Cycling | One comment
By: Paul Kimmage
The Big Interview: Greg LeMond
In reflections to the latest revelations about continuous drug use in the professional peloton (Rebellin, Pfannberger, Bonnen) this story about Greg LeMond’s view about drugs came to my mind. It is definitely interesting read:
LeMond reveals sex abuse
Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford): “I could have been better. I could have broken every record in the book.”
Iris Gaines (Glenn Close): “And then?”
Roy Hobbs: “And then? And then when I walked down the street people would’ve looked and they would’ve said, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game’.” – The Natural
It is a hot Monday afternoon in July 1986 and I am sitting in a white van with my friend Andre Chappuis, driving south to the Alpine city of Grenoble, France. We have spent the night in Paris, celebrating the end of the Tour de France. The smiling face of the winner, Greg LeMond, adorns the front page of L’Equipe, the French sports newspaper.
“What does it say about us?” Andre asks with a grin.
“It’s a scandal,” I reply. “They’ve written four pages on LeMond and ignored us completely . . . No, I’m wrong: we’re listed in the results: Chappuis, 118th, at 2hr 17min 19sec [behind LeMond]; Kimmage, 131st, at 2hr 44min 36sec.”
“Our place in history,” Andre says with a smile. “Don’t knock it.”
“Sure, but I’d rather be Greg LeMond right now,” I say. “Can you imagine how good that must feel? To win the Tour de France! To be the first American to do it! Imagine the fame, the glory, the money he’s going to make. They say he’s flying back to the US for a reception with Reagan at the White House this week.”
“Well, I can tell you what he won’t be doing,” Andre says, “and that’s sweating his bollocks off in a van with no air-conditioning for the next six hours.”
“Too right.” I laugh. “Have you ever spoken to him?” “No,” I reply. “Me neither, but he always comes across as a pretty decent guy. And de Dieu! What a bike rider!”
“Yeah. In my next life I want to come back as LeMond,” I observe. “I want to be born in California with legs like Eddie Merckx and looks like Robert Redford.”
“Yes,” Andre says, “some guys get it all.” But what did we know? What do we ever know?
GREG LEMOND is sitting in the kitchen of his splendid home in Medina, Minnesota. An interview that started with a question about his memories of the last time the Tour visited Britain – in 1994, which turned out to be his final race as a professional – has entered its fourth hour. We have been weaving our way gently through the peaks and valleys of life: his debut as a young professional in 1981; his first world title in 1983; his first Tour win and titanic battle with the great Frenchman Bernard Hinault in 1986; the hunting accident that almost killed him in 1987; his incredible return after two years in the doldrums to the Tour in 1989; his third and final triumph in the race a year later.
Still on the agenda are the sport’s doping problem, some dubious mutual acquaintances and his much-publicized spats with his countrymen Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong. He is starting to tire (perhaps the first time in his life he has struggled to keep pace with me) and apologizes again for the tendency to wander, which has afflicted him since childhood. “I’m sorry,” he says. “What was the question again?”
“It was an observation about your life,” I say. “Does it feel extraordinary to you? Do you feel like you have led an extraordinary life?”
“I feel very fortunate in many ways,” he replies, “but if you knew my whole story, it has been a heartache too . . .”
He pauses and his eyes suddenly well with tears. His wife Kathy, who has been sitting at his side for the duration of the interview, places a comforting hand on his arm. He tries to compose himself and resumes, his voice breaking.
“It appears extraordinary, you know . . . It appeared that everything was always perfect in my life, but it’s been far from perfect. I am fortunate where I am today and I am fortunate that I have been able to look at myself in the mirror and address the stuff that I was never able to address . . . But I can tell you, compared to what I’ve been through in the past three or four years, the Tour de France is easy.”
