The Dark Side Of American Cycling Is On Display Now
I'm a passionate cycling fan, a kid who used to record (on VHS tape, old school!) Wide World of Sports to get the tiny blips of TV coverage cycling got here in the states as I cheered Greg Lemond when he won Le Tour 3 times and proved Americans could hold their own in Europe. I watched a young phenom named Lance Armstrong with more brawn than brains win the now defunct Tour DuPont in person, then was devastated when it seemed cancer would rob US cycling of it's rising star. Tyler Hamilton thrilled me with his incredible ride to win the famous Liege-Bastogne-Liege and then disappointed me with his doping conviction. The more I raced and the more I followed professional cycling, the more I began to become aware of the dark side of American cycling and the deep personality conflicts that existed. The mainstream media has never covered that side of the story, but like the family next door that appears to be perfectly normal until the day it all falls apart in a huge dazzling public display of whackiness - it all fell apart today with Greg Lemond's bizarre testimony regarding his childhood abuse and the attempted blackmail using that fact from Floyd Landis' business manager in today's public USADA hearing..
American cycling effectively began with Greg Lemond, a man with tremendous talent and almost certainly the wrong personality to take the flag of American cycling and bring the sport to mainstream America. Despite his 3 Tour de France wins, including a pair after miraculously recovering from a hunting accident where he was shot and forced to miss two full season - Lemond was never embraced in the United States partly due to his prickly personality and partly because cycling was still a niche sport just beginning to get exposure and participants stateside. Lemond was done as a top competitor by the time he was 30, an age that happened to coincide with the beginning of the doping era in cycling - a sportwide dependence on performance enhancing drugs that makes major league baseball's steroid era appear to be child's play. Whether or not he was running out of gas, Lemond has blamed drugged up riders for the end of his career and the bitterness has slowly become just an extension of his personality.
Lemond might have handled all of this well if it were not for Lance. See, I don't even need to use his last name ... he's just Lance. Everyone knows Lance. Everyone knows Lance's story and his recovery from cancer. Everyone knows his 7 Tour de France wins. Everyone knows he's from Texas, went to France and rubbed their nose in our American superiority. He's a hero, an icon - the face of American sport and most Americans think he's the greatest rider who ever lived (he's not, Eddy Merckx is - and it's not even close). Lance has everything Lemond always wanted, the glory, the fame and the adulation of the average lay person in the US. Lemond dislikes Armstrong and has openly questioned his legitimacy in the French press, "Lance is ready to do anything to keep his secret. I don't know how he can continue to convince everybody of his innocence". As Armstrong became the face of American cycling and drove a huge boom in participation, Lemond was pushed farther and farther to the periphery and at this point is virtually irrelevant to US cycling - even the company that sells bicycles under his name (Trek) sponsored Lance's team and when you walked into a dealer's shop you saw huge posters of Lance and none of Lemond.
Into this mix stepped a generation of younger US riders starting to make a splash in Europe. Both Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis spent time as top lieutenants for Armstrong, cutting their teeth under his manic direction. Armstrong isn't exactly the easiest person in the world to get along with (in fact, his competitive drive has ruined far more relationships than you could document here) and first Hamilton and then Landis left to lead their own teams. They were the "new" faces of US cycling, the ones who would carry the flag after Lance stepped down. Hamilton had early success as a solo rider, leading the powerful CSC team and he finished second in the Giro d'Italia (the Tour of Italy, the second biggest Tour in cycling) despite riding with a broken shoulder. He won the epic one day Liege-Bastogne-Liege race and had a thrilling ride in the Tour De France with a broken collarbone. In 2004 he won the time trial Gold Medal at the Athens Olympics, and he was going to be a superstar. Then, he was caught in a particularly nasty form of doping (Barry Bonds has never been accused of going so far as to pump out his blood and pump in someone else's for a competitive edge) later in the same year and his career was over. Now he was the poster child for American doping, and his relationship with Armstrong didn't help Lance's constant war against the French press.
That was 2004. 2005 was Lance's grand finale and everyone seemed ready to take a break of the constant attention on him and the 2006 season was going to be a fresh start for pro cycling. Instead, the cycling version of BALCO broke with Operación Puerto in Spain which involved the police seizure of documents, DNA material and doping supplies that implicated over 200 athletes, including several of the top riders in the world. Drugs in cycling were back in the front pages, and then Floyd Landis tested positive while winning the Tour de France, a race that everyone was desperately hoping to keep clean. The European press didn't have anything on Armstrong still, but this was his second former key teammate who was caught red handed.
Landis decided to fight this as hard as possible, and has over the past year. There are many who believe that Armstrong has bankrolled him as part of his personal war against the USADA and the WADA. Not surprisingly giving his animosity for Armstrong and anyone who has ever been in his camp, Greg Lemond has taken the other side - even agreeing to testify against Landis in today's public USADA hearing. This is when things turned really bizarre and finally might have thrust themselves into the front pages of US newspaper sports sections.
Lemond today testified that he had counseled Landis to go ahead and come clean, using the example of his sexual abuse as a child to demonstrate the need to get things in the open to move on. Now, Lemond has never publicly mentioned this abuse before in public, so it was something that very few would have known. After this phone call, any form of decency between Landis and Lemond appears to have totally disentegrated with Lemond blasting Landis in the press and Landis firing back (including a post in the dailypeloton.com fan forums stating that he'd "prefer to ask Satan for advice before seeking advice from Greg Lemond". According to Lemond, when it came out that he would testify for the USADA against Landis he received a telephone call from "Uncle Ron" who went with this warped rant:
"Greg, this is your uncle and I'm going to be there tomorrow. I'm going to be there and we can talk about how we used to hide your weenie."
Obviously that's a reference to Lemond's childhood abuse, and it didn't take more than a quick check of the caller ID (come on, *67 folks!) to find out that it was none other than Floyd Landis' manager, Will Geoghegan, who had placed the call.
So that's where we stand today. A bitter and jealous old champion who has never received the adulation he feels he deserves, a dominant personality with a carefully protected image who is fighting to keep his name out of the mud that the rest of the cycling world is stained with, an Olympic champion who appears to have been a total fraud and an ornery Mennonite who's business manager is pitifully trying to blackmail the bitter old champion with his childhood trauma. You couldn't write a soap opera with this many people who can't stand each other and with this many axes to grind. And this is American cycling. On the bright side, it's less screwed up than European cycling, if you can believe that. It seems that US cyclists are deadset on wasting any goodwill that was built up with the 10 combined Tour de France wins by Lemond and Armstrong and the all good done by the Livestrong campaign with this continued implosion of the community.
I love cycling, I still do. I'm still watching the Giro d'Italia (which just finished stage 5) and I'll still watch the Tour de France. I'm one of the few though, as I feel that the sport is doing nothing but driving the average fan farther and farther away. Heck, the Fanhouse doesn't even have a "Cycling" category to file this under. I think MJD's e-mail to the Fanhouse writers earlier today sums it up perfectly:
"Cycling just became weirder and more off-putting than beauty pageants for 7-year-old girls."