May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, May 1997

It's not the fact that Jeannie Longo crushes her cycling rivals so effortlessly that bothers them. It's that she's so unpleasant in victory.

By Dana Thomas

It should have been, ought to have been, a richly fulfilling moment. When French cyclist Jeannie Longo captured the road racing gold medal in the pouring Georgia rain last July, her victory capped one of the most remarkable careers in all of women's athletics. The aging Longo had sought Olympic gold ù the only major prize that eluded her in two decades of racing ù in Los Angeles, Seoul, and Barcelona. Now, in Atlanta, it was hers.

But even after she had added the gold medal to her ten world titles, her three victories in the Tour de France Feminins, and her numerous world records, Longo received no adulation and little attention. Always haughty, she has never been willing to provide heartwarming copy for the press, and after Atlanta, the press in turn shunned her. Her fellow cyclists, by and large, remained silent. French president Jacques Chirac called to congratulate her, but he is so generally loathed by the French public that his praise was seen as a dubious honor. And so, resigned to her status as a virtual outcast even at the pinnacle of her career, Longo continued to do what she does better than anyone else: win. Two months after her Olympic victory, she captured her 11th world championship, in Switzerland, and two weeks later she recaptured the women's one-hour record in Mexico City, pedaling 29.92 miles. At 37, an age when most cyclists are fading, Longo was still utterly dominant. After such achievements, you'd think young women around the world would look to her as a role model. You'd think endorsement offers would be piling up alongside her trophies. You'd think she'd be revered.

In 1986, French sports fans voted the young, fierce Jeannie Longo European Athlete of the Year, and the following year she was awarded the Legion of Honor, but those days are long gone. When Longo returned to France after the Games, there was no adoring throng at the airport, no hopeful sponsors waiting to court her. Together with her husband and coach, Patrice Ciprelli, Longo lives a mostly solitary life in a little hamlet outside Grenoble, tending to her chickens and geese and training alone in the nearby Alps, and it was only back in her village, St. Martin Le Vinoux, that she was greeted as a champion: Local schoolchildren made her a gold medal out of paper and presented her with a packet of congratulatory notes.

Why is the greatest female cyclist in history damned with such faint praise? Because while Jeannie Longo may be the Babe Ruth of women's cycling, she is also, as an NBC commentator uncharitably asserted during the Olympic broadcast, its Ty Cobb. Running parallel to Longo's string of successes is a string of prima donna antics, tantrums, and scandals that have alienated most of her cycling peers. Even Samuel Abt, the International Herald Tribune's venerated cycling correspondent, abandons objectivity when it comes to Longo. "She's selfish and arrogant," he recently told me. "She has antagonized officials and cost some of them their jobs. She has said nasty things about coaches and teammates. When she competed for the French team at the world championships in 1989, the other women on the team were so fed up with her behavior that they came up with a rule: Anytime someone mentioned her name, that person had to pay a fine. Jeannie Longo is an extremely turbulent person who happens to be a very good cyclist."

A few years back, Longo's compatriot and fellow rider Valerie Simmonet aired similar thoughts more concisely: "It's a pity that such a great champion has such a poor character."

This Monstre Sacre, or "Holy Terror," as Abt has described her, seemed disarmingly mild-mannered when we met at the Mariage Freres tearoom, in the oldest part of Paris. She is a tiny thing ù five-foot-three and just over 100 pounds ù but her small frame comprises mostly muscle and sinew. This is not a Frenchwoman who reads fashion magazines: She wore only a smidgen of makeup, and her hair is mousy brown, short and curly, with an artlessly retro cut. Yet her ensemble possessed a kind of athletic chic: a white turtleneck blouse, a windbreaker, dark trousers, and spanking-white running shoes. She held a white porcelain cup of oolong tea gently in neatly manicured hands and sipped while she considered my questions.

Nearly every rider and cycling observer I had spoken with had remarked that Longo never appeared happy. Why, I asked her, do you seem to take so little pleasure in winning?

She didn't have an explanation, but she granted that it was true. "That's why I wasn't so overwhelmed when I won the gold in Atlanta," she said. "It was just about attaining another objective. I didn't realize what it meant until much later, when I was back home among my neighbors, who were so proud."

Longo's aloofness may be deeply ingrained in her character, but it may also have something to do with her long struggle to win a major world title. Born in 1958 in Annecy, not far from the foot of Mont Blanc, Longo, whose father was a civil servant, grew up bright and athletic. At the University of Grenoble, she studied mathematics and computer science, skied competitively, and met her future husband. In 1979, she missed the cut for the French national ski team and turned to cycling. She became the French road-racing champion in her rookie season and held onto the title for a decade, but faced a frustrating five years of near-wins in international races.

A glint of Longo's martial intensity surfaced as she told me about the mishap that ended her gold-medal hopes in Los Angeles in 1984. That year, in the Olympics' first-ever women's road race, Longo led in the final stretch. "I could have won," she said, with tension in her voice. "I was 500 meters from the finish line, preparing for the sprint, and [Italian racer] Maria Canins' wheel hit my derailleur and broke the chain. I had to finish on foot. I could have won the sprint. I would have won the sprint." Instead, she placed sixth.