“You’ll have to explain that,” I say. “Well, what I mean is the whole . . . It’s very narcissistic. Racing is a very selfish, self-centered, self-glorifying thing. My wife’s life for 14 years was centered around me. It was all about me. It was all for my ego . . . I read somewhere recently that [the former Italian rider Claudio] Chiappucci lived with his mom until he was 30 and I thought, ‘God! When are we going to grow up?’ Okay, so you can look at what we did and say, ‘Well, that’s what it takes to be successful’, but is it healthy? Is it really healthy?
“There are a lot of unhealthy people that are driven to sports and they are driven by their own demons, their own past. You see it in business too; I’ve known some very successful, wealthy people and they are the most unhappy people you will ever meet. They can’t ever get enough money. They can’t ever get enough glory. They can’t ever fill the hole.
“There was a part of me with a hole that I could never fill and it almost destroyed me, but I have been able to work through a lot of those difficulties and it feels so empowering now that nobody can hold anything over me. I don’t give a shit what people say, because it really doesn’t matter. My life is about my wife, my kids and the few friends that I have.”
He smiles at Kathy and pulls the ring on a can of Dr Pepper.
“What was the hole?” I ask. IT IS A warm Monday morning in July 1989 and Greg LeMond is staring at the bedroom ceiling of a plush hotel in Paris on the morning after his second triumph in the Tour de France. The night has been short. He has not slept well. He never sleeps well. The elation he felt on the Champs-Elysees has abated. He is wondering about the hole. Will this second Tour victory fulfill him? It didn’t in 1986.
He glances at the phone. When is he going to call? The shadow has not lifted.
The hours have been hectic since they applauded him on the podium: so many hands to shake and commitments to fulfill; so many cameras and microphones stretching to record his words. He will be front-page news around the globe this morning; the nuts and bolts of LeMond explained in the four corners of Le Monde.
The story of how the boy from Lakewood, California, swaps his passion of skiing for cycling and is immediately acclaimed as a natural. The story of his parents, Bob and Bertha, and his two sporting sisters and the genes bestowed on them. The story of his first trip to Europe in 1978 and the wonder that envelopes him when he sees the Tour de France. The story of the objectives he lists that summer on a yellow pad:
1. Place well for experience in the 1978 junior world championships. (He finishes ninth.)
2. Win the 1979 junior world championships. (He wins.)
3. Win the 1980 Olympic road race in Moscow. (America boycotts the Games.)
4. Win the world professional championships by the age of 22 or 23. (He finishes second in 1982, when he is 21, and wins in 1983.)
5. Win a first Tour de France by the age of 24 or 25. (He finishes second in 1985, at 24, and wins in 1986.)
The story of the hunting accident in 1987 when he comes within 20 minutes of bleeding to death after being shot by his brother-in-law. The story of the 37 lead pellets that remain in his body, two in the lining of his heart. The story of his emergency appendectomy a few months later.
The story of his return to racing in 1988, when he struggles among the also-rans and is sidelined from the Tour with injury. The story his return to form in 1989 when he wins the Tour by eight seconds with a brilliant performance in the final stage of the race, a time trial through the streets of Paris. The story of a champion. The story of what happens now and where he races next. The story of Greg LeMond. But not the story. There will be no mention of the secret that continues to haunt his life.
GREGORY JAMES LEMOND is 13 years old. His father is a real-estate broker. His mother is a mom. Home is a house shared with his sisters, Kathy and Karen, in Washoe Valley, Nevada. It is ranch country and the boy enjoys the outdoor life; flyfishing for brook trout in the stream behind their home; hunting and trapshooting and backpacking in summer; downhill skiing in winter. He is Gregory James LeMond, wholesome as apple pie. What would it take to blow a hole in this boy’s life?
Meet Ron from Lake Tahoe. Ron has been a friend of the family since 1969. They go hunting and fishing and skiing together. Ron is a stand-up guy, and when Bob and Bertha’s marriage begins to creak, Ron is there to fill the void. He is plying Greg with attention and preparing him for manhood. He is manipulating his mind with books and magazines and sexual talk that the boy finds strangely stimulating. And then . . .
