Bummed About Lance Armstrong? There’s Always Greg LeMond

[A version of this article ran on May 27, 2011 after cyclist and Lance Armstrong's former teammate Tyler Hamilton told 60 Minutes that Armstrong not only took erythropoietin (EPO) and received a banned blood transfusion but also encouraged teammates to do the same.]

If you went to bed early last night, here’s what you missed:

American folk hero Lance Armstrong—who won a record seven Tours de France after beating cancer; founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation to support cancer victims and survivors and their families; and made silicon wristbands a sought-after fashion accessory—gave up his fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

The USADA is now free to ban Armstrong from cycling and triathlons for life and strip him of his seven Tour titles and Olympic bronze medal. (He finished third in the men’s time trial in 2000 in Sydney.)

Armstrong maintains his innocence. He claims that the USADA is overstepping its jurisdiction and that his decision to concede his struggle against the USADA had nothing to do with any new evidence against him.

The USADA did not suddenly discover a smoking gun yesterday, but the organization has found enough smoke and enough guns over the past thirteen years to build a strong case against Armstrong. It would be hard for an objective person at this point to believe that Armstrong never broke the rules to his advantage.

Armstrong filed two lawsuits against the USADA, both of which judges threw out (on July 9 and August 20, respectively). His last recourse would have been to take the case to arbitration, but it’s unlikely that arbitration would have worked in Armstrong’s favor.

Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong together and smiling, something you’ll never ever see again.

No One Has Ever Accused Cycling of Being a Clean Sport

Doping is almost as much a part of professional cycling as pedals and gears. Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs said it best:

Let’s remember that the history of the sport we’re talking about here is more or less the history of doping. From the end of the 19th century to the present day, competitive cyclists have injected, swallowed, or otherwise consumed for the purposes of performance enhancement wine, brandy, whiskey, Champagne, horse ointment, strychnine, cocaine, cocaine metabolites, cannabis, nitroglycerin, chloroform, aspirin, amphetamines, solucamphre, ronicol, nicotinyl alcohol tartrate, peripheral vasodilators, palfium, fencamfamine, coramine, cortisone, pemoline, tetracosactide, ritalin, probenecid, celestone, amineptine, HGH, HCG, EPO, bromantan, bronchodilators, clenbuterol, ephedrine, norbolethone, probenecid, norandrosterone, noretiocholanolone, Aranesp, heptaminol, nicethamide, phentermine, clostebol, carphedone, stanozolol, prednisolone, prednisone, triamcinolone acetonide, metelonone, benzoylecgonine, methylecgonine, triamcinolone acetonide, salbutamol, salmeterol, finasteride, dehydroepiandrosterone, methylhexanamine, methoxy polyethylene glycol-epoetin beta, and powdered boar testicles. To name a few.

Abusing any of these substances is probably very bad for you. So is pedaling a bike really fast up a very big mountain, day after day after day (an activity, incidentally, that is every bit as unnatural as anything on WADA’s naughty list). As long as the sport requires its athletes to push themselves to the outer limits of their aerobic capability, those athletes will respond by exploring the outer limits of modern pharmacology.

Many of the Tour de France’s greatest champions have had ties to doping.

  • Belgian Eddy Merckx, who won five Tours and who is quite possibly the most accomplished cyclist in history, tested positive for banned substances three times (though one of the substances was later removed from the banned list) and was expelled from the 1969 Giro D’Italia, a race he was leading after 16 stages.
  • Jacques Anquetil, the Tour’s first five-time champion (he won in 1957 and 1961–1964) confessed to doping on French television.
  • More recently three-time Tour winner Alberto Contador became two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador when he tested positive for a banned stimulant during the 2010 Tour and had to concede his 2010 title to runner-up Andy Schleck.

Perhaps instead of getting worked up about cyclists who have taken illegal substances to gain an advantage, we should celebrate the sport’s great champions who appear to be clean.

Two five-time champions—France’s Bernard Hinault (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985) and Spain’s Miguel Indurain (1991–1995)—have not been implicated in doping scandals. (Indurain once tested positive for a banned drug called Salbutomol, but the Union Cycliste Internationale allowed him to take the drug for his asthma.)

And for Americans, there’s Greg LeMond.

America’s Great Clean Cyclist

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 Armstrong, who survived advanced testicular cancer then won seven consecutive Tours, from 1999–2005. 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.

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.

Greg LeMond rides into Paris in 1989.

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, 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:



About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

Comments

  1. Bonecrusher says:

    “A few years later Lance came along, beating cancer and supplanting LeMond as the greatest American cyclist.”

    Armstrong was never the greatest. Lemond was. Armstrong was the most hyped. Lemond would have beat him in any race at on equal terms.

