"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."Daddy!" The Armstrong youth offensive is under way. It's the morning after the training ride, and when I arrive at 8:30 am, the Aspen home is a flurry of giggling and stomping boots. Armstrong's mother, Linda Armstrong Kelly, flew in from Texas late yesterday afternoon, bringing with her Lance's kids: seven-year-old twin daughters Grace and Bella, and nine-year-old Luke. Their timing is kid-perfect. After yesterday's blue-sky, 60-degree day, a fresh sheet of snow is dumping outside.
Luke breezes into the hallway. He's a miniature facsimile of his father, down to the fuzzy crew cut. He's also fresh from an impressive second podium at the local Austin Cub Scouts Pinewood Derby, where kids raced handmade model cars while nervy parents, including Lance, looked on.
"Remember those dads at the Pinewood Derby?" Armstrong asks Luke. "They were obsessed! That mom yelling when you got a second run when your car bounced off the track? She was all mad – 'Why are we doing a second run?' Those parents – "
"Are nuts," Luke interrupts.
Armstrong laughs. Wandering into the kitchen is Anna Hansen, his very pregnant girlfriend, whom Armstrong met at a charity event last summer. She's a tall blonde who works for a nonprofit Colorado outfit that arranges outdoor adventures for people with cancer. Her pregnancy came as a surprise. Armstrong's three previous children were born through in vitro fertilization because cancer treatment in 1997 had supposedly rendered him sterile. "This is a hopeful thing for testicular cancer survivors," Armstrong's friend Dr. Sanjay Gupta raved on CNN after the announcement. "It means his body healed from the chemotherapy and the surgery."
Asked if he feels at all overwhelmed – a comeback, a crash, a baby due in June – Armstrong says no: "I don't feel overwhelmed. It's helped that I don't pay as much attention to the hysteria, to the media." He claims he quit surfing the Web for gossip about himself cold turkey in December, at the Tour Down Under. "I was famous for reading everything written about me, getting mad about it, getting frustrated. I'm not going to waste another day reading that bullshit. Done.
"If it's not on CNN, ESPN, BikeSnobNYC, Cycling News, or Perez Hilton, I don't know it happened." He pauses, and adds a few more outlets. "Or if it's not in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or the Austin paper…"
Armstrong takes a seat in the living room. He's dressed in a pair of green sweatpants, a matching LiveStrong hoodie, and white socks. On the wall is an enormous portrait of a dour-looking Captain America, painted by Greg Lauren, the nephew of Ralph. Armstrong has been an avid if amateur art collector for a while – he tends to like poppier, guerrilla stuff, like the murals of Brazilian graffiti brothers Os G...meos. On his coffee table sit books by friends such as Ed Ruscha and the Obama "hope" artist Shepard Fairey, who will custom-paint a bike for Armstrong for the Giro d'Italia.
Behind us on a dining table, sitting by itself, is the blue-and-gold trophy awarded to Tour de France winners on the Champs-...lys...es. I ask Armstrong which of his seven Tour victories it's from.
"To be honest, I'm not sure," he says breezily. "They all look the same."
Can he get another? Armstrong is wary of comparisons to unsuccessful sports-icon comebacks like Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards mystery tour, but is noncommittal about an eighth victory. "People will say, 'If you don't win the Tour you've tarnished your legacy,' " he reflects. "But I don't think about that. It would be nice to win another one. Because I like to win at everything."
In the past, Armstrong never doubted that he would win. If he had the right training and the right people – and he always had the right training and the right people – he won. It was simple and ruthless. Armstrong imported industrial-grade efficiency to a romantic sport rich with superstition. He left nothing to chance: Training was no-expenses-spared, beta teammates were handpicked to serve the Lance alpha, every inch of body and bike was examined in a wind tunnel to reduce aerodynamic drag. Purists grumbled that Armstrong lacked panache, that his record stretch of triumphs from 1999 to 2005 was machinelike and soulless, but that was never the point. The point was to win. Fuck panache.
Now there are no such promises. He's more than three years removed from competitive cycling. He's older than almost everyone in the field. And he's got a stainless-steel plate with 12 screws in his clavicle, courtesy of his March 23 wreck in Spain's Castilla y Le"n race. "I was scared," Armstrong admits. "First thing I thought was, 'Damn, I hit my head hard.' My helmet cracked into pieces, but there was this dull ache on the right side of my body. I thought I must have hit my shoulder pretty good, too. And then I just took a pass here," he runs his hand along his collarbone, "and it was like a mountaintop."
