Even relentless fighter now sees cycling as a lost cause

 

IAN O'RIORDANjoins Greg LeMond on a bike ride in Clare as the former Tour de France winner takes him on whirlwind spin of his extraordinary career

HE ARRIVES at Doonbeg Golf Club in the late afternoon. His transatlantic flight was badly delayed. He hasn’t slept in two days. His wife and three kids got in yesterday. Now they’re missing. And the first thing Greg LeMond does is start unpacking his bike.

He spreads out the different parts in the main courtyard. Frame, wheels, handlebars, saddle. A few golfers pass by looking bemused. Isn’t that the famous American cyclist? Before Lance Armstrong came along? With one small wrench he has the bike assembled in five minutes. “LeMond” is written along the white frame and forks. He leans it against the wall; it gleams in the sunshine.

“Best way to deal with the jet lag,” he says with a smile. “Go for a bike ride.”

Story of Greg LeMond’s life. Best way to deal with his prodigious sporting talent? Go for a bike ride. Best way to handle his Attention Deficit Disorder? Go for a bike ride. Best way to cope with his fame? Go for a bike ride. Best way to recover from his near fatal shotgun wound? Go for a bike ride. Best way to manage his depression? Go for a bike ride.

Only in recent years has he realised this was the best way of dealing with the abuse he suffered as a 13-year-old growing up in Washoe Valley, Nevada. Go for a bike ride. These days it’s the best way to deal with his increasingly bitter litigation battle with team Armstrong. Go for a bike ride.

Story of Greg LeMond’s life. If only it were an uncomplicated as going for a ride.

“Have you got a pump?” he asks. “I forgot my pump.”

THE THREE-TIME winner of the Tour de France, the man who introduced professional cycling to the joys of time-trial handlebars, aeroframes, wind-tunnel testing, heart-rate monitors, Oakley sunglasses and Giro helmets, has forgotten his pump. I’m tempted to say no and let him ride on flat tyres. That might even things up.

“Ha ha, right,” – and we head off along the magnificent coast. A tour of the west Clare countryside which LeMond discovered last year. He couldn’t get enough of it so he’s back for more, basing himself at Doonbeg where he can share in his other passion outside of cycling: golf. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s where he is, but straightaway he’s disarmingly open, utterly unpretentious.

“Hey, you’re a little skinny,” he says. I’m thinking he looks a little heavy. He’s two days shy of his 48th birthday but his powerful, athletic frame is still as striking as that Kennedy-like smile. So is his competitive spirit. “I know some nice little hills up this way,” he says, setting the pace.

There is no reason for him to be so generous with his time.

Story of Greg LeMond’s life. When the organisers of this weekend’s BDO Get Back Challenge in Doonbeg asked him to lend his name to their event – a fundraiser for cancer care and activities for disadvantaged children – the one condition was he could ride some of the way. He’s good fun, as we say over here. The real deal, as they say over there. I’m looking at him on his bike, thinking he still fits it like a glove. A few miles later I’m wondering if I’ll last the pace. I can barely keep up. With his conversation, that is – as over the next hour he takes me on a whirlwind tour of his extraordinary career. He does have a tendency to wander, but he never once pauses for breath. Retelling stories he’s told countless times, still with childlike enthusiasm.

How he first comes to Europe in 1978, age 17. How a year later he wins the World Junior road race title. How two years after that, courted by Bernard Hinault and celebrated directeur sportif Cyrille Guimard, he’s racing professionally in the peloton with Renault-Elf-Gitane. “My French was pretty crude. Still is. So I actually spent more time in Belgium. Plus they had BBC.”

How in 1983, age 22, he becomes the first American to win the World Championship. And how he takes to the Tour de France: 1984, third – best young rider; 1985, second – beaten only by Hinault, his team leader; 1986, first – again the first American champion, this time leaving Hinault in his wake. That’s the kind of sporting talent he was blessed with. That’s also why LeMond never needed to play around with doping, and why – almost unique in professional cycling – there is zero evidence he ever did.

“I was beating the East Germans at age 18. Beat them all. None of the teams I rode with ever had any organised doping. Whatever riders did take, they took on their own. I didn’t need to. But I don’t think it made a big difference. Because no one was dramatically better. For athletes, placebos are very powerful. Give a rider an aspirin and say its go-go juice, and they’ll feel great.

