The story behind the story: Whatever happened to Roland Green?

Exclusive to VeloClub Insiders, Neal Rogers writes the story behind the story of tracking down ex-World Champion Roland Green, speaking with ex-training partners and competitors, and how the feature came to fruition.

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The idea of writing a “Where are they now?” piece about Roland Green first struck me in June 2012, when I attended Ryder Hesjedal’s Tour de Victoria. Hesjedal had just won the Giro d’Italia, becoming Canada’s first Grand Tour winner, and there was a palpable buzz around the event.

It was my first trip to Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It was there, through a vast network of trails, that the “Canadian Mafia” — Green, Hesjedal, Chris Sheppard, and Seamus McGrath, event director of the Tour de Victoria — had pushed North American mountain-bike racing to the next level in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

For the 140km ride around the island, my wife and I used loaner bikes from the Trek Bicycle Store of Victoria. Inside the shop there were remnants from a bygone era of mountain-bike racing — signed jerseys and race bikes that had belonged to Green, Hesjedal, and McGrath during their heyday. Green had raced for Trek, while Hesjedal had raced for Gary Fisher, which was owned by Trek; this shop had pieces of cycling history adorning its walls. The shop owners, and employees, each had a different story to tell about a photo, bike, or bib number on the wall.

Roland Green world champion's jersey, number plates, Trek Bicycle Store of Victoria. Photo: Neal Rogers.
Roland Green world champion’s jersey, number plates, Trek Bicycle Store of Victoria. Photo: Neal Rogers.

I’d always found Green a compelling figure. When I first started following pro cycling, he was quickly becoming the best mountain-bike racer in the world. I moved to Boulder, Colorado, and started with VeloNews about two months after Green’s first world title, just up the road in Vail. For my first two years working in cycling media, Trek had the best mountain-bike racer, and the Tour de France champion, both North Americans, on their equipment.

In 2002, Green was young, handsome, and dominant. After his second consecutive world title, in 2002, he became synonymous with the rainbow jersey. Back then it was Green, not Hesjedal, who was poised to do great things on the road.

I first met Green at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, in 2003, where he was battling on the road with the Saturn Cycling juggernaut before abandoning with illness. A few months later, a crash on the final stage at the Tour de Georgia impacted the rest of his season — and, it would turn out, the rest of his career. In just over two years he would be gone from the sport for good.

And since then…. nothing. No Facebook. No Twitter. No charity rides. No special appearances. No bike brand. Just silence.

“So… whatever happened to Roland Green?” I asked the Victoria locals.

Some mentioned him investing in real estate, and becoming a landlord. Some said he’d moved to Newfoundland, working in fishing off the east coast of the North American mainland. Others said, no, he’d moved to the small mountain town of Fernie, in the southeast corner of British Columbia, near the Idaho/Montana border.

And the thing was, no one really knew for sure.

Yes, this is how “where are they now” stories come about. No, they don’t usually take four years to write.

Much has changed over those four years. In 2013, after Michael Rasmussen published his biography accusing Hesjedal and McGrath of using EPO, they admitted to doping earlier in their careers, confirming something that had long been suspected of all members of the Canadian Mafia — and something Sheppard had admitted years before, after testing positive.

Green, the strongest rider of that group, had never tested positive, and had never been directly implicated or accused. What he had done, however, was retire, and then disappear. The exact reasons behind that had never seemed clear. Though I didn’t set out to write a story about doping, it would be impossible to avoid the topic. Green was the top mountain-bike racer in the world during a period when EPO use was rampant in professional cycling.

I spoke about it with CyclingTips publisher Wade Wallace, himself a Canadian who was very familiar with Green’s career. He was intrigued, and encouraged me to pursue it. I didn’t know if I’d actually reach Green, or if he would be amenable to an interview, but I would try. And even if he didn’t, I felt there was a story there. Earlier this year, Peter Flax wrote a great story, here on CyclingTips, about tracking down the mysterious Thorfinn-Sassquatch without ever actually speaking with him. I would use that as a template.

From left: Geoff Kabush, Roland Green, Ryder Hesjedal, 2003 Sea Otter Classic. Photo: Tom Moran.
From left: Geoff Kabush, Roland Green, Ryder Hesjedal, 2003 Sea Otter Classic. Photo: Tom Moran.

First, I reached out to as many sources as I could, starting with McGrath, Hesjedal, and Sheppard. McGrath returned my correspondence right away; Hesjedal and Sheppard never did.

I reached out to Geoff Kabush, a 20-year veteran mountain-bike racer who also hailed from Victoria, but was not part of the Canadian Mafia. I’ve known Kabush for my entire career as a cycling journalist, and I’ve always known him to be a straight shooter. He was open about his suspicion that Green had also been using EPO, though he had no definitive proof. He had opinions, some hearsay, but not evidence; that’s all that could be attained from anyone.

“Some guys convinced themselves that everyone was doping,” Kabush said. “That’s false. I was there, and I wasn’t doing it. It was never a temptation for me, because it would have ruined everything I was in the sport for. I think Roland understood that everyone wasn’t doing it, and he knew it was wrong. I think he felt guilty after winning worlds in 2001, because he knew he’d cheated. And I think Roland was pragmatic about why he was doing it. He made good money. He came up from a poor family, and he was focused on the financial gain. I think that’s why he’s not involved in the sport any longer. He saw the financial opportunities, he took advantage of it, he made good money, and then he disappeared.”

