Because revealing cycling’s dark side cost him his reputation.
The camera lingered as the lanky cyclist hesitated on the side of the road, his hands twitching on the handlebars as he glanced back at the hill he’d just struggled to climb. Seconds later, Greg LeMond quit the hardest race in the world. He’d already won it three times, but he had been trailing this year’s leaders by minutes — an impossible margin at this point in the Tour de France.
When journalists caught up with him, the 33-year-old American sounded resigned. “Just one hill too many,” he admitted to a New York Times reporter in the hotel room he shared with teammate Lance Armstrong. “I ran out of juice.” No one realized it that day in 1994, but that seemingly innocuous phrase from one of the world’s greatest cyclists would prove ominously foreshadowing.
LeMond now holds the loaded title of America’s last cycling hero. He’s the first non-European to make it big in the sport, and now the only American to have won the Tour de France fair and square. But there’s a reason people outside of cycling circles don’t know his name: After he abandoned the 1994 Tour, he took a very different road — one that helped expose the 21st century’s biggest sports scandal.
… Armstrong’s victories were impossible feats and that doping was standard practice in professional cycling.
“LeMond should be remembered as American cycling’s true icon — not only for being the first U.S. Tour de France winner, but also for the manner in which he raced and challenged the sport’s integrity,” says cycling blogger Beth Dempsey. But the reality of his legacy, Dempsey explains, is far more complicated.
A geeky, wide-eyed young cyclist who took Europe’s old-school sporting scene by storm, LeMond’s wins often had a larger-than-life quality. In 1986, he emerged victorious from a Greek drama–esque rivalry with his teammate Bernard Hinault, a stocky, ferocious Frenchman and five-time Tour winner nicknamed “The Badger.” LeMond also had his own miraculous comeback story: Two years after a hunting accident nearly killed him, he returned to the 1989 Tour to beat another French rival, Laurent Fignon, by just eight seconds. As LeMond and his wife, Kathy, clung to each other giddily at the finish, the older Fignon collapsed, sobbing. It looked like the New World had decisively made it in cycling.
LeMond’s abrupt retirement in 1994, then, was a bit like a dream deferred. Many felt he could’ve won more races if he hadn’t been interrupted by injuries. It was a shame, people said, but at least he’d cracked open the sport for young non-European hopefuls like Armstrong.
LeMond got involved with real estate and restaurant management, did public appearances and founded his own bike line. But as his American successors started eating up the road, LeMond began to sense that something was wrong. The first hint of trouble came after the 2001 Tour de France, when LeMond first spoke out against Armstrong, who was at the height of his reign.
LeMond’s problem? Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor and a coach notorious for doping, who Armstrong had inexplicably hired. “This is not sour grapes,” LeMond said then, shrugging off requests to comment further. “I’m disappointed in Lance, that’s all it is.” But no one wanted to hear it. Cycling had been transformed by a drug scandal in 1998, supposedly the tail end of the doping that had started in earnest as LeMond was finishing his career. Drug tests had changed, Armstrong was winning and Americans were pouring money into cycling. “The questioning of Armstrong lacks dignity,” sniffed Tour de France organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc.
A week after LeMond’s remarks, Armstrong reportedly called his former teammate and threatened him: Say anything else, LeMond alleged that Armstrong implied, and your drug-free reputation and bike business are in jeopardy. According to journalist David Walsh’s memoir, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, this was the start of Armstrong’s permanent impact on LeMond’s legacy.But as Armstrong kept winning, LeMond’s suspicions deepened — as did his conviction to speak out.
LeMond’s anti-doping stance quickly infiltrated his personal life. Trek dropped its sponsorship of his bike business. Die-hard fans and respected cycling publications turned against him, and Armstrong repeatedly tried to undermine his reputation. LeMond stopped showing up at the Tour de France. But he remained on course, even confronting Armstrong at press conferences, where he always appeared earnest and eager to get to the truth.
The extent of the toll this campaign had on LeMond became clear in 2007, when he testified at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency arbitration against Floyd Landis, the previous year’s Tour de France winner and suspected doper. LeMond had damning evidence: Landis had implicitly admitted to doping during a phone call with LeMond. LeMond coaxed Landis into talking by disclosing that he’d been sexually abused as a child and knew what it was like to be eaten up by a secret. Healing, LeMond advised, could begin by coming clean. Landis’ coach responded by reportedly trying to harass LeMond out of testifying — incredibly, by pretending to be LeMond’s abuser in a crank call. Landis was later stripped of his title.
When Armstrong’s doping finally came to light, LeMond briefly resurfaced. Heavier and gray-haired, he seemed tired as he explained what he’d been saying for years: Armstrong’s victories were impossible feats and that doping was standard practice in professional cycling. Despite the vindication, restoring LeMond’s winning reputation remains an uphill battle.
(Neither Armstrong nor LeMond responded to OZY’s requests for comments.)