    Greg Strock would have been the next Lemond if the junior US coaches wouldn’t have ruined him with dope. Armstrong wouldn’t have been able to touch him if he hadn’t lost his health.

  2. i am glad you mentioned the fact that he would have won in 1985 albeit for the coaches and the broken promises by hinualt. do you have the john tesh tapes from that time? i lost mine

  3. If you think Lemond was clean you are crazy, I would say that drugs were even more rampant then.

    • You have no proof at all because you can’t prove something that isn’t true. Things pulled out of your orifices do not constitute proof.

      • omradiocom says:

        Aardman, you’re attack on John’s comment lacks the Lance effect, “no proof” no longer matters. How did lame boy Lemond beat doper Fignon after 2 years no hard work? There’s a real easy answer, but you obviously don’t like that answer. Proof, there was NO PROOF for many of the now busted. Try another logic, mate.

  4. Banesto PRO says:

    I rode as a pro cyclist with and against Greg Lemond – we were ALL clean and we ALL turned pro
    because of the USCF’s blood and caffeine doping campaign that went on during the 1984 Olympics with the US Cycling Team; we started very young with long miles and went to Europe and
    came up “the hard way” – something the current generation of Carbon bike, soccer mommy-types can’t comprehend. Like my t-shirt says: “Greg Lemond: STILL the only American to win the Tour de France”…and on the back: “Without Drugs!” Oh, the asinine comment about “drugs were even worse”? No, they weren’t; the drugs came when the money got too big and gambling cam aboard.

  5. Does the UCI and US Cycling have any responsibility in this? Without enforcement if you don’t cheat you can’t compete. I think its sad that the dreams of so many young athletes were destroyed by the system of doping that the UCI and the US Cycling Team encouraged. If you didn’t dope you could make it.

  6. Greg Lemond is a jealous, lying jerk. He wants to be the great american cyclist, and the only way for him to do that is to discredit Armstrong. Lemond was never a great cyclist…

    • Banesto PRO says:

      Ha-ha, ho-hoo, hee-hee…hmm, let’s see I actually raced as a USPRO (one of the first to turn pro as a matter fact when Jack Simes kicked it off) – raced against Lemond and lo and behold, most of us ex-amateurs did so because the USCF (now “USA Cycling”) had supported and endorsed blood doping and caffeine doping duing the 1984 Olympics – I’m sure you can read, so find the Rolling Stone expose on it…what we accused the Soviets/Russians of, AMERICANS did…all to win. What we now have is a “corporate sponsored ‘drug-race’..”…the evil is too much money, gambling and advertising corruption…Want to solve the problem, take it back to “pre-Lemond”, when domestiques (like myself) made virtually nothing–except when “the boss” won and spread his winnings, and the team *boss* (e.g. equivalent of the quarterback) made all the money. Lemond, perversely, started the whole era or big money when his father negotiated the then unheard of sum of over $300,000 in 1983 with Cyrille Guimard’s Renault-Gitane squad…but I must stop, as I am overwhelming your intelligence (or lack thereof) with facts that you do not know of as you were 1)not there, 2) not a pro-cyclist racing in Europe (like myself and very, very few other Americans at the time) and 3)incapable of digesting logic. Google “Jock Boyer”..or “Wayne Stetina”…you might learn where American cycling came from in the “modern era”…Armstrong, a cheat from the start and a cheat he will always be…Oh, Lemond, World Champion and 3 times Tour de France winner…he was and is The Great American Cyclist…from someone who had the priviledge of competing against him.

      • You call Lemond “The Great American Cyclist” yet describe his actions as “perverse.” So, he is a great cyclist, but his greed was the beginning of the end for clean cycling? It sounds as if we all owe him a debt of gratitude for creating the mess we have today. Thank you for clearing that up.

      • Land of Skye Racing says:

        It’s refreshing to see someone that was actually “there” speak out in favor of LeMond after all he seems to have endured both professionally and personally over the years. My hat tips to you sir……..

  7. Cancellara Cobbles says:

    From what I’ve seen of Greg Lemond, he is as genuine and compassionate a person as they come. He forgave Floyd Landis even after Landis’s manger called him and said some absolutely dreadful things about Lemond’s childhood abuse. And to say Lemond was not a great cyclist? Look at his stats and his VO2 max; he was actually above Armstrong — and never even came close to testing positive. Do some research and see what Armstrong did to Lemond (and others, including Filippo Simeone and Tyler Hamilton). And all because they chose to be honest about doping in the sport. Lance — what a bully and a borderline sociopath. Lemond, on the other hand, actually wants the sport of cycling to be all it can be, sans dope.

    • “Borderline” is being kind.

      We remained proud of Greg Lemond here in Minneapolis where he lived during his TdF years, he is still the greatest American cyclist of all time. And a genuinely nice guy say people who have met him personally.

