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."