LeMond is not sure how long he was subjected to the abuse – “it might have been three months or a year and three months” – but remembers that it ended in April or May of 1975. His parents had stopped arguing and were getting on well again. He thinks they must have noticed the change in his behavior, but the abuse was never discussed. A few months later, at a ski camp near Vancouver, Canada, he was informed that cycling was an ideal complement to skiing in the off-season.
He earned $130 cutting logs, bought a Raleigh Grand Prix and took it for a ride. A few days later, his father went to the bike shop and they were soon training regularly together and travelling as a family to races. It was the door to a new life.
“Cycling was a way for me to reinvent myself,” he says. “It was the first time I really had my dad in my life. It united my parents, united my family, and I think that’s what really drove me. It felt so good to feel good about yourself and do something that my parents were proud of.”
He started making lists and ticking off his targets. He dreamt every night about the world’s great racers and the cols (mountain passes) of the Tour de France. His life unfolded like a wondrous fairy tale. By the age of 25 he had it all: a great wife, a beautiful son, the rainbow jersey of world champion, le maillot jaune of the Tour de France champion. But the shadow of Ron never left him.
“I wanted to be seen as a good person,” LeMond says, “and never wanted to let people down, but I found it hard to handle the fame or adulation. I didn’t feel worthy of it. I was ashamed by who I thought I was because I felt partly responsible [for the abuse] and I was never able to enjoy the stuff I should have been able to enjoy. My first thought when I won the Tour was: ‘My God, I’m going to be famous’, and then I thought, ‘He’s going to call’. I was always waiting for that phone call. I lived in fear that anyone would ever find out.”
And finally they did. Six weeks ago he was driving with Kathy to a hotel in Malibu, California, on the eve of his appearance as a witness for the US AntiDoping Agency at an arbitration hearing into alleged doping by Landis, last year’s Tour winner, when his phone rang; odd accent, southern twang.
“Hello.” “Greg?” “Yeah, this is Greg.” “Hi Greg, this is your uncle.” “My uncle?!?” he exclaimed, confused. “This is your uncle. Do you remember me?”
“Who is this?” “This is your uncle and I’m going to be there tomorrow and we can talk about how we used to play hide the weenie.”
“Who the f*** is this?” The line went dead. LeMond exploded with rage.
“He couldn’t stop shaking,” Kathy recalls. “I didn’t think he would be able to testify. Our lawyer sat up in the lobby with me until one in the morning; Greg was so shook up, he could not fill out the police report. I was worried about him.”
The next day LeMond showed the court his phone and the number of the person who had called him. It belonged to Will Geoghegan, Landis’s friend and business manager. He was sacked on the spot.
LeMond was front-page news again.
THE MONTH is July 2001. Seven seasons have passed since LeMond’s last bike race and he is about to be replaced as America’s pre-eminent cyclist by Lance Armstrong. LeMond has never been close to the Texan and he finds himself at the centre of a storm when he is informed by a journalist that Armstrong has been working with Michele Ferrari, an Italian sports doctor who was about to stand trial on doping charges. Ferrari was eventually cleared last year.
“The only thing I said about Lance was that I was disappointed he was seeing Ferrari,” LeMond explains. “I mean, who wouldn’t be? We’re talking about a sport that had been brought to its knees [by the Festina doping scandal three years earlier]. Why would you associate with someone like that if you wanted to portray an image that the sport was trying to change?”
Two weeks later Armstrong phoned him and an angry spat ensued.
“Greg, this is Lance.” “Hi, Lance, what are you doing?” “I’m in New York.” “Ah, okay.” “Greg, I thought we were friends.” “I thought we were friends.” “Why did you say what you said?” “About Ferrari? Well, I have a problem with Ferrari. I’m disappointed you are seeing someone like Ferrari. I have a personal issue with Ferrari and doctors like him. I feel my career was cut short. I saw a teammate die. I saw the devastation of innocent riders losing their careers. I don’t like what has become of our sport.”