  8. Dick Feldmann says:

    WOW! all those chemicals read like the label on a DairyWhip container!

    Dick Feldmann

  9. I liked how when Greg punctured he shouted for a wheel and a bystander gave him one. The team car was out of site.

  10. Cylist from long ago says:

    I participated in races against LeMond when he was a teenager (and I was near retirement then, in my late 20s!). He was a gentleman then, and remains a gentleman. The US should be more appreciative of his amazing accomplishments and unending faith in the sport of cycling.

    • Land of Skye Racing says:

      I met LeMond and Armstrong (when both raced with Motorola in 1993) as an up and coming USCF Cat3 with lots of “Delusions of Grandeur”. I grew up in Hincapie’s backyard basically, in the early 90′s, during the Tour Du Pont years. The tour came through the town I lived in and I watched Armstrong decisively win the Prime…….Anyway, the stage finished in Asheville, NC and I remember getting a chance to talk to both of them briefly. LeMond seemed larger than life…..yet with a certain etiquette you don’t see anymore. I thought what I was watching at that point, was a passing of the torch in american cycling and never thought it would become so polarized over the years, as it has since between the two. It’s ironic how many people have begun to come out of the wood work for LeMond (branding him basically as Pariah for years) now that USADA has released it’s findings. In the end, I am glad to see someone with character and integrity and who had the guts to stand up BEFORE federal indictments were meted out and call BS. Long live the King……..

  11. “Greg Lemond: STILL the only American to win the Tour de France”!!!

  12. donald luke says:

    I have always felt LeMond could have won 5 Tours if not for being shot. Hats off to Greg for sticking to his guns about doping. Armstrong almost ruined Greg financially. Armstrong has a real
    dark side and people have been afraid of him for some time. Armstrong did alot for cancer victims
    but nothing for cycling. It feels good to see Greg again up where he belongs as the greatest American road cyclist.

  13. Carl Uhlman says:

    Wow, thanks for the video link to the time trial! I just finished reading The Secret Race and was in dire need of something positive and uplifting about cycling. Two questions, 1) were other riders using the new handlebar style as well?, and 2) what is/was the reasoning behind using the wheel-disc on only the rear wheel?

  14. Al Shrimpton says:

    Funny Banesto “Pro”. I’m calling BS to your statement. If you were not on the team with Lemond then how could you possibly know anything about what went on? You couldn’t.

    Greg Lemond was one of the FIRST to use EPO … thinking it was “a good idea” according to the source who rode with him. Fignon? Admitted doper. Lemond blew him away. What does that tell you?

    Yeah, that may be your opinion about what you “thought” was going on … however it is worthless.There are people closer to Greg and a LOT higher up the food chain than you who knew exactly what was going on … just like Floyd and the rest of “the boys” did.

    Greg Lemond is a fraud. this too shall be unveiled.

    • Gary McKay says:

      Hey, guess what I’m calling YOU B£$%^T – I rode on the SAME team as Lemodn as an amatuer, AND rode in races WITH Lemond in the same DOPING CONTROLS-moreover, A”£$%WIPE EPO in the SYNTHETIC form wasn’t even INVENTED until AFTER our careers has ended…OH< by the way, guess what my career was after and until now: Federal law enforcement…guess what AREA?
      NOW, who is BS-YOU ARE! W

  15. omradiocom says:

    The above is just another unexamined fanboy post. No, Lemond is not a champion, a hero, or anything of the sort. He is a whiner, a complainer, and though he had his hayday, he is fooling himself if he thinks he’ll ever convince me that he wasn’t a doper like the guys he raced against. Sell your story elsewhere, Greggy Boy, I’m not buying it from your or your fanboys.

  16. So basically Lemond was that good ‘clean’ that the rest of the peloton,(the best professional cyclists in the world) a large percentage of whom were doping, using testosterone, cortisone, amphetamines, steroids and possibly blood doping, and whatever other cocktail of drugs that were being abused at the time, used these drugs just to be able to keep up with the pace of the ‘clean’ Lemond and still couldn’t beat him. This scenario is logically impossible and belongs in the realm of mythology. Thats the conclusion that any free thinking, logical and rational human being would arrive at. Lemond doped like all the rest. He was just never caught. You can be an outspoken critic like Lemond, who speaks out against drug use in the sport. Being an outspoken critic proves absolutely nothing about the ‘cleanliness’ of a cyclist and is a further attempt by Lemond to preserve his false legacy as a clean cyclist.

  17. cyclists have always doped. before merckx, after merckx, all included, none excepted, not even lemond, whether he tested positive or not. and i don’t even care. it’s a blast to watch a human go up Ventoux like they do!

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  1. [...] and his admission – if you think he’s a victim or misunderstood – here is an article that came out in 2012 about Greg LeMond you should read for some [...]

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