Greg LeMond on What Triathlon Can Learn from Cycling’s Doping Mistakes

"If any sport is arguing that they don’t have any doping problem, they are fooling themselves."

Photo: Andrew Cowie/AFP, David Madisen/Getty Images, Triathlete

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In our six-part series on doping in triathlon, we examine every aspect of anti-drug efforts in our sport. For more in this series, read:

Greg LeMond is most famous for winning three Tours de France, but he continued to command headlines post-career when he spoke out against fellow American Lance Armstrong. LeMond voiced suspicion about the younger rider, and while he came under intense personal pressure for doing so, he was eventually fully vindicated years later when the Texan admitted to doping.

Triathlete spoke to LeMond in the wake of the Collin Chartier positive to learn what parallels there might be between the two sports, and what advice would give a sport wrestling with cheating at the highest levels.

Triathlete: Greg, there has been a big doping case in triathlon, with Collin Chartier testing positive for EPO. He said that he did it because he believed that the top names must be doing it too. Some people have responded by saying that he is the only one, and that the sport is otherwise clean. Given your experience in pro cycling and your knowledge of sport in general, do you see the “just one bad apple” claim as feasible, or naïve?

Lemond: It’s naïve because it forgets about the human nature of competitiveness. I know that the argument was, “The sport is all about your personal best.” Actually, that’s how I felt when I was racing. I didn’t want to cheat myself.

But when there’s money, there’s risk. And it’s not even just about money. The fact is, what would cause a Masters bike racer to dope himself? It’s ego. It’s winning. So to think that triathlon is immune to that is crazy.

What kind of effect does a substance such as EPO have on an athlete’s performance?

With EPO, it would be a massive improvement. With a 10% gain, of course someone is going to win races. It would bring a benefit for any aerobic event over 35 seconds. Anything below 35 seconds is anaerobic, above that is aerobic. So anything that requires oxygen, from the pursuit to time trial, triathlon, to long distance riding, there will be a boost.

The fact is if your VO2 max is high and your aerobic threshold is high, then your workload is lower, you’re using less carbohydrates, you are using more fat. A high red blood cell count increases your VO2 max plus your threshold, which means that for endurance events at lower intensities, you’re using more fat than sugars. Obviously that’s a massive advantage.

What are the challenges in testing for EPO?

If someone microdoses it, taking it out of competition, it’s hard to catch it.

Looking at the Colin Chartier situation, if he wasn’t doing EPO in the past, his hematocrit would have been lower back then. The change should be obvious. So, depending on how long he was using it, I’d ask why they didn’t catch him sooner?

But that said, they did test him for EPO out of competition. So if the passport was working, it should have picked up that the hematocrit levels had changed. It’s possible they did see that and they targeted him for an EPO test as a result. If so, that is great. It means that the passport is working.

Related: Joe Skipper on How to Cheat the Anti-Doping Testing System

What about other substances – what else is a risk?

It’s important to stop anabolics too. You’ve got to be worried about testosterone. If there’s anything that I know from the physiology of triathlon, it is the risk of chronic overtraining.

When I hear about the miles and hours triathletes do, whenever I hear somebody doing 25, 30 hours a week of training, I think their system must really be under serious pressure. Because most people can’t effectively train more than 18 to 20 hours and make improvements.

With such a huge workload, you’re either catabolic—you’re breaking yourself down—or you’re having to take supplements. A very big problem with triathlon is the volume they think they require. It’s very difficult sport. So any kind of supplements are going to have a huge benefit. And what would probably make the biggest difference for a triathlete would be testosterone, because they’re depleting their testosterone.

We have to hope that, like cycling, they are using things like the biological passport and really tracking the athletes with regular testing. Let’s face it, the world of sports is very vulnerable to the risk of doping.

How effective do you see the biological passport as being?

Well, I’m happy that the biological passport is in existence today. I would love to see totally clean sport, but until we have a drug test that can actually totally detect everything, you’ll never know if that’s the case.

I always look at the biological passport as being a bit like radar. I have a friend in France who used to drive flat out all the time, 95 miles per hour. In 2013 I came back and he was driving 75mph. I said, “What’s happened with you?” He said, “Radar, every three miles.”

So the bio passport is like radar. If you can keep people with their brakes on, limiting what they can get away with, it allows people that are that aren’t doing EPO or other forms of blood doping to still be able to compete. That’s really important.

If you were in charge, how would you approach drug testing in triathlon?

The amount of testing is crucial. They have to do the volume and type of testing as is done with professional cycling. That’s really important. I’d also like to see people having to turn up for a VO2 max test four times a year to see their actual natural O2 intake to watts. Then you’d have to track all that with the biological passport.

I used to tell the journalist David Walsh, “The science is there, but don’t just depend on blood tests.”

Transparency is also really important. One of the reasons I get optimistic about cycling is because in 2020 Thibaut Pinot almost won the Tour. And I know he publishes every file he has. For a guy like that to get close to winning the Tour, I look that as legitimizing things.

During your career you spoke out about doping issues in cycling. After you retired, you also highlighted your concerns with Lance Armstrong and Dr Michele Ferrari. You faced flak at the time for doing so but were ultimately proven correct. Do you believe that triathlon and other sports need to listen to whistleblowers who voice concerns, and to be vigilant about what they are saying?

Absolutely. You have to do that. You have to listen to whistleblowers and you have to investigate what they are saying.

As an example, I was doing commentary in the past for the Tour de France on Eurosport. I talked to pros that knew there were some bikes with hidden motors in there, but they couldn’t speak out. They couldn’t say anything.

I do think things have improved a lot in cycling in recent years, I feel things are much better now with the potential for that being taken seriously. But I do think this is something that there is a risk of in triathlon. A motor can make up 250 watts for an hour, and unless they are testing for it regularly, they’ll never know.

I believe they should have what is called a scattered X-ray check, I looked at it seven years ago in cycling. You can test 250 bikes in a really short time, it is a really fast process. I think every race should have a mandatory check. Because to me it’s been a big risk.

Look, I got a motor years ago. I’ve seen it, I’ve ridden it. In triathlon, people don’t believe in the motor, but I know something like that is a risk.

Culturally, triathlon is different to cycling. Does that change anything when you compare the two sports?

Triathlon is more an individual sport, not a team sport. To me, cycling’s corruption was the team. It’s the coach, it’s the doctor. And the pressure to be doing that is incredible. In the 1990s and 2000s, if you weren’t doing it [doping], you didn’t have a job. So I think there probably is more of a purist, more of a fair-play attitude in triathlons. In cycling everybody’s skeptical if anybody’s clean. And that comes from the nature of the history of the sport.

But that said, triathlon is a global sport. If any sport is arguing that they don’t have any doping problem, they are fooling themselves. At least in relation to those at the top. I think it’s naïve to think Collin Chartier is just one bad apple.

They said that in cycling for 30 years or more when someone was caught. Think back to the Festina Affair. “Oh, that’s just a bad egg.” If one guy gets busted, he’s “just a bad egg.”

In sport, I don’t think doping is going to go away. Really, combating that issue is all about the amount of testing that needs to be done.

RELATED: Exclusive Interview: Mikal Iden, Coach of Suspended Pro Triathlete Collin Chartier

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