An American cyclist cheats death then returns to his sport to win its premier event, the grueling three-week-long Tour de France.
Thus reads the hagiography of Lance Armstrong, who survived advanced testicular cancer then won the 1999 Tour. But it is also the story of Greg LeMond, who rode victoriously into Paris ten years earlier with 37 shotgun pellets in his body, the result of a 1987 hunting accident.
Performance Enhanced Lance (Allegedly)
America knows Lance Armstrong. We know that he won a record 7 Tours de France; and we wear the yellow silicon bracelets that we bought to support his cancer foundation. We also hear the rumors and accusations: claims by teammates that he used erythropoietin (EPO); questions about his association with controversial physician Michele Ferrari; the doping allegations published in the 2004 French book L.A. Confidential.
Last week Tyler Hamilton—a former teammate of Armstrong’s and a rising star in the sport before he earned an 8-year ban for doping—told 60 Minutes that Armstrong not only took EPO and received a banned blood transfusion but also encouraged teammates to do the same. Hamilton is one of several American riders to have accused Armstrong of doping. Frankie Andreu, Floyd Landis, and George Hincapie have made similar claims. (Andreu has admitted to using EPO to prepare for the 1999 Tour; Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after testing positive for an illegal ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone.)
The amount of circumstantial evidence that Armstrong used performance enhancers has reached Sammy Sosa levels. Earlier this week Amy Shipley wrote in the Washington Post:
Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles could be jeopardized by the doping allegations made by two former cycling teammates even if Armstrong avoids a federal indictment or prosecution, according to people involved in the anti-doping movement and legal precedent.
Armstrong has successfully defended himself from these accusations for more than a decade. He tweeted in response to these recent accusations:
20+ year career. 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case.
Dan Wetzel, who assumes that Armstrong used performance enhancers, argues that doping doesn’t lessen Armstrong’s legacy:
All of sport is riddled with PED use. And while Armstrong no doubt rode for glory and money and fame, his career became more than that. . . .
Somewhere in that journey he made it about taking on the biggest killer in the world, in the biggest way he possibly could.
Cancer couldn’t kill him. So this hard-nosed Texan decided to try to kill cancer.
Armstrong’s story is incredible with or without EPO. And the work he has done to raise money for cancer research and to inspire solidarity among the hundreds of millions of people affected by cancer stands on its own. Perhaps to casual sports fans and those who know Armstrong mainly for his charity and advocacy work, allegations that Armstrong won one or more of his 7 Tours de France with the help of banned substances isn’t a big deal. But for fans of cycling and endurance sports it is. It doesn’t help that so many of Armstrong’s esteemed peers, including most major American cyclists of his generation, have either been caught doping or have confessed to using banned substances. (Levi Leipheimer, to my knowledge, has never been suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. So pull for him in this year’s Tour.)
The latter years of the Steroid Era in baseball, when it had become obvious that performance-enhancing drugs were responsible for inflating the statistics of many of the game’s best players, were for many an opportunity to celebrate the great players throughout history who hadn’t been suspected of juicing. Particularly the great clean power hitters: Hank Aaron. The late Harmon Killebrew. Mike Schmidt. Ken Griffey, Jr. Perhaps Lance Armstrong’s seemingly inevitable fall from grace will be an opportunity to celebrate America’s great clean cyclist.
America’s Great Clean Cyclist
In 1986 Minnesota’s Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France. The year before he’d finished second to teammate and five-time winner Bernard Hinault. (If team managers hadn’t instructed LeMond to ride in support of Hinault, he may have won the 1985 tour as well.)
Less than a year after his first Tour win, LeMond’s career—and life—nearly ended. While turkey hunting in California, LeMond’s brother-in-law accidentally discharged his shotgun while standing only a few feet away from the champion cyclist. Sports Illustrated has the details:
LeMond started to straighten up, to ask, “Who shot. . . ?” when he felt the blow of approximately 60 No. 2-sized pellets in his back and side. He discovered he could barely breathe — his right lung had collapsed. His kidney and liver were hit. So were his diaphragm and intestine. Two pellets lodged in the lining of his heart. As LeMond lay in the field, awaiting the helicopter that would ultimately save his life, he thought he was going to die.
LeMond’s recovery was slow, hampered by an infected tendon in his right shin. He missed the 1987 and 1988 Tours de France, and he struggled early in the 1989 season. He wasn’t among the favorites for the 1989 Tour, and his personal goal was only to finish in the top 20. When he finished fourth in the Prologue time trial, he set his sights higher.
By Stage 5, LeMond had captured the yellow jersey. For the remainder of the Tour, the maillot jaune passed back and forth between LeMond and French two-time champion Laurent Fignon. Fignon led by 50 seconds going into the final stage, an individual time trial. The lead seemed insurmountable, but LeMond rode one of the fastest time trials in the history of the race and gained 58 seconds on the leader. LeMond won the 1989 Tour by 8 seconds, the smallest margin ever. (No Tour since then has ended with a time trial.)
(An aside: In the summer of 1989 Greg LeMond was my hero. I watched almost every stage of the 1989 Tour on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. After watching each one, I’d take off on my bike, pretending that the mild incline toward the end of the street was the Alpe D’Huez and that my three-mile afternoon ride was a 140 kilometer trek through the French country side. Alas my dream of one day being a competitive cyclist ended when I decided that my paper route money was best spent on Little Debbie snack cakes in the middle school cafeteria.)
Later that year, LeMond won the UCI World Championship race, and Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year. In 1990 LeMond won his third Tour, this time by a more comfortable margin. For his career LeMond won 3 Tours de France and placed in the top three 5 times. He won 2 Coors Classics and one Tour DuPont (each of which was the biggest American race at the time) and twice won the World Championship. And he lost two years of his prime. Not bad.
In 1991, the year after LeMond’s final Tour win, Spain’s Miguel Indurain won his first Tour de France. Indurain won again in 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995, all by wide margins. A few years later Lance came along, beating cancer and supplanting LeMond as the greatest American cyclist. The American public soon forgot about the Minnesotan who’d given them one of the great sports moments of the late twentieth century.
Greg LeMond has never been accused or suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. But his legacy and credibility are linked to the sport’s doping scandals because he has been so outspoken on the topic. He publicly criticized Armstrong’s relationship with trainer Michele Ferrari. He testified against Floyd Landis. He wrote an op-ed in France’s LeMonde (no relation) newspaper questioning whether Alberto Contador—winner of the 2007, 2009, and 2010 Tours de France—was clean. All of this gave him the reputation of being a tattletale.
When LeMond first raised questions about Armstrong, he appeared jealous. Upset that he’d been replaced by an American cyclist with more victories and a better story. Desperate to keep his name in the spotlight. He was a clean version of the 2005 Jose Canseco.
But like Jose Canseco, LeMond’s credibility has healed as we’ve learned more about the degree to which doping infected his sport. (This is where the Jose Canseco comparison ends.) Maybe he wasn’t bitter. Maybe he wasn’t bent on keeping his name in the headlines. Maybe he really had the best interest of his sport in mind.
Even if he is bitter and jealous, LeMond had a great career and one worth remembering. Depending on what we learn about Armstrong, LeMond may go down as the United States’ greatest endurance athlete. And we have no reason to suspect that he didn’t do it the right way.
So enjoy this:
Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley.