Winner of two world championships and three Tours de France, Greg LeMond is one of the top names in the history of the sport. He was the first American to win the Tour and, after Lance Armstrong’s disqualification, the only one still on the record books.
His career successes also include five Tour stages, one in the Giro, the 1982 Tour de L’Avenir and the 1983 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré.
Beyond those wins, he was a rider who was known for his early use of clipless pedals, aero helmets and time trial bars, earning him the tag of being an innovator. He has continued that post-career with his framebuilding company and his current carbon-fibre development partnership with Deakin University.
LeMond has also earned the reputation of being someone with a strong character, who will speak out against doping and rock the boat where he feels it is necessary. He stood up to Lance Armstrong and endured years of derision for doing so, as well as seeing his bike brand being dropped by the Trek company. Armstrong finally admitted that he had doped for much of his career.
Now 56 years of age, LeMond shares his life lessons with CyclingTips. In this latest edition of our What I’ve Learned series, he talks about his background, his experiences with former teammates Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon, the 1987 hunting accident which almost killed him, his anti-doping stance, the importance of compassion and the value of perseverance.
I had attention deficit disorder (ADD) as a kid. I was wild. My sister was a world class gymnast. Man, she was so focused and, unlike me, she was great in school. But when I started riding, it really opened my mind. With the way exercise affected me, I was suddenly able to absorb what I read and pay attention.
Looking back, I think ADD ended up being part of my athletic success. Instead of looking at it as a problem, there are some good advantages. You can hyperfocus and you usually have a very creative and imaginative mind. A curious mind. But in today’s society, you don’t fit into that little envelope of what’s supposed to be appropriate. A lot of people with ADD get left behind. I do think cycling definitely changed the direction of my life in a really positive way.
My parents instilled a sense of morality in me. When I was 12 years old, I had to work for everything I got. I discovered fly fishing and I needed a fly. I actually couldn’t afford it, but I wanted to go fishing. So I tried to steal a Chinese-made fly by poking it through the bag and sticking the fly into my finger. There I was, a 12 year old kid so guilty, looking around. And then, when I turned around, there’s a guy about six feet tall right behind me, who saw exactly what was going on. He called my mom about it. Man, when you let your mom down…that was the last thing I ever stole. My parents did a phenomenal job.
The way I see cheating, it’s kind of like if you have a 90 degree turn to the finish, but you could miss the turn and go a shorter way straight to the finish line… Maybe you could do it, but you’d cheat yourself. What is the point?
Speaking of going the wrong way, I remember Bruno Cornillet in the Coors Classic in 1986. He was on the Peugeot team, and was in a breakaway. The police led him off the course three, four or five kilometres before the finish and I won the sprint.
The UCI wouldn’t give Cornillet the first place. They insisted on it, and I refused to go on the podium. I’m like, ‘I’m not taking it. No way.’ Finally I convinced the race organisers, the UCI, to give Cornillet the victory. He became my teammate five or six years later, and he came up to me and thanked me.
But that was normal, he should have won. Maybe some riders would have taken it, it would have been another victory for their careers. But what would it mean to me? I didn’t care. You lose so many races in racing, so if you’re going to take a victory, do it right. I’m glad I stuck with that type of mentality.
Being shot in a hunting accident taught me one thing in particular: that life can be very short. At the time we had to downplay what happened. I was minutes from death and I lost 60, 70 percent of my blood volume and my right lung collapsed. I went from 148 pounds, 68 kilos, to 119 pounds in five weeks. What I lost was all muscle mass.
Then I ended up having another surgery that July. After being shot, I’d had open surgery on my stomach, nine inches long, and the way they sutured it together meant it was fairly common that your intestines could stick to it and cause intestinal blocks.
I was with my dad in Chinatown, San Francisco and my stomach started hurting. I thought I had food poisoning, and it turned out to be an intestinal block. It was one of the most painful things I’ve experienced. And I had to have another operation.