This frustrating period finally came to an end in 1985, when she won her first world road-racing title. The Longo Era had begun, and she became practically unbeatable. In 1986 Longo earned two world championships and broke ten world records. In 1987 she won the first of three consecutive Tour de France Feminins. In 1988, she won 47 of 47 races during the run-up to the Summer Games in Seoul, but then her Olympic jinx struck again. A month before the Games she crashed in a race and fractured her femur. She still entered the Olympics, but crossed the finish line in 21st place.

The following year she came back and broke eight world records. Then, citing the example of French skiing great Jean-Claude Killy, Longo announced that she wanted to end her career while still at her peak. In cycling, she said at the time, "I've achieved everything I wanted." She planned to slow down, enjoy life, and have a baby.

If Longo had never touched a bicycle after 1989, she would be remembered as the greatest woman rider ever. As it is, she will be remembered as something else.

True, many of the complaints about her poor sportsmanship date from before she resumed her career in 1991. She was notably lacking in graciousness on the rare occasions when she did not win. She was considered fearful to the point of paranoia about sabotage and conspiracies against her, and kept her bike in her hotel room rather than entrust it to team mechanics. In November 1987, she tested positive for the banned stimulant ephedrine after a record-breaking victory in a three-kilometer race in Colorado Springs. She was suspended for a month, and the record was disallowed. Longo furiously denied that she had taken performance-enhancing drugs and publicly accused Dr. Robert Voy, then the head of drug testing for the U.S. Cycling Federation, of trying to "destabilize" her before the upcoming Olympics. "I am one of the healthiest people in world sport, which is full of hormones and drugs usually covered up by federations," she declared, and explained that the ephedrine came from an herbal remedy she had taken to treat circulation problems in her legs. Voy, reached in Las Vegas, where he now lives, wearily acknowledges, "I've heard about this controversy year after year, and I've seen her complaints. This was a time-proven test, and the ephedrine was there. How it got there is not our responsibility."

Longo first began to talk about retiring at this point, and when she finally did so two years later she had won everything but Olympic gold. She was advised that she needed to stop cycling competitively and build up some body fat if she wanted to get pregnant, so she quit. But instead of taking it easy, she took a government-sponsored job coaching young cyclists in southeastern France and organized the Junior French Championships. She found herself working just as much, if not more, as when she was training, and instead of putting on weight, she became even thinner.

The result? "No baby," she told me at the Mariage Frˆres, looking away rather wistfully. It was the only moment of vulnerability she permitted herself. A few seconds later, she snapped back, cool and distant.

She started chatting about mountain biking, a sport she took up for fun after retiring. But she couldn't resist the urge to race, and started winning. She loved the change of scenery from roads and tracks to forest trails, and the chance to use a bicycle as a tool for climbing and jumping, not just for going fast. "But then I thought about the Olympics in 1992," she said. And back into road training she went.

When Longo returned to competition in the summer of 1991, the French team initially welcomed her back. She was, after all, its primary hope to win Olympic gold. Only a few weeks after her first race, however, she was bickering with officials of the French Cycling Federation, which had negotiated a sponsorship contract with the pedal manufacturer Look. Longo, who obsesses about her gear as much as she does about everything else, preferred to use a pedal made by Time and refused to switch, once again alienating both the team management and her fellow cyclists. After she was not permitted to compete for France at the world championships in Stuttgart, she sued the national cycling federation. She even threatened to renounce her French citizenship and approached several other teams, including Luxembourg's and Monaco's, but her reputation preceded her and there were no takers. In the end, she won the lawsuit, and in the 1992 Olympics she used Time pedals.

But Longo's comeback faltered badly in Barcelona. As the pack neared the finish of the road race, Kathryn Watt of Australia, a relative unknown, broke away. The usually keen Longo somehow missed it, and when she sped across the line, she raised her arms in victory. "Then my husband came over to me and said, 'Did you know someone else was ahead of you?'" Longo told me, shaking her head. "I was really shocked. When I crossed the finish line, I thought I was the champion." She paused, then snarled, "The race was badly organized."

Here was the Jeannie Longo who can always explain away a loss or her self-centered behavior ù the Jeannie Longo I had been hearing about for weeks. Last summer, she refused to work out with the French team in Atlanta before the Games. Instead, she trained on her own for three weeks in Colorado to build up her cardiovascular fitness at high altitude, then flew to Georgia three days before her first race. Afterward, she returned to Colorado until her next event. "If any American athlete did that, she'd be kicked off the team," U.S. rider Dede Demet told me. Longo dismisses it simply: "I wanted to be well rested, and I knew I couldn't sleep well in a hot, humid city."

