"No journalists," Lance Armstrong bellows. "No journalists allowed!"
It's a sunny spring morning in Aspen, Colorado, and Earth's most recognizable cyclist is leaning out an upstairs window of his new mountain home in a white sleeveless undershirt, grinning like a third-grader. I'd gotten lost on my 10-minute walk from downtown and started asking confused landscapers if they knew where Armstrong's idyll was. Naturally, Lance saw me before I saw him.
"Down in a minute," he barks.
It is nearly seven months since 37-year-old Armstrong announced his ground-rattling comeback to pro cycling. Since then, things have been about as placid as a Friday night with Amy Winehouse. So far, Armstrong has experienced the good (solid performances in early-season races like Australia's Tour Down Under and the Tour of California), the commendable (using his race appearances to raise awareness for cancer research), and the miserable (a crash in Spain, which broke his collarbone in four pieces). When we meet, his wacky Kazakh cycling team is on the verge of collapse, and there's also, predictably, a petite guerre: France's antidoping agency, AFLD, says it's considering barring Armstrong from the Tour de France for a standoff with one of its drug testers. Though the agency will later clear him, a mistrustful Armstrong believes there are forces that are deeply opposed to his returning to the Tour. "Sponsors want it, TV wants it," he says ruefully. "But there are people who say, 'Over my dead body.' "
For a perfectionist who prided himself on meticulous organization in winning seven straight Tour de Frances, it's been a rocky reentry. But today Armstrong is upbeat. He's spent the past week in Aspen, the posh Colorado skiing resort he fell in love with last year while training for the high-altitude Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. Temporarily disconnected from his very public life, he's grown a scraggly beard. He's also reed thin, a contrast from his races in Australia and California, where a gym-buff Armstrong resembled Jean-Claude Van Damme amid the Lohanesque peloton. "Skipping lunch, drinking shakes," he says of the weight loss. "Manorexia."
The agenda for this morning is a grueling, four-hour solo ride – Armstrong's first major fitness test since his crash in Spain. Dressed in a black-and-yellow team kit from Mellow Johnny's, his Austin bike shop, Armstrong sets off upon his carbon Trek bike. I follow, sitting shotgun in a black Suburban driven by Ryszard "Richie" Kielpinski, a Polish soigneur (cycling speak for "masseuse" and all-around assistant) from Armstrong's team, Astana.
Armstrong is chatty on the way out as we pass by the snowboarder's halfpipe at the Buttermilk ski resort and into rustic Woody Creek, the former home of the late Hunter S. Thompson. Riding alongside the SUV, he talks about using the "Google guys" to chart Aspen's best mountain roads, outlines his plans to do New Mexico's Tour of the Gila stage race, and scoffs at the suggestion that he might ride on the track in the 2012 Olympics ("I'll be, what, 41?"). Rounding a turn, he points out the driveway to a local monastery. "If I turned down that road, they'd fucking shoot me," he says.
The big challenge of today's ride is a series of repeat climbs up Missouri Heights, a steep grade with a spectacular view of Mount Sopris at the top. Armstrong hops in and out of the saddle on the way up, spinning gears quickly in his trademark hummingbird style. Races like the Tour de France are won in the mountains, and it's hard not to be momentarily mesmerized – it's like watching LeBron James practice three-pointers. On a climb like this, a civilian would be sucking air, violently swinging the bike side to side like a bronco. But Armstrong breathes easy. If there is pain in his shoulder, he isn't showing it.
Reaching the top after a handful of minutes, he does a U-turn and bombs back down the road again; we trail him at 45 mph, barely a bike length behind. Up and down and up he goes. Every once in a while, he asks me to reach out the window and hand over a clothing item or his BlackBerry. "C'mon," he says mockingly, handing the phone back. "Make yourself useful!"
At the top of Missouri Heights, Armstrong dismounts. "Gimme the phone – I wanna take a quick Twitpic," he says.
Yes: Armstrong is another feverish disciple of Twitter, the micro-blog service that limits its users to 140-character updates about their lives. Armstrong's friends thought he'd never last a week on Twitter, but he's approaching a million followers and is closing in on Shaquille O'Neal for the title of most subscribed-to athlete in the world. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn't post half a dozen times, chronicling his training, his taste in music (Ryan Adams, Pete Yorn, Neko Case), his cancer-fighting endeavors, or his take on pro cycling.
"In the past, the hardcore haters would be like, 'This guy is a robot; he's hiding, hanging upside down with tubes in him and the doctors are running around,' " he says. "On Twitter, you're like, 'I'm going to pick my kids up at the airport.' Or, 'Here's a picture of my house in the snow.' All of a sudden, people are like, 'The dude's normal.' "
"Other years, I put up a wall," he continues. "But I'm the guy who, when no one's paying attention, is running around with shorts hiked up to his titties and slapping towels and burping and farting like everybody else. I'm not a robot."
If Armstrong's return to racing could be reduced to one Tweet, it might go something like: Who the hell knows? (Look, we saved 121 characters.) He's drawing rock star crowds, but questions abound. As this issue went to press, it was unclear what team he would be riding for when the Tour begins on July 4 in Monaco. He shows glimpses of the old Lance at May's Giro d'Italia stage race, but it's possible he may not be a contender to win the Tour and could end up riding support for someone else. Or he just might stun everyone and win again. "There are a lot of unknowns," admits Armstrong's longtime agent, Bill Stapleton.
Back in Aspen, Armstrong gets his photograph taken in front of the snowcapped mountain range and immediately fires out the photo on Twitter. "Up Missouri Heights," he types. "Mt. Sopris in the background." He hops back on his bike and speeds down the descent in an aerodynamic crouch. Before he gets to the bottom, the world knows as much about the bumpy comeback of Lance Armstrong as anyone.