When I first met Lance Armstrong in 1989, he was a self-conscious, muscular 17-year-old who wanted everyone to like him. He'd just accepted Triathlete magazine's Rookie of the Year award at a San Diego restaurant, and was flashing the aw-shucks grin of the overachieving teenage athlete. By 1991 he'd successfully switched from triathlon to cycling, had already won the U.S. national amateur title, and was representing his country at races all over Europe – where cyclists are treated like rock stars. "I really fell in love with the sport there," Lance told me. "It's a big scene, and I want to be part of it."
He turned pro in August 1992, and within a year zoomed from rookie to world champion, the youngest in 50 years. The awkwardness was gone. Instead he'd acquired a reputation for cockiness, even arrogance.
Then cancer. He revealed on a media conference call that he had only a 65 percent chance of living. "I intend to beat this disease," he told us, "and further, I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist." I recalled those words in July 1999, on the eve of Lance's first Tour victory. I interviewed him on a French high-speed train headed for Paris, and he picked up on something I'd said earlier – that his age was the same as that of the great Spanish racer Miguel Indurain when he took the first of his five consecutive Tours. "Is it true that Indurain was 27?" Lance repeated. "Yes," I replied, "27, 28, 29, 30, 31...Five years." "Hmmm," Lance mused, as he stared through the train's window at the speed-blurred wheat fields. "Well, we'll see..."
As he kept winning, one Tour, then two, then five, and now six, Lance the celebrity gradually took over from Lance the bike racer. But, for me, he's remained Lance the family man. I remember calling him in Austin, after his third Tour victory, when he cut me off mid-interview because his then-wife Kristin and son Luke had just returned from a trip: "The Boss, Luke the Boss is here, I gotta go..."
I never believed the doping accusations leveled at Lance in the European press. Mainly because of the fatherly love I've been privy to, a love that made me believe him when he told me, "You think I wanna do something stupid, and see my kid go to high school in 10 years and have somebody across the aisle from him say, 'Oh, your dad's that guy that got busted for dope'?"
Back when we first met, I saw a young man eager to be liked, driven to prove his worth. He believed in himself – and now we all believe in him.