He flew back to Austin from Spain in a haze, bummed out. Friends were unsure whether or not to call him. BlackBerry messages went unreturned. He underwent surgery and did a sad spin on a stationary bike the next day.
The crash underscored an underappreciated factor in the Lance Armstrong saga: his really good luck. In all his years of racing, he'd never crashed so seriously. Sure, he'd gone down – quite famously in the 2003 Tour, knocked to the pavement by a spectator's bag – but he always sprung back up. "I might have fallen over, taken a foot out, ruined a wheel, but I never crashed," he says. "No mishaps, no bad luck, and then boom."
He was back on the bike within a few days of the surgery, jokingly asking his Twitter followers not to tip off his surgeon. The training he's doing in Aspen is brutal; most days it's just him on the bike on those muddy mountain roads. He feels good, he says, but not great. Because of the 8,000-plus-foot elevation and thin air, he says, "you never feel good when you're here."
Was there a moment after the crash when he'd thought his karma had run out and considered saying "screw it" to the comeback?
"Of course – because it's never happened before," he says. "When you're lying in a ditch in the middle of nowhere in Spain, and your kids are running around in Austin, it's like, 'Tell me again what I'm doing?' " He laughs and rests a foot on the coffee table. "But that's subsided. I'm back on the bike, training hard, having fun. If I wasn't having fun I wouldn't be doing it."He wasn't bored. Sure, it wasn't the same as winning Tours, but he still had the Lance Armstrong Foundation, his global cancer awareness and research center that recently opened a sprawling new headquarters in Austin. He took meetings with heads of state, nagged the Bush administration for more funding, deflected speculation that he'd run for Texas governor. He showed a surprising interest in the mundane grunt work of public policy; he helped steer a $3 billion cancer research referendum through the Texas legislature with his passionate last-minute testimony before state officials. "The best I've ever seen him," says Doug Ullman, the foundation's president.
In his personal life, released from the monastic rituals of cycling, he was like an Amish teen freed for Rumspringa. There was Lance celebrating at the BCS championship with his Longhorn pal Matthew McConaughey. There was Lance pedaling in Malibu with Jake Gyllenhaal. After Armstrong's breakup with the singer Sheryl Crow, celebrity magazines seized on a dalliance with fashion designer Tory Burch, an entanglement with actress Kate Hudson, and a (thoroughly denied) liaison with an Olsen twin.
As for his fitness, Armstrong wasn't exactly toes up on the couch with a tub of Chubby Hubby. He recast himself as a distance runner, completing two New York City marathons and posting competitive, sub-three-hour times. But the sensation wasn't the same, says his friend and business manager, former cyclist Bart Knaggs.
"There's something wistful in cyclists about how good they used to feel," Knaggs says. "When you spend six hours riding hard, you never sleep like that in your life. It feels like everything on your body is covered in Teflon. Everything is smooth, you breathe easy. Going out and running five miles might seem like a big effort to a lot of guys, but when your body is calibrated at the form Lance's was, there's nothing like cycling to make your body feel good."
The comeback began to flicker last summer. He watched the Tour de France, where he saw guys he knew trying to outgame each other in the Alps and wasn't blown away. He began training on his mountain bike for the Leadville 100, where he'd finish a very conspicuous second. He began floating the comeback idea to friends, and by late August, the rumor surfaced on the website Velocitynation.com, followed by an online exclusive with Vanity Fair. He made it official in New York, at Bill Clinton's Global Initiative conference, in a Hilton ballroom packed with international journalists, as Bubba padded around upstairs. That night, he flew to Vegas and competed in a cyclo-cross race.
He gave all sorts of motivations for wanting to come back. It'd be good for his cancer fundraising, he said – he'd have a higher profile on the bike than off it. He said he'd been inspired by older athletes like Dara Torres, who'd won silver at the Olympics as a 41-year-old swimmer. And sure, he missed the sport, too.
But, as always, there was also something to prove. Since Armstrong left cycling, the sport had begun taking steps to clean up its image. Cycling teams began establishing internal testing programs, publishing results online, promoting themselves as "clean teams." In the United States, the most prominent of these teams is Garmin-Slipstream, a press-savvy operation run by a former Armstrong teammate, Jonathan Vaughters. Other squads, including Saxo Bank, Columbia-Highroad – and Astana – did the same.