The next day, I signed with PDM. They were the only team that would take me in. They wanted me to make sure I raced before the end of the year. I showed up to a criterium and I couldn’t make it half a kilometre, I got dropped. It was incredibly difficult mentally to go on from that.
Looking back, I’m amazed I didn’t quit. And, probably, if had known how long it would take me to come back, I might have. In fact, I was about to quit just before I won the Tour in 1989.
I smile when people say that I was the most innovative cyclist. That’s the reputation. But the truth is I was curious and I saw opportunity when others didn’t. And I think that’s really one of my strengths.
I am always thinking about why you would do something a certain way. Is there a better way to do it? And why wouldn’t you do it this way?
I know money plays a big role in doping. And I will not judge riders that were from the 2000s. Well, there are some ringleaders – I would say there’s ringleaders, and there’s the ones that victims.
I mean, I mean everybody has a choice to do stuff but when it’s so prevalent, it’s rare that you are going to get this whole group of people that are going to say, ‘no, I’m not going to do it,’ because cycling is what they love. And then they get told it’s not harmful for you, too.
After I got shot I was with PDM. PDM became known as one of the early doping teams, but I didn’t realize this when I signed with them. I’m so grateful that I was injured that year, because I consider myself as someone who could have been a vulnerable athlete, the way they seduced riders.
One time I was with my wife and we were in Eindhoven with the team, sitting at a big table. They go, ‘you know, you have been through a very serious accident. You know, we want to help you. We want to provide with that structure, that medical rehabilitation.’ But it wasn’t rehab they were talking about – it was medical.
That’s what they would try to do. They would try to seduce riders into it. Doctors would say, ‘of course your testosterone is low after a three weeks stage race. Of course that’s what you need to recover…’
I’m so lucky I turned pro when I did, because I’d have hated to have turned pro in 92, 93, 94. People don’t get into cycling to get into doping, but if that’s the culture and that’s the only way you are going to race… if you are 19, 20, if that’s your life, I can see why riders would do it.
That’s why I’m passionate about having a clean sport, because I don’t want riders to face that choice. Let’s say I turned pro in 93, exactly the same person, but had capitulated to everything…it would have changed me forever.
Sometimes I am really disappointed with that era, because I think I was riding better in 91 than I did in 1990. And I really felt had the race been….had EPO had not been there – that Tour could have turned out differently I’m not trying to blame anyone, it was not about whoever won that race – but the whole peloton, the speed was up and it fried me.
I don’t think I’d have been as proud of my career if I had given in to doping. You could justify it by saying ‘everybody is doing it,’ but it still affects you. I’ve talked to different riders and they have said they wish they were never in that period because of the pressure. I think we’re in a better period now.
I think being shot made me more compassionate. I mean, I was always a compassionate person, but I think after that it changed things, made me a different person. How? Well, before the accident, when I was in good shape in 86, I knew that nobody was going to drop me. I didn’t suffer in that Tour.
And then, after coming back, I was always waiting to blow. Always thinking, when is it, when am I going to blow? From that time, when I look at people who’ve been injured, people who don’t have the opportunities other privileged people do, I can imagine their suffering. I can imagine that things aren’t always straightforward. It’s luck. I got lucky. I lived, I was given a chance. A lot of people don’t have that luck.
There has been a lot written about the tensions between myself and Bernard Hinault during the 1986 Tour. But our relationship was generally very good. He was the Eddy Merckx of that time. He flew to my house when I was 18, before I turned pro with Cyrille Guimard’s Renault team. We went running together. He actually treated me like a brother. He went out of his way to make things easy for me, but he also did that for other riders.
Hinault treated his teammates very well. For sure he has to share prizemoney – that’s part of the sport – but I remember him sharing money he didn’t need to share with riders. And he treated everybody with respect.
There was no ego. I mean, he was a leader, but a leader in the sense of ‘okay, we’re going to attack tomorrow.’ But it wasn’t a case of…. ‘you are my paid domestique, you have no say in this team.’ And I think that was the spirit of Renault, too. The way we raced, if I worked for him one time, he would work for me. He would work for other riders. So we were sharing success.
