It was a Tuesday morning at the Medina home of Greg and Kathy LeMond, and the subject was logistics.
A French TV crew would arrive in two days to film “LeMond of Cycling,” the monthly documentary that airs in 56 countries, though not the United States. They needed to come up with a topic for the latest episode. Would mountain biking in Wisconsin captivate people in Belgium?
The discussion was surprisingly brief. Greg was eager to get downtown, to his unmarked office near Target Field, where he’s building a new bicycle company, LeMond Cycles.
At 53, LeMond is grayer and beefier than he was 25 years ago, when he won his last Tour de France. He’s also far healthier and happier than he’s been since he dared to challenge the credibility of Lance Armstrong and cycling’s culture of drugs.
What followed, LeMond said, was “12 years of hell” — the loss of a successful business, a swirl of litigation, the searing wrath of the cycling world and the public disclosure of a painful secret he had carried all his life.
If LeMond is antsy these days, it’s because he’s finally free to create his life’s second act. “This is all really great,” he said. “It’s fun — and that’s been a while.”
The LeMonds came to live in the Twin Cities fulltime in the early ’90s, when Greg was freshly retired from the world of international bicycle racing.
A three-time winner of the Tour de France (1986, ’89 and ’90), he was America’s first celebrated cyclist. Accomplished, charming and magnetic, he propelled cycling off the nation’s sports pages and into its living rooms. Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House; Johnny Carson had him on “The Tonight Show” couch, and Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year. Almost in spite of his fame, he had an everyman appeal.
“It’s quite common for people to walk away from Greg LeMond and feel like they really connected with him, really know him, even though they just met him,” said Dan Zeman, a Minneapolis exercise physiologist who has long worked with LeMond. “He’s just a very genuine guy.”
His fame was fivefold in Europe. Crowds would gather outside a hotel where the French-speaking LeMond was staying. When the LeMonds were living in France, Kathy had the “really creepy” experience of watching as a woman pulled a trowel from her purse and dug a souvenir flower from Kathy’s garden. Even this summer, their mere presence at the French Open tennis tournament drew coverage in the Paris papers. (“LeMond!” one headline read.)
Minnesota was their refuge from the frenzy of international fame. Here they were contentedly obscure.
Kathy grew up in La Crosse, Wis., and attended Gustavus Adophus College in St. Peter, Minn. But even Greg, who grew up in California and Nevada, said moving here “felt good. This is where we wanted to raise our kids. We went and got rings at a jewelry store on the Nicollet Mall and that was it.”
They use the word “normal” to describe their years here.
“Sometimes I forget I’m popular until I leave home,” Greg said.
There are no requests for photos or autographs, no one lifting flowers from their garden.
“It’s been amazing. And nice,” Kathy concurred. “In Europe, I have been stopped in the market by people who say, ‘Don’t buy that. That’s not good for Greg.’ Believe me, I have never been stopped in Lunds because someone thought I was buying something that wasn’t good for Greg.”
Although they still traveled to Europe often, Greg was moving into a comfortable emeritus status in the sports world. Their three children — Geoffrey, Scott and Simone — were in school, and Greg was building a bike business in partnership with Trek Bicycle in Wisconsin. They were home.
Enter Lance Armstrong — celebrated cancer survivor, philanthropist, mega-marketable super-athlete — and the LeMonds’ quiet life began to crumble.
Of course, LeMond knew Armstrong. In fact, they had appeared at each other’s fundraising events. “I was a big fan of the guy,” Greg said.
By 2001, Armstrong had won the third of his seven Tour victories. His cycling feats made him a global brand and a corporate beacon for the likes of Nike and Trek. His defiance of his disease made him an extraordinary inspiration for people with cancer.
He acquired a kind of cultural deification, said Steve Hed of Shoreview, whose company, Hed Cycling Products, made wheels for Armstrong’s and LeMond’s bikes. Hed remembers seeing people in Europe holding up cancer-stricken children in front of Armstrong, hoping that he would simply touch them.
But back in Minneapolis, LeMond knew that something was wrong.
Armstrong had hired several members of LeMond’s former bike crew. They were telling LeMond, “ ‘You would not believe what’s going on with Lance,’ ” syringes, IVs, bags of blood — all evidence of doping. “I was disgusted,” LeMond said. “It was totally intolerable to watch. But I knew it [the truth] couldn’t come from me. It wouldn’t look right for me to call him on it.”
As Armstrong smashed LeMond’s records, sports reporters continued to pester him, asking, “What do you think of Lance Armstrong?”
“I came up with an answer I could use,” LeMond said. “I’d just say, ‘It’s unbelievable. It’s really unbelievable.’ ”
That line gets a laugh now, but not 12 years ago.
As doping rumors intensified and evidence mounted, reporters pushed LeMond to comment. Finally, he told the London Sunday Times, “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”
“That’s when things changed,” LeMond said.
The cycling world turned its back on him. At one ceremony honoring Tour champions, LeMond said he was asked to sit in the bleachers, watching the other winners on the stage.
Eventually, Trek ended its partnership with LeMond, whose line of bikes had reached annual sales of $20 million, he said.
“We lost our reputation; we lost our income,” Kathy said. “It was tough.”
(Armstrong and Trek declined to comment for this article.)
“At that time Greg was getting no support from anyone, except Kathy,” Hed said. “They were alone. There was nothing he could say to defend himself. Minneapolis was a good, healthy place for them to come home to.”
In fact, Greg kept such a low profile that in 2009, Bicycling magazine ran a story titled “Whatever Happened to Greg LeMond?”
With his reputation in tatters and his business largely gone, LeMond retreated to Minnesota, where he fought back the only way he could, suing Trek for breach of contract. (In turn, Trek countersued.) He also turned his focus on his family and his health. He worked to forge stronger relationships with his children, who had sometimes come in second to cycling.
Though a gifted athlete, he had long battled enormous health problems. Between his first and second Tour wins, he was shot in a hunting accident that almost killed him. Pellets that remained in his body left him in a continual state of low-grade lead poisoning. His retirement, after his third win, was partly motivated by a diagnosis of mitochondrial myopathy, a rare disease that causes muscle weakness.
It was in this period of isolation and uncertainty that LeMond, then in his late 40s, was finally able to tell his wife what he had told no one else: As a child he had been sexually abused by a family friend.
That revelation — and the recovery that followed it — probably would have been known only by the family. But LeMond shared his secret with cyclists who were rumored to be doping, in an effort to convince them how liberating it was to tell the truth.
“He always felt afraid,” Kathy said. “Imagine what that’s like.”
Greg and Kathy have since supported and served on the board of the 1 in 6 Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that helps men who were sexually abused as children. (When Trek and LeMond settled their lawsuits, Trek donated $200,000 to the foundation.)
Last year, Armstrong was stripped of his championships. He later told Oprah Winfrey that his “mythic, perfect story” was, in fact, “one big lie.”
Greg LeMond is once again the only American ever to have won the Tour de France. And the LeMonds are launching their long-delayed second act.
Their three children, once scattered, are back in the Twin Cities area. Geoffrey designs software, and Scott and Simone work with their father. Greg’s company is close to selling out its limited-edition carbon bike frame and is taking orders for a second bike, a steel-frame road bike. A complete line of bikes, he said, is on the way.
“And you know what?” Kathy LeMond said. “We’re ready for some fun.”
Tony Brown is a writer living in Minneapolis. He can be reached at email@example.com.