Cycling hardly solved its drug issues in this period. The first post-Lance Tour winner, Floyd Landis, was stripped of his title, and the following year, the leader, Michael Rasmussen, left France mid-race after accusations about unethical behavior. Last year, several top riders were caught using a new EPO-like
blood booster called CERA. Still, the media hype over "clean teams" seemed to rankle Armstrong, as if the subtext was that all others were dirty. Cycling fans have noticed that he likes to tweak Garmin – wondering aloud why they are media darlings despite few wins. He also poached Garmin's best up-and-coming rider, 18-year-old Taylor Phinney, for his own developmental team sponsored by Trek/LiveStrong.
Stealing a page from Garmin's playbook, Armstrong made great fanfare of introducing the former UCLA antidoping expert Don Catlin at the press conference where he announced his comeback. He'd hired Catlin, he said, to publish his drug test results online. You want a clean rider? Armstrong appeared to be saying. I'll give you pristine.
"I'm going to ride my bike, and I'm going to spread this [cancer] message around the world," he said at the time. "And Don Catlin can tell you if I am clean or not."
although armstrong has never actually failed a test, it's unlikely he'll ever completely shake the suspicions that he cheated. He came of age as a rider during a tawdry era of performance-enhancing drug abuse in cycling, and several of his former teammates (Landis, Tyler Hamilton) and rivals (Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso) have been sanctioned for violations. Skeptics wonder how one man, racing clean, could so consistently outperform so many who were not. And his critics love to cite his (since-ended) association with Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who was charged, then cleared, of helping riders dope. Over the years, there have been whispers and straight-up allegations – in 2005 the French sports daily L'...quipe reported that six of Armstrong's 1999 blood samples tested positive for EPO – though a subsequent investigation commissioned by the UCI cycling federation took issue with the testing protocols. Armstrong was never penalized, though skeptics decried the investigation as a whitewash.
Given all of this, hiring Catlin seemed like a shrewd, preemptive strike. And yet, shortly before the Tour of California in March, his attention-grabbing partnership with Catlin quietly dissolved before it ever really began, bogged down in questions of cost, logistics, and how much data to make public.
"It became a very consuming event to try and wire it all up," Catlin says now. "Finally we agreed it was too big an undertaking at that point in time." He adds: "Lance is a great guy. If I didn't have confidence in him, I wouldn't have gone as far as I did."
"We should have vetted that better," Armstrong says. "Because we had this time at the Clinton Global Initiative, we rushed it a little. We probably rushed it a lot, without asking what is feasible, what it's going to cost. We just jumped the gun."
Considering the program with Catlin was one of the main tent poles in his comeback, Armstrong knew he'd get flack for its unravelling. "I figured I'd get zinged," he says. But he points out that Astana already had an internal testing program in place with the Danish antidoping expert Rasmus Damsgaard (the "Catlin of Europe," Armstrong calls him), which he's submitted to. "I think Don's the best in the world," he says. "But in hindsight we should have said, 'Let's just follow Damsgaard's protocol.' "
Then came "Showergate." That's the term Armstrong uses for his latest run-in with the French drug testers. This time, it occurred after Armstrong returned from a ride with his longtime coach and friend Johan Bruyneel in the south of France, where they were met by an official of the AFLD, France's antidoping organization, who wanted to take urine, blood, and hair samples.
Armstrong says that he'd never encountered a tester on his own, and that once he and Bruyneel placed calls to the UCI to confirm the tester was legit, he proceeded with urine, blood, and hair tests. But during the standoff the tester threatened to call police if Armstrong didn't submit – and Armstrong left for 20 minutes to take a shower. It all sounds like a Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau movie, but Armstrong's shower raised suspicions, since athletes are usually advised not to leave a drug tester's sight.
Does he regret taking that shower? "No, I'd do it again," he says. "I mean, we've had 24 of these drug tests. A lot of times it's the same people – in Austin, it's a man and his wife, they drive from Houston. If I can't go to the bathroom, we drink coffee and talk about Texas, talk about family. They come inside and no problem.
"We'd been in France for a couple of weeks. The police had already come by a couple of times and warned us that there were paparazzi in the area. I've got a pregnant girlfriend who nobody knows much about, nobody has seen any pictures of, so, you know, they're aiming for that. Nobody in my position just opens that door and says, 'Yeah, come on in!' But as soon as we checked him out, he came in.
"Listen," Armstrong says, "if they just came for your urine and I was gone for 20 minutes, it might be an issue. But they have blood to confirm the urine, and they have hair to confirm the urine. So there's the second and the third backup test. A hardcore skeptic would say, 'Well, you put a catheter in and you fill your bladder with someone else's urine.' Are you fucking kidding me? Dude. I suppose you could. I care about what I do, but I don't care that much. Come on, man."