Kabush informed me of Green’s failed real-estate investment. McGrath gave me details of Green’s terrible utility vehicle accident, which nearly killed him — and which took place just weeks after my 2012 visit to Victoria.

This story was taking turns I hadn’t anticipated. Green had seen his career end abruptly, and disappeared. Life outside of cycling had thrown him significant challenges.

I reached out to Eric Wallace, Green’s former manager at Trek-Volkswagen. I reached out to CanadianCyclist.com editor Rob Jones, who followed Green’s entire career, and to Trevor Connor, who had lived and trained at Canadian Cycling’s PacificSport National Cycling Centre in Victoria the same time as Green and now works as a coach.

Wallace and Jones spoke about the accident at the 2003 Tour de Georgia, and how that had been a turning point, how Green had never been the same. I asked them both about Green as an athlete, and a person, but also about victories taken during a dark era for the sport. Both agreed that speculation was warranted, but that they had never heard or seen anything that was definitive.

Roland Green during Stage 3 of the 2003 Tour de Georgia. Photo: Casey B. Gibson.
Roland Green during Stage 3 of the 2003 Tour de Georgia. Photo: Casey B. Gibson.

Jones had conducted an interview with Green in 2005, upon his retirement. When I asked him about that conversation, and his questions about drugs in sport, Jones said he felt Green had skirted the issue.

“Whether that’s because he didn’t want to perjure himself, or because he knew other people were doing things and didn’t want to condemn them, I don’t know,” Jones said. “He was never caught, but there is a lot of guilt by association. He and Ryder were training and racing together. Did he know, but didn’t do it? He was part of that group. You can’t say. Given the era, and what has since happened to the people he was beating, it makes you question. The only thing in his favor is that he’s a guy who didn’t test positive, and when he screwed up with his TUE he admitted it, he voluntarily sat out, and took the suspension. That stands to his favor, however that smell won’t go away because of the association, and what was happening in the sport at the time.”

I also reached out to Lance Armstrong, to see if there was any truth to rumors that Green had shown up to a U.S. Postal Service team camp and dropped everyone but Roberto Heras; other rumors said that Johan Bruyneel was actively recruiting Green to be part of the U.S. Postal team at the Tour de France. I had serious doubts as to whether either story was true, not because Green wasn’t a strong rider, but because I’d been at the USPS team camp in 2003 and hadn’t seen him, and because USPS was unlikely to take a rider with no Grand Tour experience to the Tour.

“I asked Johan, as I didn’t recall him ever being there,” Armstrong replied. “He said he never came to camp, and certainly never was considered Tour de France material.”

McGrath had provided me with email address for Green that was more current than what I had from a decade earlier. I sent him an email that wasn’t returned, then a follow-up that also went unanswered. I began to write the story under the assumption that I was not likely to hear from him. But a text message was quickly returned, and we spoke later that evening.

I didn’t know what to expect. The details of his accident were gruesome, and included a stay in intensive care with a second brain injury. I’d heard that he had significant memory lapses.

Ultimately it was the same Roland Green I’d spoken with more than ten years earlier. He was just home from work, as a welder, at a business he’d started after going to trade school at age 37. As we spoke, in the background, I could hear his children playing. As he told me about the severity of his accident, it hit home how close those children had come to being left fatherless at a young age.

It was his first interview since 2005. For the most part, I felt he was open and honest. It was clear straight away that his career hadn’t ended on his terms, and that it had been painful for him. If he hadn’t made peace with that fact, he’d at least accepted it.

As is the case with any interview, you save the pointed questions for last. Finally, I asked him.

“You won races in 2001 and 2002 beating other riders — Ryder Hesjedal, Michael Rasmussen, and Filip Meirhaeghe — who later tested positive or admitted to doping. It’s natural to assume that if you were beating them, you were also doping. How do you respond to that?”

His answer, as demonstrated in the article, was defiant. His tone changed. He defended his performances. He said that mountain-bike racing requires a different demand on the body — and a different skillset — than road racing. He felt that he’d demonstrated world-class talent throughout his career. He said people would make assumptions, and that it was pointless to try to defend himself.

“People are going to think what they want,” he said. And on that point, no matter which story one chooses to believe, I think he is right.

Ultimately, this was a component — but not the sole focus — of this story. I’d set out to find out what had happened since he retired. I set out to find out why he’d just walked away. I set out to find out whatever happened to Roland Green. And yes, I wondered if the doping culture that was so dominant in cycling at the time had played a role.

After he read the article, Green sent me a short note. “Although it is hurtful to read some of the drug accusations, I understand why it is part of the article,” he said.

And with that, I suspect that may be the last that I — or any journalist — will hear from Green again.

Before I knew I would speak with Green, I wrestled with how I would end the piece. It seemed only fair to give him the last word. But given the complexity of his career, and the mystery of his disappearance, what should that message be? I had decided that this quote, from an October 2005 interview with Pedal Magazine, was most appropriate. And so, I’ll end this piece with it instead.

“When you are younger and just starting cycling, you feel like anything is possible, like there are no limits to what you can do,” Green said. “But as you get older, you start to realize your limitations — your strengths and your weaknesses. There’s something really beautiful about having no limits when you’re young, and dreaming about doing whatever you think you can achieve.”

Roland Green leads Christoph Sauser at the 2002 World Cup race in Houffalize, Belgium. Photo: Malcom Fearon/Bliss Images.
Roland Green leads Christoph Sauser at the 2002 World Cup race in Houffalize, Belgium. Photo: Malcom Fearon/Bliss Images.

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