The fallout was massive. Fans who had once venerated LeMond wrote angry blogs accusing him of sour grapes. A couple of prominent businessmen he regarded as friends phoned and advised him to stay on-side. And then he received a call from John Burke, the chief executive of Trek, the company with a licensing agreement with LeMond to manufacture market and distribute LeMond Racing Cycles.
Burke was in a difficult position. Trek also sponsored Armstrong and his US Postal team. Criticism of the great cancer survivor was not good for business. LeMond was reminded of the clause in his contract with the company that invalidated the contract if he damaged Trek’s interests. Armstrong’s people were insisting on an apology. LeMond tried to resist, but eventually caved in. In August 2001 an apology to Armstrong was issued. LeMond read it and wept.
The two years that followed were the worst of his life. Ron was still lurking on his shoulder. He still hadn’t told Kathy or anyone about the abuse and he began smoking and drinking and became severely depressed. “I got so drunk one night where I wanted to tell my wife, because I knew that if I didn’t, something was going to happen,” he says. “I couldn’t do it. I said, ‘I’ll tell you on my death bed’. I just ran.
“I left home and ran from my family. I felt I needed to lose everything: my wife, my kids, my house, every cent I had. I thought that if I put myself in the gutter, I would find myself. I did some stuff against my wife I wasn’t proud of. Kathy knew instantly what was going on. My wife is an angel; I’ve always felt that I didn’t deserve her, but it was only when I felt I might lose her that I came home and broke down and told her everything.
“She begged me to see a therapist. I read a couple of books by Alice Miller – The Drama Of The Gifted Child and The Truth Will Set You Free – and cried the whole way though them. It was me. I went through a period where I needed to coast and get stronger, and the last four years has been the proudest period of my life. I’m holding people accountable now. I’ve hired an investigator to find the guy who abused me, to get him on a [pedophile] list. Nobody is going to take advantage of me. I’m not taking shit from anybody.”
THE CONVERSATION has returned to the Tour de France in 1994, the last time the race visited Britain and his last race as a professional.
The end is rarely easy for any professional sportsman and he left Europe and returned to the US with few fond memories of his last three seasons. There was talk of a new drug, EPO, fuelling the peloton and LeMond could no longer compete.
“I went to Europe with a dream,” he says, “and I know there was doping in the 80s and I’m certain a lot of riders were doing stuff and that cortisone was a drug of choice, but I was always able to perform and win races against those guys. At 19 years old I finished third in the Dauphine [France's second-biggest stage race]; at 20 I won the Tour de L’Avenir by 10 minutes and finished second in the worlds [championships]. I was fortunate I was successful right away and didn’t get drawn into that.
“By 1993 I was just so fatigued and I don’t know if it was because everybody was on EPO, I really don’t, but I was checked out for every possible problem there could be health-wise. I went to see a sports doctor and he said, ‘Greg, there is nothing wrong with you; if you want to race well, you go to [Dr X], you need to contact him, because if you’re not on EPO, you don’t have a chance’.”
“And did you?” I ask. “No.” “You never considered it?” “I had already won three Tours – and I don’t know if this is on the record – but I don’t think I could have survived a positive drug test. I’m talking psychologically.” “Why do you not want that on the record?” I ask.
“Because it has to do with my sexual abuse.”
“I think you can put that on the record,” says Kathy. “Everybody knows what happened.”
Her husband’s eyes well with tears. “I know,” he counters, “but it’s something I wasn’t prepared to come out with until I was forced to, until that phone call [from Geoghegan] . . . I’ve dealt with a lot of therapy on this and . . .”
He pauses to compose himself. “We’ve done a lot of talking about this,” Kathy says. “Why wouldn’t Greg have gone to [Dr X]? Why not? I think Greg was carrying such a load of shame that, like he said, he couldn’t have survived a positive drug test, he probably couldn’t. He had to have something to hold on to that was pure and good about himself, and cycling was that.”
