Greg LeMond’s emotional foray into victim’s advocacy started with a creepy, threatening phone call.
“It was,” says the three-time Tour de France champion, “the sickest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The anonymous male caller made crude reference to a secret LeMond had shared only with family and a few close friends. He threatened to publicly disclose what LeMond had kept locked away in shame and embarrassment for most of his life: A painful past as a childhood victim of sexual abuse.
LeMond had long dreaded his secret becoming known, fearful that anyone who knew the truth would think less of him. The call so unnerved him, his wife says, that he couldn’t stop shaking.
It was May 2007 and the next day LeMond was scheduled to testify in Malibu for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency at an arbitration hearing into alleged doping by U.S. rider Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour de France winner who eventually was stripped of his title when a three-member panel ruled against him.
The call to LeMond, it was later revealed, had come from Landis’ manager, Will Geoghegan. If meant to intimidate LeMond, however, it had the opposite effect, eventually emboldening the former champion after he got over the initial shock.
The next day, LeMond testified that months earlier he had confided to Landis in a phone conversation that he’d been sexually abused as a child. Keeping the knowledge to himself, LeMond testified he told Landis, had nearly destroyed him.
His secret was out.
Rather than retreat again, however, LeMond boldly stepped forward as the rare celebrity advocate whose first-person knowledge makes him a natural spokesman for his cause.
Within months, he signed on as a founding board member of 1in6.org, a Santa Clarita-based nonprofit that, according to its website, “helps men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives.”
Says LeMond, who was in town this month to lead a fundraising bicycle ride through Montecito, “I figured if I don’t do it, then who’s going to do it? The stigma is so bad that most people don’t even want to talk about it. A lot of men won’t even admit it.”
LeMond, 48, is a controversial figure in cycling. His strong anti-doping stance has put him at odds with others, fellow American Lance Armstrong among them. In 2006, LeMond testified in a deposition that the seven-time Tour de France winner had confessed to doping, an allegation denied by Armstrong.
LeMond says he and Armstrong have not spoken since 2001, when LeMond questioned Armstrong’s association with an Italian doctor who was about to stand trial on doping charges.
“I can’t sit here and lie to people and go along with probably the most corrupt, drug-ridden sport in the history of sports,” LeMond says. “Will I regret it? I don’t think I will.”
Nor does LeMond regret identifying himself as a victim. His male abuser, he says, was a longtime family friend he met when the family lived in Nevada.
“It’s a period that I don’t really remember,” says LeMond, a father of three who lives with wife Kathy in Medina, Minn. “I remember when it started and when it ended.”
Paradoxically, LeMond says, the pain inflicted upon him quite possibly fueled his cycling success.
“When you don’t feel good about yourself, you want to do something that makes you feel better,” he says. “Winning a race felt really good, made my parents feel proud of me. I can look back now and say, ‘Cycling probably saved me.’ ”
In 1986, LeMond became the first U.S. rider to win the Tour de France. Three years later, after a 1987 hunting accident nearly killed him and left three lead pellets in his heart, five in his liver and 30 others scattered throughout his body, LeMond made a remarkable return and won again. He won for a third time in 1990.
Steve LePore, founder and executive director of 1in6, says LeMond has put the nonprofit and its cause on the map.
“The issue is automatically taboo,” says LePore, who for nearly two decades ran a nonprofit that worked with homeless children. “No one wants to get close to it. I’ve been in nonprofit work for 22 years and this is not on anyone’s radar screen, so to have a person of celebrity who’s willing to be as candid and as honest and as forthright has only served us well.”
LePore says he originally reached out to LeMond after reading about his testimony in the Landis case, “to congratulate him for his courage. It was through that letter that we connected and Greg indicated an interest in becoming involved with us.”
LeMond wishes he’d had somebody to talk to when he was younger. He wishes he’d known he was not alone.
“I would have rather died than tell my wife,” says LeMond, who finally broke down and told her six years ago. “The shame is so great that it ends up eating you up inside. You end up being self-destructive or depressed. The key is to get past the shame and live a life that’s not shame-driven.”
When LeMond finally did, he reached another conclusion.
“Now,” he says, “I look at myself as a remarkable success story.”