There were other stories. In 1991, when French rider Marion Clignet went to shake Longo's hand after beating her in the pursuit, Longo allegedly spit at her. Other riders say that in a race in 1993, with Dutch cyclist Leontien van Moorsel on her wheel, Longo tapped her brakes; if van Moorsel had crashed, Longo would have won. That same year, when van Moorsel won the world championships and Longo came in second and the two were together on the podium for the awards ceremony, Longo sat through the Dutch national anthem, wiping herself off with a towel. It is said that last year, during the Tour de Vend‰e, Longo led the pack toward cars and didn't let on until the last moment, when she dodged out of the way.

Perhaps Longo's most flagrant transgression came in 1994, when she blew the French team's chances of winning the road race at the world championships in Sicily. In a breakaway of five riders, two ù Catherine Marsal and Cecile Odin ù were French. Longo rode in the pack about a minute behind. Rather than block the competition from breaking out of the pack and threatening the two French riders in the breakaway, as a supportive teammate is expected to do, Longo shot out of the pack herself and chased down the leaders five kilometers from the finish. She set a hard pace that wore everyone out. Marsal and Odin dropped back. Non-French riders snagged the top three spots. Longo faded and finished ninth.

French coach Pascale Renucci was outraged ù and caught in a dilemma. "Either I don't do anything and all the women of the French team turn their back on me, or I defend my group and go against Jeannie," Renucci says. "She insisted she didn't do anything wrong, but everyone saw it clearly. We were going to win medals. Instead, we lost everything." The team again banned Longo ù until it needed her for the Olympics.

Longo has her defenders, of course, and one can make a plausible case that she is a forerunner in the fight for equal rights for women athletes ù including the right to be unsisterly and hostile. "There are a lot of women in cycling for camaraderie," says former Longo rival and Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter Phinney, "and some who are there to win. Jeannie is definitely in it to win."

Longo's defiant attitude may also have something to do with the unfairness of being an unsurpassed champion in a sport where women ù even champions ù are perennial second-class citizens. Which brings up another argument Carpenter Phinney raises: that Longo is the victim of a double standard. She mentions the example of French cyclist Bernard Hinault, a top racer in the seventies and early eighties: "He was aloof and hugely competitive ù a win-at-all-costs kind of guy ù but in a woman those characteristics aren't tolerated. People are afraid of women who are so successful and who aren't afraid to be openly aggressive, especially when it's directed against other women."

Almost everyone I spoke with did tell me that what Longo demands of others doesn't compare to what she puts herself through; there is no doubt that Longo has often turned her hostility inward. (She has talked of suffering through suicidal depressions in the past.) "When she is around, everyone works harder and gives the best they have, because they know when Jeannie is there, there's no messing up," Renucci says. "Her greatest quality is how she prepares and meets her objectives. Each time she says, 'I'll be ready,' when the day arrives, she is."

But Dede Demet, the American rider, told me that she isn't willing to pay the price of emulating Longo. "I looked up to Jeannie, but one lesson I learned from her is it's not really worth it if you aren't happy," she said. "I get a lot of satisfaction from winning, but not enough to make people hate me, like they hate Jeannie."

Partly because of her infamous temperament and partly because of her sex, Longo has not been able to keep a long-term corporate sponsor. This winter, after writing to dozens of companies, she finally snagged a new backer, a French wheat processor called Ebly. But she is still mystified about why she has failed to attract sponsors the way other high-profile athletes do.

I mentioned that French Olympic sprinter Marie Jos‰ Perec has a lucrative sponsorship deal. "You know why?" Longo snapped. "She's tall, she's thin, and she's black. I am small, I am a woman, and I do cycling. The marketing directors don't realize that I'm not only a woman cyclist ù I'm Jeannie Longo."

I asked her why she thinks she has earned the reputation she has. "They have the impression that I want to win everything," she replied. "But it's not true. It's about having objectives and attaining them. That's all." She paused. "It's jealousy," she declared, leveling a stare clearly intended to end this line of questioning.

But I pressed her once again: "Why do people say you're difficult?"

Glaring, she said curtly, "Because I don't like hypocrisy and I don't like superficiality. To me it makes no sense to say 'Hi!' and be friendly to everyone when there are some you don't like. It doesn't interest me at all."

What does interest her is cycling, and it will likely continue to interest her as long as she keeps winning. Only a few minutes after telling me she is not obsessed with victory, Longo began to joke about another gold medal in 2000, when she will be 41. But she had also begun threatening to retire again, permanently. In early March, just weeks before the start of the 1997 season, she still hadn't told Pascale Renucci what she intended to do.

"I think Jeannie's having a personal crisis over it," Renucci said of her star's diva-like behavior. "She wants to stop, but she can't."

Indeed, that's what Longo herself said when she at last returned my calls and informed me that she had finally decided to compete again this year. "I thought about quitting, but my sponsor and many race organizers urged me to continue," she said, adding, "I was pushed into it." Longo promises at most one more season ù and maybe not even that. "If I get fed up," she vowed darkly, "that's it. If not, I'll finish out the season. We'll see."

Dana Thomas has written for the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post. She lives in Paris.

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