The showdown with the AFLD proved short-lived, as the agency announced in late April that Armstrong's tests were negative and there would be no sanctions for his confrontation with the tester. By late May, he'd been tested 29 times, while most pros, Armstrong says, had been tested fewer than 10 times. Because detection often lags behind doping techniques, Armstrong says he supports the idea of retroactive testing. Still, Armstrong is resigned to the fact that he'll never convince everyone he's clean.
"You'll never get rid of those people," he says. "I mean, those haters and those cynics that are convinced that me and Doctor Ferrari have concocted an undetectable… There's nothing I can do about that. And by the way, the people outside the bus in California, in Australia, the people in New Mexico and the people in Spain and in Italy and the Tour de France, they don't care either."On the eve of the Tour, perhaps the biggest unknown – and determining factor in Armstrong's quest for an eighth win – is who, finally, he'll race with. Loyal to his old coach Bruyneel, who guided him through his seven Tours on the United States Postal and Discovery Channel teams, Armstrong joined him at Astana, an unusual outfit sponsored largely by the government of Kazakhstan. Armstrong jokingly refers to Astana as "Team Borat," and the team has an almost comical history. Created largely as a showcase for the Kazakh superstar Alexander Vinokourov, Astana skulked out of the 2007 Tour when Vinokourov was caught blood-doping and was then prohibited from starting altogether in 2008. Bruyneel was hired to scrub up the mess. He brought in superb talents capable of winning Grand Tours, including Levi Leipheimer, a 35-year-old native Montanan who's won the Tour of California three times, and Alberto Contador, a 26-year-old Spaniard who won the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, and Vuelta a Espa–a over a two-year period and is generally regarded as the world's best rider.
Adding a 75-kilo gorilla like Armstrong to Astana was a delicate task. For all its focus on individual glory, cycling is thoroughly a team sport. Throughout a race, lesser riders (known as "domestiques") will work to protect the team's best racer, shielding him from the wind, trying to steer him away from crashes, and chasing down attacks by rivals. A winning team usually has a crystalline chain of command. Almost immediately, reports surfaced that Contador was stewing over Armstrong's hiring.
"Alberto's a confident young guy," Armstrong says. "He's 100 percent sure that he's the best that there is, which is the mentality you have to have. I don't think he was doing backflips when the news broke that I was coming back. Obviously that's created some tension. It's definitely been a struggle."
The tensions deepened this spring, after Contador suffered through a bad stage during the Paris-Nice race in France, and Armstrong, watching on television, Tweeted that Contador had "a lot to learn."
"I stand by that," Armstrong tells me. He says Contador didn't listen to his team director or teammates during that race and needlessly chased down rivals instead, losing energy. "It's like, 'Who fucking cares about these petty things?' Win the war. He's a strong kid, but he's strong-minded as well."
Though a headache for Astana, the rift with Contador has created a delicious scenario for cycling fans – the possibility that during the Tour, Contador and Armstrong, refusing to work for each other, will instead battle it out on the road. It's not unprecedented: American Tour winner Greg LeMond once dueled with teammate Bernard Hinault. Armstrong says he won't be the underminer. And he might not be working for Contador, either.
"Levi is as good as Contador," he says. "If I'm the third strongest guy on the team, I've got to do what's right. You start to jeopardize all that you've worked for."
Lance Armstrong, Tour de France domestique? It sounds laughable – the king riding with the cavalry. But strangely, sacrificing himself could bolster his reputation more than a win, especially in Europe.
"If I get fifth in the Tour and Alberto wins, it might make me the most popular man in France," Armstrong says. "It's not my objective, but it would."
By late May, there is yet another wrinkle. In Italy for the Giro, Armstrong goes public with the news that Astana's sponsors, rocked by the global financial crisis, haven't been paying the bills. Armstrong himself isn't taking a salary to race, but other riders haven't been paid in months. As a protest, Astana's riders at the Giro start wearing uniforms that obscure the logos of their deadbeat underwriters. Armstrong begins scrambling to find new sponsors, and it's possible he'll be riding for a new team for the Tour de France. Meanwhile, rumors are flying that Contador will jump to another team.
But amid the chaos, there is good news. Armstrong's fitness returns late in the Giro and suddenly no one rules him out as a Tour threat. "This performance is better than could have reasonably been expected," says Bob Stapleton, owner of the rival Columbia-Highroad Team.
But it's been a hard road back. If Armstrong returns (in 2010), he'd prefer a smoother ride.
"I'd like to have a strong American team that trains hard, races hard, wins, and doesn't whine," he says. "I think cycling needs that. You play by the rules, you've got the highest ethics, you fucking win bike races, then you shut up. I think that's the best."