Lance Armstrong has a 17th-century, 15-foot Spanish fresco of the crucifixion hanging on the wall of his Austin mansion. This doesn't mean – and some of you Armstrong acolytes might want to sit down for this – that Lance is Jesus. God wouldn't pout and stamp his feet when it was revealed in 2008 he was using more water than any other Austin resident. God would just make more water. God wouldn't have been dubbed
Osama by the Italian media for dealing with them only through poorly shot home video. God would have reminded them of Mussolini. And God wouldn't admit that he rode scared last year and contemplated quitting the whole shit show when he was sitting in a smelly Spanish ditch with a broken collarbone. God would have pedaled at the front of the peloton.
But I am also happy to report – except to those of you suffering from Lance Derangement Syndrome – that Lance Armstrong is not Satan in bike shorts either. Sure, he engaged in some black-ops psychological warfare last year with his teammate Alberto Contador that may or may not have included a slap fight, a podium freeze-out, and the hijacking of a courtesy car, but the dude did climb out of that ditch in Spain, finish third four months later, at age 37, in the race rightfully nicknamed the Tour de Lance, and, oh yeah, raise $50 million for LiveStrong, his cancer foundation.
Besides, there's another reason we know that Lance Armstrong is neither Lord nor Prince of Darkness. At this precise moment, he is bleeding. He sits on a leather couch in his study and stares curiously at a reddish blob forming on his shaved left calf. "That happened the other day," says Armstrong in a slow uphill climb of a drawl. "I crashed." He pokes at the blood. "It looks like it's pulled open a little bit."
He'll be 39 in September but doesn't look a day over 50. Armstrong is beyond gaunt, his skin stretched so thin that it looks like his vital organs are going to make a break for the chunky guy fixing the front gate at any moment. We originally decide we'll sit outside and talk, but the fat cell–free Armstrong shivers in the 68-degree Texas morning and we head back inside.
In the death march that is cycling, this means Lance is back. "When I first retired, I got fat, ate a lot, and drank beer," Armstrong says. He pulls out his laptop and shows me a 2006 picture of a man who looks fat only to a world-class cyclist or a manorexic. "Then I started running marathons and working out, and my upper body got way too big for racing." He scrolls to a 2008 picture taken with some buddies on his Texas ranch. The dude looks buff and about 1,000 percent healthier than the current Lance. "Then when I decided to ride again, it was too late; I couldn't lose the muscle quick enough. Now I won't even do 20 push-ups or swim 800 yards – it's too risky. That was a big problem last year."
Oh, yes, last year. His third-place finish was alternately seen as a triumph, a testament to mortality, or a delicious comeuppance, depending on your Lanceview. Armstrong has a novel take. "Last year was interesting," he says. He pauses, glancing up at the crucifix in a WWJD moment. He does the opposite. "It was interesting in the sense that it was just a hobby. You get out there training hard, making all the sacrifices, traveling, racing, suffering, crashing, for nothing, other than you want to do it and it's good for your foundation."
Wait a sec, I say – you finished third. That seems like more than a hobby. Armstrong bulls ahead.
"I think for a guy out doing it as a hobby, to get third was pretty good," he repeats.
That kind of talk ain't gonna make any new friends. Armstrong professes not to care: He's got his own team now, as he readies the comeback after the comeback. "People have decided about me," he says. It's the one-year anniversary of his collarbone crash and he is trying to access his "Que Sera, Sera" side, not an easy task for a man known to block journalists he doesn't like from following his Twitter updates. "They're either with me or they're not, and that's a comforting thing."
There's no halo or horns, just a dude definitely not pedaling gently into that good night.