Because we were so close, that’s why there was such an emotional conflict between us in 1985, 1986. The first year, I helped him to win his fifth Tour. Afterwards, he said that he would help me in return in 1986, but that’s not really how things turned out.
I think if Guimard was still managing us then, things would have been different. He would have said to him, ‘you got your fifth win because of Greg, so it’s payback time.’ So that’s why it’s hard for me. I still smile when he says he worked for me. I read [former mutual teammate] Jean-Francois Bernard just recently and he said ‘oh yeah, Hinault was trying to screw him every single day.’
It got to the point where, at the Coors Classic, we were not talking. And I was pissed with things, but that was just at that moment. I wish now it never happened.
Sometimes I wish I was more cutthroat, cared less about things like that. But 25 percent of CEOs in America are sociopaths. A lot of very successful people are sociopaths. And I’m not. It’s easy when you have no emotions, when you have no empathy for people. But that’s not how I operate. So I wouldn’t change that.
Guimard taught me to really believe in myself more. I think one of the most important things he said is it is never over until the finish line.
He emphasised you just can’t quit races, because then it gets too easy. And I think my strength throughout my life is perseverance. To give an example: I don’t believe that many riders in the current peloton or the peloton I was racing in would ever continue after getting shot like I did. I went two years being ridiculed, critiqued, laughed at. Most people would quit.
That has been my strength, staying the course. And that carries right through my life… I went through some difficult, stressful periods over the last ten, 15 years. We have had one thing after another crop up, and that would cripple a lot of people.
I see it now why I was good in cycling. If I set out an objective, if I set out a goal, I stick to it. The only exception is if, from a logical perspective, it makes no sense to continue.
In that regard, if I had known what was going on at the end of my career, that many riders were using EPO, that I had never a chance, that I just really destroyed my body trying to race against them, I probably would have quit in 1992. But we were not aware of what was going on. Nobody knew what the performance gains were.
I still had that mentality of perseverance, like I did when I was coming back from my hunting accident. Because of that, I rode myself into the ground for two, three years.
I got really, really worn down as a result of that. I got a diagnosis of muscular myopathy; they did a biopsy, so it was accurate. But your mitochondria are affected by toxins. I had lead in my system as a result of being shot, and I think I was digging so deep trying to compete with people using EPO that it affected my system and my mitochondria. When you ride a lot, your body pulls out calcium for your mitochondria. But my system was pulling lead out, and that had a big effect.
The only other rider I ever met that had these extreme sensations of fatigue around that period was Laurent Fignon. We talked in 2008 or 2009, and he said that at one point he got so tired he couldn’t lift his arms.
I said, ‘oh my gosh, I used to tell Roger Legeay that my arms were so tired.’ And Laurent said he could never get into the grand plateau [big ring]. If you can’t get into your big chainring, you are wiped out.
The difference between Fignon and myself and even some of the riders like Andy Hampsten and all the other riders… If you are one of the typical riders who are not riding GC, you will go to just what your limit is, then ride below it because you have to finish the race.
As for us, you know your place in the peloton after 10 years of racing. I know that if I’m riding well in training I should be right up there with Bugno, Chiappucci. But I’m not. I’m going until I blow. And that’s what Laurent said he did. He went until he blew for two years. And then two years of that…it makes you chronically overtrained.
Myself and Laurent were friends. We got into a big battle in 89. We just raced it out, battled it out to the end. But honestly, I felt bad for him losing the race because he’d struggled like I had to come back to the top. We met up afterwards in 97. Then we met in 2008, rode, had dinner, then again in 2009.
We got along. I think the only thing that for him was painful was sometimes when I’ve been with him, and people went ‘Greg, Greg, ’89, what a great deal.’ And to Fignon, ‘oh, how could you lose?’
And I’m standing right there with him, seeing this. Imagine, he’s known not for his two victories, but the one loss.
Laurent never went back to the Champs Elysees after the 1989 Tour. Imagine that. I’d almost give the Tour back for that. Racing wasn’t that important to me.