“The problem is that every rider has their own ego. It became a vicious cycle. If someone was better, they didn’t want to admit he’s just better. They believe it’s something else. Like, what’s he on? Riders will take anything because they think somebody else is doing it. It became like an arms race. The landscape changed so much. It became a science, and suddenly endocrinologists, haematologists were leading the way in training. Not physiologists. It just became a different animal.”

It’s a subject we’ll return to later. Out past Doughmore Bay it’s too beautiful a setting for such serious conversation. So I ask him about being shot. He points to right side of his back. “A complete accident. Bang. I just felt bad for my brother-in-law. It was his first time hunting. But you know, maybe it was a mixed blessing. I’d been pushing my body so hard, non-stop, for nearly 10 years by then. Maybe I needed that break, to come back and do what I did after.”

EASY TO SAY that now. Not so easy then. It was April 1987 and he was two months away from defending his maillot jaune. And he was 15 seconds away from dying. He was saved by a primitive mobile phone, a police helicopter and a nearby hospital that specialised in gunshot wounds. When the shell exploded about 40 lead pellets ripped through his back and legs, and into his small intestine, liver, diaphragm and heart lining. The surgeons could only remove a few of them, and 37 pellets remain exactly where they’re not supposed to be.

For several weeks after he couldn’t walk across the room. It should have finished him as a professional cyclist. Instead, he won back his maillot jaune in 1989, famously surpassing Laurent Fignon by a mere eight seconds in the final time trial down the Champs-Élysées. Next time he did defend it, in 1990, by over two minutes, despite not winning a stage.

With that the conversation gets serious again. Just a few weeks ago Fignon revealed he has advanced pancreatic cancer. He’s the same age as LeMond. He won the Tour in 1983 and 1984. He may only have months to live. So he’s put out a book about his life, Nous Étions Jeunes et Insouciants – We Were Young and Carefree. In it Fignon admits to taking amphetamines and cortisone shots during his career. He twice failed a drugs test. No one can say for sure this contributed to his cancer.

LeMond’s face immediately saddens. “It makes you think about how short life is. I had dinner with him at last year’s Tour. I’ve always liked Fignon. People think we’re bitter enemies. But we’re not. We were team-mates. He was different to the other riders. He was a thinker.

“He’s thinks now that the drugs he took may be related. But I don’t think anything Fignon was on is related to cancer. I mean, he was on the baby aspirin. It was always a wink, or a joke, at dinner table. ‘Can’t wait ’till the Tour is over, and we don’t have to feel pain anymore’. The problem was the criterion races, which came after. They were all fixed, and kind of disgusting. But they were even more painful, because you’re racing flat out.

“So you have to understand why amphetamines got there. In the ’50s and ’60s, they weren’t considered cheating. They were considered taking care of your body. Like a soigneur. Then there was the transition, where it became illegal, and there was drug testing. But there was still the leftover through the ’70s and ’80s.

“Also, talk to any psychiatrist with a brain and he’ll tell you Type A personalities are in cycling. They come into cycling because it calms their brain down. But the thing about cycling is that it creates depression. It’s natural to seek a stimulant to get out of that. And that can become highly addictive. It’s not performance enhancing. It’s just the beginning of the end.”

The end, certain cyclists would admit, came sometime around 1990, when a newly-discovered drug aimed at treating kidney disease flooded the sport: erythropoietin. Better known these days as EPO. It became not just the drug of choice but the drug of necessity. LeMond thinks so anyway. He rode the 1991 Tour and took seventh, but three years later he couldn’t even finish. Something had changed. Riders he would normally drop without breaking sweat were sticking with him. Several more were further on up the road. He reckoned he was just burnt out. He retired.

“We should probably head back,” he says. “I like to push myself, still, but I got to be careful these days. I found that a couple of years ago, when I started back riding a lot more. The more I pushed myself, the worse I felt. I ended up in the Mayo Clinic for a week, last year, doing some tests. The problem, we think, is those lead pellets. When I push myself now, the body goes catabolic, and that leaks some lead into my system. I’m going to have to get them taken out. I don’t know. That’s a big operation.”

We shower and agree to meet in the Doonbeg Lodge, overlooking the first tee. I tell him I’ll bring along my tape recorder, get some stuff on the record. “None of this,” he says, “is off the record.”

I’m just not sure what he can say about Lance Armstrong. Turns out he has plenty to say.

