Greg LeMond on the State of Cycling
By Delaney FitzPatrick
Editor’s Note: Over the course of an hour-long phone conversation in early May, American cycling legend Greg LeMond and writer Delaney FitzPatrick discussed their shared ties to the Midwest, the history of doping in cycling, and his vision for the sport’s future.
Bjarne Riis. Floyd Landis. Alberto Contador. Throughout the past 30 years, the list of once-celebrated and now condemned professional cyclists convicted of doping is lengthy.
A beacon of light in the world of cycling—through all the disappointments and reassigned medals—is Greg LeMond. A three-time Tour de France winner (1986, 1989, and 1990) and two-time World Road Race Championship winner (1983 and 1989), LeMond has retained his title as one of the greatest cyclists of all time.
Following his retirement from professional cycling in December 1994, LeMond became a staunch anti-doping advocate. One of his early criticisms came in 1998 when news broke of the Festina affair, in which the nine-man Festina team was disqualified from that year’s Tour after a support car was discovered full of banned substances. At the time, LeMond believed that the incident would be a wakeup call for the sport’s governing body, the International Cycling Union or UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), about the extent to which doping had rooted itself in the cycling community since the early ’90s. Instead, he said, the incident was “swept under the carpet.”
More controversies began to appear, including Lance Armstrong testing positive for cortisone at the 1999 Tour, but no real changes were made at the UCI level.
“The problem [was that] there was always a little cover-up and the sport minimized that doping was a one-off,” said LeMond. “If you look at even Armstrong’s issues, he got out of jail the first year when he had a positive and had that backdated. That set the precedent.”
LeMond spoke out publicly regarding his skepticism that Armstrong was clean as early as 2001. As a result of his criticism of Armstrong and other prominent cyclists, LeMond was largely ostracized from the cycling community.
It wasn’t until 2012, when Armstrong was officially given a lifetime ban from competition and was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles that LeMond was able to start rebuilding his reputation.
With Armstrong’s titles stripped, LeMond remains the only American winner of the Tour.
Doping: A Forever Situation?
Despite cycling’s muddied past, LeMond believes recent years provide a glimmer of hope for a cleaner sport in the future. He believes the final ban on Armstrong, and the introduction of new UCI leadership, was a turning point.
“I think it really took Lance Armstrong getting disqualified and the change at the UCI level,” he said. “I think since 2012, 13, 14, it’s gotten really a lot better.”
The UCI’s current president, David Lappartient, a Frenchman, was elected in 2017.
LeMond, who raced for a number of French teams during his professional career, has long viewed France as a model in upholding a robust anti-doping program.
“I trust the French more than any country for holding the rules, setting the ethics,” he said. “I really felt confident that the French were racing as clean as you possibly could.”
He believes one of the telltale signs that cycling has become cleaner in recent years—thanks to new leaders like Lappartient as well as improved testing—is a resurgence of young riders at the top of the results. Some of these rising stars include Remco Evenepoel (20) and Tadej Pogacar (21) who each achieved incredible success as first-year professionals during the 2019 season. And who could forget Egan Bernal, who brought home, also in 2019, Colombia’s first-ever Tour de France victory at the age of 22?
“When people take until they’re 28, 29, 30 to discover they can win the Tour de France, it’s just absolutely suspect,” said LeMond. “True talent, genetics don’t really improve or change from, say, 18 to 25.”
LeMond senses that these new riders not only bring fresh talent, but also are ushering in a different team culture, one where the pressure to succeed does not come at the expense of riders.
Criticism for the Sake of Cyclists
Although LeMond has been outspoken about certain riders in the past, he largely views himself an advocate for the athletes.
“Riders themselves, they just want to know that they’re all on a level playing field,” he said. “If it’s not, then it undermines the sport.”
Yet, LeMond said he understands how so many athletes have fallen into the cycle of doping.
“It’s a lot of peer pressure, but it’s your survival. You need to race,” he said. “It’s really up to the governing bodies to set the limits and enforce them and I think most riders count on that, but if they can’t trust it, then there’s not much choice. You either quit, or continue.”
LeMond feels lucky that he never had to choose between winning races and compromising his ethics during his career, which spanned fourteen seasons, from 1981 to 1994.
“I got into cycling truly at the perfect time because they started anabolic steroid testing; amphetamines were completely out of the sport,” he said.
Blood doping existed on a smaller scale, but was officially banned in 1985 by the United States Cycling Federation after it was confirmed that several American cyclists underwent blood transfusions in the hours before their events at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
“It was a period where you were going to get caught if you’re using [performance-enhancing drugs] and there were no drugs that transformed riders,” he said, though he still heard rumors of athletes using cortisone. “That all changed when EPO came into it.”
EPO, or erythropoietin, is a hormone that can boost the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. As LeMond explained, since cycling is an endurance sport, “a little bit of doping makes a huge difference.” This, he pointed out, is one of the primary reasons incidents of doping in cycling—legal and illegal—can be traced as far back as the late 1800s.
Recent, Current, and Future Anti-Doping Strategies
In an effort to police today’s doping, including the use of substances like EPO, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) developed a strategy known as the “Athlete Biological Passport.” According to WADA, the program is designed “to monitor selected biological variables over time that indirectly reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping substance or method itself.”
Ultimately, the goal of the “Athlete Passport” is to establish a biological baseline for each rider through consistent testing. An atypical set of results at any given time could indicate doping.
The program was introduced in 2007 and implemented in 2009, profiling each individual athlete’s hematological variables to detect blood doping. In 2014, the program was expanded to include urinary tests for the detection of steroids.
LeMond believes the “Athlete Passport” program is a step in the right direction, but he feels there is a better testing method: power meters. Power meters, when properly calibrated, can test an athlete’s power output, which is measured in watts. LeMond said that because cycling is a fixed movement, these tests are a useful tool in cycling. Similar to the testing in WADA’s “Athlete Passport” program, a spike in an athlete’s power output could signal doping.
“If they left it up to the experts, they could do a lot with power drug testing to really make sure the riders stay within their natural talent,” he said.
LeMond has observed the merits of power output testing himself. He explained, “At 47 [years old], in about four months, I got to where I was able to sustain almost the same output as a pro and I did a VO2 max test where my weight was higher, but my liters of oxygen were the same, so my ability really didn’t go down that much.”
Regardless of the type of testing, LeMond hopes that it will continue to become more accurate.
“I think someday hopefully there’ll be some way to test accurately—that there isn’t any opportunity to get by with even micro-dosing of something,” he said.
He believes the thrill of watching cycling is not in the fast times, but in having real human suffering on full display.
“I think cycling has gotten much more exciting because of the fatigue and the attacks and the leadership changes,” he said. “I think why last year’s Tour de France was so exciting was because people got tired and they got dropped.”
LeMond sees promise for the future of cycling, but he is not naive to the threat that doping will continue to pose.
“You’ll probably never totally eliminate it,” he said. “Cheaters have always had ways of getting a little bit of an edge. The main thing is to get it to where riders who are clean win.”
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