Greg LeMond knows Lance Armstrong more than most and better than most.
He’s been threatened by him, intimidated by him and embarrassed by him too. Like the time at the Trek bike convention which Armstrong was part owner of, where a powerpoint presentation was delivered to 1,500 retailers and in it were accusations of LeMond “of stealing bikes, being bad for cycling and being a bad business person” because he voiced his concerns about Lance working with Michelle Ferrari. LeMond had a line of bikes and had business interests in Trek too, but they were destroyed because he spoke out. He then had to apologise to Armstrong for doing so. Though he didn’t mean it, it was good for business to do so. And then they came to an out-of-court settlement. All of which took place in his home state of Minnesota, where Trek is based and LeMond lives. He came through it, did Greg, but not before enduring “the worst two years of my life”. It was a slap in the face from America and a dig in the ribs from Lance. Shut the f*** up! was the message.
LeMond cuts a relaxed figure this week. That storm now in the past and the clouds beginning to clear after one of the worst weeks in the sports troubled history.
He walks easily amongst the crowd. The adulation though, is something he seems almost embarrassed about — which is odd, given he’s had it every day since he became a global sporting icon almost three decades ago.
He’s twitchy, easily distracted, looks to the ground and smiles when the uninitiated ask, ‘You won the Tour how many times?’, he admires the paintings in the room, questions things and quickly switches topic. Hardly surprising then that he’s got the condition ADHD — but it’s something he’s loud and proud about. It allowed him to be him, he argues.
If Greg LeMond wore pink trainers and a one-piece sweat-suit to the ADHD conference he was in Ireland for this week, I don’t think one person would’ve flinched. In his pomp, he wore the most ridiculous costumes, sported crazy accessories and did things other riders could only dream of — like going to the cinema after a stage of the Tour when the rest were pinned to the bed in exhaustion. Eccentric is how you’d best describe him.
In many ways, nothing about the three-time Tour de France winner has changed.
He knows I’m here to talk about cycling, picks me out and motions for a chat. “You’ve come a long way I heard, so we’ll get this done,” he barks, completely ruining the civility of a previous conversation he was in.
“Is 20 minutes okay for you?” he asks. Greg, the question is, is 20 minutes okay for you, and we crack into it.
LeMond talks cycling in the same way a fella would talk about an ex-girlfriend he secretly still adores. He wants to believe there’s still a chance of rekindling the love but so much has happened since he was king of the peloton, that he’s not sure if they’ll ever be back together.
“My love for it is like it’s been for a while,” he reasons. “I’m kind of trying to figure out how to get back the love.”
“Though he went to the very top and stayed there for almost a decade, his descent was rapid and took him completely by surprise. That of course, was accelerated by what others around him did when the curtains were drawn and the hotel room doors locked at night.
“I can tell you when I turned pro in ’81 I said to myself if I could make $100,000 a year racing, I’d sign a contract for 10 years. I always thought if I could just race my bike, pay for a house, I could get done with my career and if I could win the Tour one time, that’d be enough. That’s it. That would make my life happy.
“But then after two years, I’d change and say I wanted more [fame and fortune]. Then, at 25 I did win the Tour and my attitude changed. I mean, that was my goal but secretly I had dreams of being Eddy Mercyx and winning five Tours.
“You gotta dream big but I was always realistic too. I didn’t achieve it. I’m not going to commit suicide because I didn’t win five Tours but I would say at the end of my career, I finished with a bad taste in my mouth.”
He describes how it felt, in 1994, to pull over midway through the Tour, unclip his numbers and say, ‘enough’.
“I couldn’t lift my arms at the end I was so tired,” he reasons. “So I went back home and did medical tests and they couldn’t find anything until they did a biopsy and discovered I had a muscular degenerative disease which I still doubt but I have to think the lead pellets in my chest from my hunting accident in 1987 were part of the reason.”
But something else was gnawing at him. The EPO-fuelled speeds of the peloton.
“If you were a Tour de France winner, and you were a leader and you’ve been racing for 10 years, you know who is going to be up there contending. You go to the Tour in ’85, ’86 for example, you had Delgado, Roche, Hinault and myself and you can almost handpick who will be up there. But what happened in the ’90s was visually, you can see a difference. You’re racing the peloton, you’re in the front and you’re sensations feel great.
“But suddenly you start climbing and I told myself when I was hurting, ‘well if I’m hurting, everybody else must be dying’ because I knew I was more talented and that’s how I would not crack but then I started to blow up, every time. I was beaten by guys I would never have seen at the front before.’’
By the 1994 Tour his body had had enough and so had his mind. “In theory I shouldn’t have had a dramatic downfall in my career. I should have gone from 1st to seventh to 10th to nowhere but not first to zero.” That’s EPO. You had a few doing it in 1990, more in 1991 and more again in 1992, '93, '94. By the time it hit '95 you were out if you weren’t doing it.” And that’s what happened. He called it quits and went home.
“It’s very hard to take being criticised for a poor performance, especially when I had no answers. But then it became obvious. I hope the EPO years never come back.”
With the damning report by USADA this week revealing Armstrong to be no more than a fraud, LeMond can finally get closure.
Nowadays, he’ll sit and watch the Tour every July. He takes part in charity rides and runs a restaurant. !
He’s into photography too and reaches into his bag to pull out what looks like a bazooka. “This is the best camera out there. Man you can photograph a flea’s ass from 200 metres with this!”
Greg, we’re definitely over 20 minutes.
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