was not that easy. I denied it at first because the coach was telling me to deny and he wanted me to go back to sport. When that was done, I always wanted a restaurant. So, I bought a restaurant and thought, ‘OK, I’m gonna keep busy.’ I bought the restaurant and kept cycling a bit. But it was like a bad addiction. I didn’t know who I was without it.

I started psychotherapy when I was in the US, where I lived for 10 years in Phoenix and five years in San Diego. In Phoenix, I started seeing some therapists but I had so many layers on me. I was only able to peel one at a time, you know, just a tiny baby one. In San Diego, it got better. I did my massage therapy license and I came back to Canada in 2012.

VN: Why did you move back to Canada?

GJ: At some point, I figured, well I’m an only child and if I want to continue to grow as a human being, as a person, I need to come back to Quebec, to Montreal. I need to meet my parents as an adult. I had a lot of unresolved issues with them and they had unresolved issues with me. I was thinking, if I ever have any kids, I can’t be full of that stuff, be passive aggressive, giving all my shit to my kids. That wouldn’t be fair. I need to get rid of that. I would like to have a beautiful relationship with my parents because, if I have kids, I want to be able to have that same relationship with my kids, them with their grandparents, and all that stuff. So I came back. I was 30-years-old. I went back to school. Here in Montreal, and Quebec, we have this kind of junior college. I hadn’t done that —  I finished high school, and I left. So I went back to school and I did all my sciences — chemistry, physics, biology, advanced math, and all that stuff.

VN: Were you riding a bike at that point? 

GJ: I did, a little bit, because I was back in Montreal and I wanted a bike and I was bored. I was living with my parents, going to school with some 17-year-olds, which was fun, actually. But getting my brain back into science mode and all that stuff was difficult. I didn’t have a lot of friends, I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know how to take care of myself. I started riding again, but then I got really busy with school, I went to University in neuroscience and I was working two jobs.

The cycling took a little bit of the backseat. Then, I met my husband, and he’s a cyclist. So I was going to University and working in the restaurant industry. For a long time, I thought I would finish my life with a boutique hotel, or in hospitality, I really liked that. He had a day job, a nine to five job and we couldn’t really see each other because I was working at night, so we used cycling as a date. We could meet and ride and stuff. It’s funny, because all those years before I met him, I was telling myself, I never want to have a boyfriend who rides. It was like, ‘I want it to be my thing,’ you know, but now I’m so glad we can experience that together. So I got a little bit more into it.

When COVID hit, I was already pretty fit. So I took that as a training camp.

In March 2020 I was so exhausted because we’d been starting the business and we were 15 months in and I was coaching a lot and learning all that stuff and all my husband was the same. You know, we were 24/7. So I was praying to have two weeks off. I didn’t know it would be so many months, but I was so happy. We were closed. I could get two weeks. I said, ‘Okay, I have all this time, I’m going to take it as a training camp, and I’m going to start riding. I did all the Zwift badges and this is when I started to reconnect with doing super long rides, having fun, and exploring.

genevieve jeanson
Jeanson at home in Quebec with her dog Texas Ranger.

VN: Was it triggering at all?

GJ: Sometimes it brings stuff up, even now. Mostly, it was like I was reborn.

I hired a coach because I’m taking it seriously, so it comes back. I get the nerves, I get all the PTSD stuff coming back. I have to snap out of it, telling myself ‘well, Gen, you have a job, you have a husband that loves you. This is not the way it used to be — you are in charge of how far and how hard you want to go.’ In the past, if I would miss an interval or my time on this segment was not what it was supposed to be, I would redo it, and then redo it, and then redo it, and it would spiral down into that, a fight. I would always lose the fight because it was never enough. Now I’m like, ‘Okay, I want to get to 300 watts, for example.’ Then, if I don’t, I’m the only one here, it’s me. It’s not, I’m not gonna get beat up. I’m not gonna get abused psychologically, nothing’s gonna happen to me. This is exactly what I wanted to reconnect in my brain. Sometimes it comes up, but mostly it’s starting from fresh and it feels kind of good.

I find that road racing is serious and the atmosphere of road racing. I’m talking about 2005 so it’s probably changed but I felt it was too serious. I’ve already done it. I don’t want to do it anymore and a big part of me wants to go on an adventure. During those 10 hours on the bike, I want to feel joy. I want to feel pain, I want to feel despair, I want to get out of despair, and I want to find a solution to make my legs work again, all that stuff. The world of gravel racing looks so much nicer and fun, and I want to be part of it. I want to be able to drink a beer at the end of the race. I’m not sure I would get back in road racing.

VN: Are you scared to come back into the public and be amongst people who know who you are and may judge you? Or are you totally confident in who you are now?

GJ: I’m totally confident in who I am but there’s always a little part of me that’s, I don’t want to say scared, but I think about it. What I did in the past, even if the decision to take EPO was made for me, I didn’t stop, and now I can understand that.

I didn’t talk about the abuse earlier because I’d rather have my identity linked to failing a drug test rather than have my identity linked to sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. To me that was so big, it made me cringe for such a long time, I figured people knew about the doping and I was going to leave it at that. I didn’t want people to know about that dark side. Another thing that made me understand it — my husband has two children. The youngest, she’s 16 now. I was stunned to realize that I was her age when all that shit happened to me. At 15, you have the maturity of a 15-year-old. You think you’re an adult and you can deal with everything because you’re the oldest you’ve ever been. 

I’m a little nervous about what people will say, but at the same time, it’s either people who don’t know my story and I can explain, and if they don’t want to hear about it they have the right to their opinion. I saw it as: I want the experience so badly for myself to grow and push the bar that I’m willing to take that risk.