“I wasn’t prepared for what happened with the Floyd Landis thing,” LeMond continues. “I met his family last year at the Tour of Georgia and they seemed such a nice family. I even suspended belief when he won that stage [in last year's Tour, Landis mounted a spectacular breakaway in a stage to Morzine the day after he had lost eight minutes to his nearest rivals]; I thought there was a chance that this could be a cleaner Tour. But then he tests positive and I instantly get about 20 calls from journalists, and having a muzzle is no fun, so I tell them what I think.”
“And then you get a call from Floyd?” “I thought it was a prank call at first. I kept saying, ‘Come on, who is this?’ It took me about five minutes before I realized it was him. So he says, ‘I’m trying to find out where you’re coming from’. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Why are you speaking out like this?’ I said, ‘I hate to say this, Floyd, but you’ve got an A and a B positive [riders' urine samples are tested a second time if a positive outcome is returned in the first test] for synthetic testosterone; I don’t think you’re going to get out of this’.
“So I’m telling him, don’t do what Tyler Hamilton did [the American cyclist was caught doping and banned from the sport, but has always denied using drugs], because you might get away with it, but if you have any conscience, it’s going to kill you in the end. If you can come clean, you could be the one person that saves the sport. The sport is already dying, but you could change it. “‘But if you don’t, you are going to be known as the Ben Johnson of cycling – the first Tour de France winner that has ever been stripped of the title, and I don’t know, but I couldn’t survive that’. And that was when I went into my story and the secret that nearly destroyed me.”
“It was a pretty frank admission,” I suggest.
“Because Floyd wasn’t angry,” he says. “He was like a deer in the headlights. I think he was really calling to ask, ‘What should I do?’ This was a phone call looking for guidance. He will deny that now, but I can tell you, it’s true.
“I told him my story. I said, ‘I’m telling it to you because by keeping it a secret it nearly killed me’. He said, ‘Greg, if I come clean, I would destroy all of my friends and hurt so many people’. I said, ‘Floyd, I’m 15 years older than you. Do you think your friends in cycling are your friends? They’re just acquaintances. You think your whole life is cycling, but it’s just a small part of it. There is so much more beyond that’.
“And that’s how we finished the deal. He asked me to keep the conversation between us, and that suited me fine. I had no intention of going public with the abuse.”
“But things turn ugly,” I say. “Yeah, somebody told Floyd that I had been speaking to Wada [the world antidoping body] and he posted this stuff about me on his website [ "The facts that he (LeMond) divulged to me would damage his character severely and I would rather not do what has been done to me. However, if he ever opens his mouth again and the word Floyd comes out, I will tell you all some things that you will wish you didn't know."] He never apologized and never took it down. I decided I would testify about the conversation we’d had.”
“On the eve of your appearance you get the call from Will Geoghegan?”
“Yeah.” “What effect did that have on you?” “It was one of the most emotionally disturbing things that has ever happened to me and I’m hoping that the LA police and the DA [district attorney] are going to charge both Floyd and Will, because under his testimony, Floyd essentially admitted he was right there with Will all the way through. How else would he get the number?”
The exact involvement of Landis in the making of the call has yet to be determined.
“The thing that really bugs me,” Kathy says, “is that he has never apologized. He knew damn well how traumatic this is for Greg.”
“He actually said under testimony that what I had told him had traumatized him!” LeMond snorts. “I just hope the DA goes after him. The whole thing is sick – the cover-up, the threats – it’s just sick. This sport needs to bleed to death before it can rebuild. And even then, I don’t know . . .” AS THE interview draws to a close, the first shadows of evening have descended on LeMond’s lawns. Almost nine hours have passed since we began this morning and I am feeling almost as tired as when we used to race as he escorts me to my car. We have both started riding our bikes again, pale shadows of our former selves. I have always felt comfortable with my shadow. LeMond, at last, feels comfortable with his.