Sorry, Lance, but for Greg LeMond it really is all about the bike.
LeMond, a three-time Tour de France champion, regaled a Portland crowd of 750 cycling enthusiasts with stories of epic Tour de France battles, his feud with Lance Armstrong over doping, and his own physical struggles to overcome being shot. LeMond spoke Wednesday at the Portland Art Museum as part of the "Cyclepedia" exhibit.
With Armstrong’s admission earlier in 2013 that he doped his way to seven Tour de France titles, and the previous disqualification of Floyd Landis for doping, LeMond stands as the only American winner of bike racing’s most prestigious event, with three victories between 1986-1990.
In Portland, he spoke with pride and passion about his lifelong love affair with the bike, and repeated his strong criticism of athletes who use performance enhancing drugs.
“The Tour de France is a magical race,” said LeMond. He was thrilled to be invited back this July to participate in the 100th anniversary celebration of the Tour. It was as welcome change from what LeMond called a “painful 10 years” where he felt pushed to the side of the sport in what he believes was an effort orchestrated by Lance Armstrong.
(Greg LeMond congratulates 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome.)
Back in 2000, LeMond was one of the first to question Lance’s success at the Tour, and says he paid a heavy price for speaking out.
In Portland, LeMond talked about how he came to have “direct, inside” knowledge that Lance used performance enhancing drugs to win the Tour in 2000. As the only other American winner, LeMond said the only way he could comfortably respond to media questions was to call the victories “unbelievable,” and let people draw their own conclusions.
LeMond was among the early riders to raise questions about drug use in the sport. He made headlines in 1989 for leaving the Dutch PDM team because he felt they were pushing riders to use performance-enhancing drugs.
Despite harsh criticism from Armstrong during his seven-year reign over the Tour de France, LeMond has remained steadfast in his opposition to PEDs. When Armstrong finally admitted in January 2013 that he doped, Amstrong said it wasn't possible to win the Tour without doping.
LeMond rejected that claim, and scoffed at the idea that it's a "level playing field" because of widespread doping. Cheating is cheating, LeMond said, and told the story of a race he did in Colorado as a young rider. Another rider was ahead of him but was directed off course. Race directors tried to award LeMond the win but he refused because he felt he didn't earn the win.
Lance Armstrong gained worldwide fame, far beyond the cycling community, because he overcame cancer and then returned to the top of his sport. Few realize Greg LeMond overcame a near-death sentence of his own.
In 1987, the year after winning his first Tour de France title, LeMond was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law with a shotgun in a hunting accident. The blast nearly killed him. He missed almost two years of pro cycling and endured multiple surgeries, but came back to win consecutive Tour de France titles in 1989 and 1990, despite still having 37 shot pellets in his body.
Remarkably, it wasn’t the first time LeMond had been shot. He told the Portland audience how French cycling superstar Bernard Hinault and his coach personally visited LeMond and their family in the United States to recruit him to their team. The French arrived wearing American cowboy hats to fit in. While trying to join the LeMonds on a quail hunt, 5-time Tour champion Hinault accidentally shot LeMond in the eye.
“I had blood gushing from my eye,” recalled LeMond with a laugh. He signed anyway, and went on to win the tour with Hinault’s team in 1986, becoming the first non-European Tour de France champion.
(Greg LeMond leads 1986 Tour ahead of teammate Bernard Hinault.)
LeMond also shared the story of being recruited to join the world’s top cycling team, owned by the ‘Donald Trump of France.’ The rich but eccentric owner had him summoned via a leather-clad model-like woman on a motorbike, who ferried him to a clandestine meeting spot, where he was offered what was then double the contract of the highest-paid cyclist ever: $1 million for three years.
LeMond spoke with dismay about the transformation of his sport by doping that he saw take place starting in the 1990s, centered around controversial Italian doctor Michele Ferrari.
“You know what Ferrari’s do? They go fast,” said LeMond. “Well, that’s what Dr. Ferrari did. He made riders go really fast.” According to LeMond, Ferrari at one point was working with as many as 40 riders, and was paid a cut of their winnings. LeMond said his cycling friends joked that Ferrari was the highest paid cyclist in the peleton, without ever turning a pedal.
Despite his disappointment over the pervasive use of drugs in his sport, LeMond expressed undiminished enthusiasm for cycling. Many times, he recalled going for a ride and thinking “Wow, that was the best day of my life.” He remembers every bike he ever had – including his first Schwinn, and the day the training wheels came off. He showed up in running shorts and a tank top for his first bike race at age 14. And came in second. He says he loved how hard it was riding the uphills at the Tour de France and other races, but what he really loved was “going downhill - fast!”
LeMond has also had a lifelong fascination with the technology of the bike. He was the first pro cyclist to use the now-standard triathlon “aero” bars. He was the first pro to race on a carbon fiber bike, the standard frame composition for bikes today. And he designed his own line of spinning bikes.
“For fitness, running is best,” LeMond admitted grudgingly. “But if you like equipment, you’ve got to like cycling.”
LeMond's passion for cycling and its technology was the perfect match for “Cyclepedia,” which is centered around a remarkable collection of 40 unique bikes from Vienna-based Michael Embacher. The “Cyclepedia” exhibit runs through September 8 at the Portland Art Museum.