Interview: How Greg LeMond re-found his place at the Tour de France

Three-time champion on how he made peace with the Tour

After a gloomy first week and a windy second, the weather is heating up on the Tour de France. In Villars-Les-Dombes, the finish town for stage 14, the temperature is well into the mid-30s Celsius. Air conditioning is at a premium.

But one place that is refreshingly chilled is the inside of a motor home that houses three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond. Tucked away among the technical zone of TV trucks, it is where we agree to meet to talk. In the corner LeMond has a screen showing the live footage. There is about 40km to go on the flat stage and I know that my time will likely be up by the time we get to the last 15km.

The American points at the riders on the screen during our opening exchanges: “This is the first year [for a while] that it is being raced almost like the old style – where riders are tired,” he says. “People are thinking about their energy levels and taking it day by day. In the EPO days it was just balls to the wall, nobody had to recover, they could recover artificially.”

Greg LeMond returned to the Tour de France as a Eurosport pundit in 2014


LeMond follows the whole of the Tour in his motor home working for broadcaster Eurosport, providing analysis and insight into a sport that he freely admits he still has mixed feelings about.

“Cycling has been this emotional conflict in a way ‘cos it is a sport I love but there is this unethical part that is very hard to digest,” he says.

The conflict LeMond refers to has been a long struggle about which he is equally open. He is unequivocal that he is not bitter about his well-documented battle with Lance Armstrong and the associated commercial juggernaut but it is quickly clear from our conversation that while the wounds of the past may have healed, scars remain that are a constant reminder of cycling’s troubled past. LeMond, a vocal anti-doping  advocate, publicly criticised Armstrong’s relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari in 2001, and so started 12 years in the cycling wilderness as LeMond was shunned from the sport.

“I was invited back in 2002 for the [Tour de France] 100th anniversary dinner,” LeMond says. “But I was treated so poorly and excluded from every activity. That was [because of race director] Jean-Marie Leblanc and Armstrong. I swore I would never go back.”

While LeMond was a critic of Armstrong, supporters of the Texan have alleged that LeMond continually questioned his compatriot’s performances in the early to mid noughties. LeMond remains defiant that this was not the case, instead he says he only participated in a handful of interviews on the subject.

“I did one article in support of David Walsh and one interview with [French newspaper] Le Monde. Then David was bringing out another book and Armstrong was trying to get people to sign affidavits and I said: ‘No, I’ll back up what I said to you in 2001’,” he says.

LeMond won the Tour de France three times: in 1986, 1989 and 1990

A new dawn

LeMond did see a chink of light in 2007 with the change of leadership at the Tour de France. “I came back and did L’Etape du Tour with my son in 2007. We had an absolute blast and I met with [current Tour de France race director] Christian Prudhomme afterwards,” he says, explaining that Prudhomme was much more accepting of his presence compared to predecessor Leblanc.

But it wasn’t until six years later that LeMond had something of an epiphany. “I came back in 2013 for the 100th anniversary [race] and I realised that although my reputation was destroyed in the US it wasn’t in Europe.

“It was a great surprise. I don’t know how to explain it. You know they talk about public humiliation being one of the most difficult things. Then Eurosport got in touch with me to do something with them – which I didn’t want to do at first.”

But LeMond relented and started with Eurosport in 2014. Why? “It was a big void in my life,” he explains and adds that with all the personnel changes (and no doubt Armstrong’s public admission) he had started to believe in the sport again.

LeMond’s pace of speech starts to pick up as we start looking forward rather than back, although he is still keeping an eye on the action on the TV screen over my right shoulder. I am keen to move the conversation forward and to the future, but have to ask whether Armstrong has been in touch since his infamous public admission of doping in January 2013 on the Oprah television show.

The American was also crowned world champion in 1983 and 1989

“Armstrong has made attempts, but it is not what you think. Its a PR move, there is no remorse,” says LeMond.

“I say what goes around comes around. Usually people who treat people poorly end up getting stung in the back.”

Whether the wounds actually have fully healed is hard to say. But LeMond’s presence on the Tour does seem to signify that he has turned a corner in his life. So how does it compare being here as part of the media pack rather than as a racer?

“It’s not comparable,” he says. “When you are racing it is so good. When you are racing it is not just that you are physically ‘there’, it is the competition and then there is the atmosphere.

“But I am having a really good time because as a professional cyclist you don’t get to see much of France.” Over the last two years in particular he has discovered a new fondness for the country where he spent 12 of his 14 years racing professionally.

“Now some of the best people I know are French. To me they are very honest, they are people I want to be friends with and I can’t say that for every country. I actually trust the French more than anyone when it comes to cycling in terms of rules and ethics.”

Radio pressure

With the kilometres ticking down I am keen to get a view from LeMond on how today’s racing compares to his day.

“What has changed today is that today the riders don’t have anywhere to hide,” he says. “The pressure on riders is very high. The team cars are there telling them to get up [in the peloton but] in a stage race you have fatigue. I’d have a hard time listening to someone say that.”

According to LeMond, race radios add to this pressure.  “I would absolutely get rid of them. I would have a one way radio for emergencies or one person in a team has a radio so he can give instructions.”

LeMond believes race radios have changed the style of riding for the worse. In the midst of the race, stages of the Tour have a tendency to muddle together, so LeMond pauses mid-sentence as he searches for an example. He continues when he confirms that it was stage 11 on the run-in to Montpellier when Chris Froome teamed up with Peter Sagan (each with another team-mate) to force a gap between them and the rest of the general classification riders during the last 20 kilometres.

“If you look at [Nairo] Quintana on the day that Chris [Froome] attacked, he is almost waiting for instructions,” says LeMond. “He’s waiting for someone to call up a team-mate. If he didn’t have that, he would have to do that [close the gap] himself. He should never have to wait.”

LeMond rode eight Tours in all, finishing in the top ten in all six he completed

Evidently there is one man in the pro peloton that hasn’t fallen foul of the negative aspect of race radios. “Sometimes when I see Peter Sagan race he is racing as if he doesn’t have a radio,” LeMond says, “he is very instinctive.”

Not only does LeMond believe race radios curb instinctive racing but he also believes they are the reason for the rise in crashes in recent years. “The idea that radios will make it safer hasn’t actually worked. There are more crashes than ever.

“I think they are a big part of the crashes. You have got to remember, these team directors, there might be 20 of them and I hate to say it, but I think there are only two or three that are any good. Everyone of them wants their team up front together, so now you have all 200 rushing to be in front. There is only so much space in the road.

“The reality about crashing is that it is like a kid with a hot stove, they touch it once or twice and you think they learn.” His point is that because the riders are under such pressure and being told to get to the front they ignore the lessons from previous crashes and plough on regardless.

“I can see why some of the riders are saying it is getting crazy,” he says. “In fact, I am amazed that it has taken the likes of Peter Sagan so long to say it is out of control.”

There is a real glint in LeMond’s eye as he reveals his opinions. His enthusiasm for a race that he evidently loves is palpable – it makes you under just how hard it must have been for him during his self-imposed exile from the Tour.

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