Greg LeMond Talks About Drugs in the Peloton – February 17, 2008

Greg LeMond shed some light on how and why his career ended in 1994 at the Tour de France during a talk at a Commonwealth Club meeting held Sunday at Santa Clara University.

Greg LeMond with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gwen Knapp

Greg LeMond with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gwen Knapp

An audience of some 300 cycling fans turned out to learn more about Greg’s outspoken opinion on recent drug scandals in the sport of bike racing. “Ethics, Doping,” and the Future of Cycling,” got off to a shaky start as Greg read prepared remarks in a hoarse voice. “I’ve got a cold from riding the past two days while visiting,” Greg acknowledged.

Public speaking is not Greg’s strongpoint. He’s more comfortable pushing pedals than speaking in front of adoring fans, but his good-natured personality and modesty more than made up for mangled sentence structure.

When Greg began racing the Tour de France in 1984, few riders were doping, he said. By the time he retired in 1994, Greg explained, the landscape had changed. “I was entering 108 races a year,” but because I was trying so hard, I was overtraining.” Whereas before Greg had no difficulty staying at the front of the peloton, toward the end he had trouble finishing rides in the top 100, being outridden by people he was accustomed to beating all the time. He blamed his losses on the peloton’s move to blood doping and other drugs, which dramatically reduce recovery time. “I would need 20 minutes to catch my breath after a hard effort,” Greg said. “Today the winners are talking after a few seconds as though they finished a training ride.”

Greg called his condition “red lining.” The harder he tried, the more fatigued he became. At one point he took iron shots to overcome anemia. Throughout the evening Greg cited accounts of blood doping, testosterone, and other drug usage as activities that had been going on since the early 1980s. If so, then why wasn’t the peloton doping in the early 1980s, especially when controls were not so stringent?

No doubt Greg’s loss of form toward the end of his career was a combination of many factors. It’s hard to say how many riders were doping in the mid 1980s compared to the mid 1990s. Certainly chasing doped riders contributed to his undoing, but he was 33 at the time, a typical age for pro riders to retire.

Greg saved his most scathing criticism for the International Cycling Union (UCI), which oversees international bike racing. “They have looked the other way too long,” Greg said. “In some instances it has bordered on criminal activity.” In 1986, as he was leading the Tour, Greg said he became paranoid about giving urine samples. He went so far as to place wax over the vial, make a thumb imprint, and photograph it. “We turned urine samples over to UCI officials, who then gave it to the labs,” Greg revealed. The system was and still is ripe for hanky panky.

Greg wants an independent authority to oversee drug testing. He recounted stories about U.S. Olympic athletes, some gold medal winners, who were known by the U.S. Olympic Committee to have been doping in the 1980s. “They swept it under the rug,” Greg said.

When asked if some limited, controlled drug use could be authorized for racers, Greg discounted the notion. “We need clean racing. If you condone drug use among professional athletes, it sends the wrong message to high school athletes. They’ll think that if pros can do it, it must be OK.” Greg was careful to draw a line between drug use for athletic performance enhancement and standard medical treatment.

Greg insisted throughout the hour-long talk that there is no getting around the dangers of drug use. “It has led to the deaths of athletes in many sports. I had a former teammate die of a heart attack, which I attribute to his drug use,” Greg said.

When the painful subject of Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis came up, Greg was unapologetic. He said he cried when Armstrong came back from cancer and won the Tour. “His achievement was inspirational. I was never jealous.” But as rumors of Armstrong’s (and Landis’s) alleged drug use came to light, some from members of the peloton and other reliable sources, Greg changed his mind.

The lack of trust in the peloton for trainers, managers, and governing bodies remains intense, Greg said. Athletes have nowhere to turn and yet they are the ones who suffer when they’re caught. “There needs to be accountability at all levels of bike racing,” Greg insisted.

Greg remained defiant to the end. As the meeting wound down, he reaffirmed he doesn’t care what other riders think. “I’m not for sale, and I care too much about bike racing. It’s a beautiful sport.”

Disclaimer: I purchased a Colnago frame won by Greg in a race in 1979 and have been a fan ever since.

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