Dr. Michele Ferrari was an Italian sports doctor who had become notorious for his glib comments about performance drugs, comparing EPO to orange juice, and declaring that it didn't bother him if his athletes went to Switzerland to buy blood-boosters. Many top riders had already started seeing Ferrari, and their performances had improved markedly. But LeMond refused: Greg LeMond didn't need anything the Italian doctor could provide. He had the highest VO2 max, and he could still beat everyone.
Except he couldn't. In 1994 he struggled to keep up on the flat stages. "We were always in the red – dans la rouge," he says. When the pack dropped him yet again during the sixth stage, he got off his bike and climbed into the "broom wagon," which cruises along behind the race to sweep up exhausted riders, the most humiliating way possible to exit a race.
In December 1994, LeMond announced his retirement, citing mitochondrial myopathy, a rare condition in which the body's cellular energy system basically breaks down. By then America was getting to know its newest young cycling superstar: a cocky 23-year-old Texan named Lance Armstrong.
After winning the world championships in 1993, Armstrong skyrocketed from newcomer to hero. When he came back from cancer to win the '99 Tour he was deemed the second coming of LeMond, and he too was named SI's Sportsman of the Year. At the start of the 2001 Tour, however, the London Sunday Times published an article by David Walsh detailing Armstrong's history with none other than Dr. Michele Ferrari, who by that time was under criminal investigation in Italy. It questioned Armstrong's return from testicular cancer, a malignancy that spread to his brain and lungs and nearly took his life in 1996, to win the Tour two times (going on three that summer). In a follow-up story, LeMond dropped this bomb: "If Lance is clean, then it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud."
The uproar began immediately. Armstrong called LeMond a few days after the 2001 Tour ended. "You're telling me you've never done EPO?" LeMond alleges Armstrong said, referring to the blood-boosting drug erythropoietin. "Your comeback in '89 was so spectacular. Mine was a miracle, yours was a miracle. You couldn't have been as strong as you were in '89 without EPO."
"Listen, Lance, before EPO was ever in cycling I won the Tour de France...because I had a VO2 max of 95. Yours was 82. Tell me one person who said I did EPO."
"Everyone knows it."
"Are you threatening me?" LeMond says he asked.
"If you want to throw stones, I will throw stones," Armstrong allegedly replied. Later in the conversation, LeMond says, Armstrong promised to "find at least 10 people who will say you did EPO."
"It's my word versus his," said Armstrong, reached by phone in St. Bart's earlier this year. "But I'm telling you, his description of that call is 100 percent inaccurate. He was accosting me, screaming and yelling. He was not acting normal that day." (In a deposition, Armstrong described LeMond as "like a drunk.")
However that phone call went down, LeMond's troubles were only beginning. Speaking out against Armstrong carried serious consequences in the close-knit cycling world. "There was this Lance mania going on, and people were angry about what LeMond said," says LeMond's former teammate Andy Hampsten. "He had nothing to gain and quite a lot to lose by sticking his neck out."
LeMond spent the first two weeks of August 2001 fielding calls from cycling bigwigs, including Thom Weisel, chairman of USA Cycling and the owner of Armstrong's team. He also heard from Trek CEO John Burke, who pleaded with LeMond to stand down and, according to LeMond's 2008 lawsuit against Trek, "implied in graphic terms that Mr. Armstrong would financially harm Mr. LeMond." Spooked, LeMond began taping the calls. But he was trapped; Burke demanded he issue a retraction, drafted by Armstrong's attorney.
Two weeks later a "clarification" from LeMond appeared in 'USA Today'. "I do not believe, in any way, that [Armstrong] has ever used any performance-enhancing substances," LeMond was quoted as saying. "I believe his performances are the result of the same hard work, dedication, and focus that were mine 10 years before."
He says differently now. "I only regret that a retraction was forced out of me. I wouldn't change anything, not a word." In fact, he ups the ante. "Lance is the epitome of the opposite of what a champion is. He gets away with it because he's a cancer survivor."