INEVITABLY THEIR careers became entangled. Armstrong won the World Championship in 1993, the first American since LeMond. In 1996, he overcame cancer. A survivor, in his own way, like LeMond. And in 1999, he won the Tour, his first of seven, and the first American since LeMond. Shortly after that LeMond questioned Armstrong’s association with the Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, and his alleged doping practices. Since then any relationship between Armstrong and LeMond has gone from bad to worse.

It could be seen as just personal. Except it’s not. It’s about business. It’s about fighting for what you believe in. LeMond started his own bicycle company in 1990, then two years later signed a deal with Trek. They would manufacture and distribute the bikes and sell them under LeMond’s name. But by 2001, when LeMond raised his concerns about Michele Ferrari, by far the biggest name on Trek’s books was Lance Armstrong. LeMond, under pressure, retracted, but the fall-out was only beginning. Eight years later it’s headed for the courts; LeMond claims Armstrong, as a way of getting back, was responsible for Trek’s neglect of his line of bikes, which ended the deal completely last year.

“Believe me, I want to walk away from this,” he says. “But right now I’m suing Trek. I’m really not the litigation type. I don’t even want to say disparaging things about Lance, because I don’t think he’s worth it, really.

“He’s starting to paint me as disillusioned, unstable. Now that I realise Trek is over and I don’t have a gag order I’ve been a little more outspoken. But I haven’t just been talking about Lance. The guy has an obsession with me, somehow thinks when I talk about drugs, rehabilitations, I must be talking about him. That’s not a good sign.

“Why can’t we have an open, intellectual debate about it? They want to shut everybody down who talks about it. What I don’t get is, I make comments about cycling in general, about doping, and he always relates them to him. I’m not talking about him. I’m talking about the sport in general.

“It’s all just made me aware of how really corrupt the world of cycling has become. I’m just amazed at how many peoples’ morals are for sale. It’s just a matter of price. They’re trying to take everything away. My business, my reputation. But I am a fighter. And I will go down in flames.”

If LeMond has learnt one thing from the doping mess that has crippled cycling, has somehow become a stronger person because of it all, it’s the importance of being honest with yourself as much as everyone else. About coming clean. For most of his life he told nobody about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of an old family friend sometime around 1974. Until he couldn’t keep it in any longer. In a twisted way, what convinced him to speak out was a phone call from Floyd Landis, the third American to win the Tour, in 2006. Landis was about to be stripped of that title for failing a drugs test, and LeMond pleaded with him to tell the truth. That keeping it secret, like he did his abuse, could destroy him.

What happened next was even more twisted, as Landis’ business manager tried to scare LeMond from testifying in the doping trial by pretending (in a phone call) to be the man that abused him as a kid. As traumatic as this was, it proved to LeMond how sick the sport had become.

“Because of what happened to me as a kid, the abuse, I was trying to please everyone. Trying to do the right thing. Maybe some people thought I was naive. But it’s the same with the riders right now. I know they don’t want to be doing this. They’re like lab rats. That’s why I’ve likened it to somebody who is being abused. They think they’re willing participants, but they’re not able to make that adult, long-term decision. And when they’re 45 or 50 they’ll look back and go, ‘God . . .’

“It’s one thing harming yourself. I’ve done stuff I’m not proud of. Tried recreational drugs. It’s another thing when you’re consciously manipulating, and trying to cheat other people. That to me is a big difference. I see Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton as tragic stories. Marco Pantani as well. I know some people look on them as the problem. They’re not the problem.

“They’re tragedies of the rules not being implemented. Who makes sure the rules are implemented? The governing body. There are some big efforts being made, but it only takes one person to mess it up. There should be no questioning when it comes to implementing the rules. There is enough good science now to get 98 per cent of doping out of the sport.

“It’s just like what happened on Wall Street lately. If you have the fox guarding the hen house. It’s about a trust system. Nobody trusts anybody. Some people are trying to make a living doing it the right way. Some people are trying to get away with murder. So you lose trust. Cycling has mimicked that.”

It’s a sad way to end an extraordinary day with an extraordinary man.

Next Saturday, LeMond will head to Monaco for the start of the 96th Tour de France. “I don’t even know if I want to be there,” he says. “Last year I was a little more hopeful, and then . . . I mean, right now, would I get back involved with professional cycling? No. Would I like my kids to get involved with professional cycling? No way. For me, it’s a lost cause.”

For more information on the BDO Xavier Simpson Get Back Challenge and how to make a donation see www.bdo-getback.com)