Lance's Next Challenge
Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger
It’s a few minutes before dawn the next day in Kona, the sky the color of a day-old bruise. The sun isn’t up; the birds aren’t up; the Japanese tourists definitely aren’t up. Armstrong is up.

He woke at five, so he’s been going for about an hour. He checked his email, brewed his coffee, made his customary breakfast (oatmeal, juice, toast with almond butter and honey). He likes getting up early. He can read the New York Times and the Austin American-Statesman on his laptop, drink his coffee in peace.

Armstrong is staying here at a friend’s place while he trains, in a palazzo-style house with cool tile floors, an expensive-­looking Buddha statuary, and its own waterfall. It’s spring break, so his kids are here – he flew them from Austin on his Gulfstream – and pretty soon they’re up, too: Ten-year-old Grace is goofing around on a pair of crutches; her twin sister, Isabelle, is playing a video game; 12-year-old Luke is holed up somewhere, doing whatever it is 12-year-old boys do. ("I have no idea," Armstrong says.)

These are Armstrong’s kids with his ex-wife, Kristin Richard, whom he divorced in 2003. He has them about 40 percent of the time. He says they’re already turning into mini-superstars: "Isabelle could be a great little endurance athlete if she wants to. At the Capitol 10,000" – a road race in Austin – "she won her age group, ran something like a 6:30 mile. And Luke is a great football and basketball player. He’s tall, much taller than the other kids." (I ask the 5-foot-9 Armstrong how that happened – and he laughs. "I don’t know. Maybe they got the samples mixed up at the sperm bank.")

Out in the front yard is Armstrong’s girlfriend, Anna Hansen, looking early-morning pretty with tousled hair and a flowing red sundress like something out of a cotton ad. Their baby girl, 17-month-old Olivia, is toddling around the front yard in her diaper. Two-year-old Max is clinging to Hansen’s leg. "What’s up, buddy?" Armstrong says. "Can you say, ‘Hi?’ "

"Hi," Max says.

"Max is supersocial," says Armstrong. "Unlike his dad."

Hansen and Armstrong have been together since 2008, right around the time he came out of retirement to ride in the 2009 Tour – ostensibly to raise cancer awareness – and ended up taking an un-Lance-like third. They met in Colorado, where Hansen worked for a nonprofit that helped cancer victims. "We were never even dating," he says. "She’d come to Austin, or we’d meet in Aspen and just hang out. That went on for six weeks – and then she called and said she was pregnant, which I was under the impression wasn’t possible." (The chemo was supposed to render him infertile. Yet more proof of his superpowers.)

Hansen is an athlete, too. Four years ago, she and Armstrong competed in the Leadville Trail 100, a punishing 100-mile mountain-bike race through the Colorado Rockies. He finished second, went home to take a nap, then returned to the course to cheer her on.

"We loaded up the car, threw the cooler in there. We got beers, we got lawn chairs, we got speakers. I’m sitting there thinking she’s going to think I’m the greatest dude ever." But Hansen had other plans. She was racing against the cut-off and had no intention of stopping. "I see her coming and start yelling and waving, and fwoom – she doesn’t even stop. I’m like, what the fuck? A hug, a high five, a kiss, nothing? At the finish she said, ‘Now you know how other people feel.’ "

Armstrong gives Anna a kiss and starts readying his bike. He’s got his shirt off, and you can see his sharp tan lines from hours spent in the sun in a cycling jersey. His pale, muscular chest is a road map of scars – the one where they stuck the catheter during his four rounds of chemo, the fresher-looking white one where he broke his collarbone during his 2009 comeback. Inside his rib cage are the weather-balloon lungs with their freakishly high oxygen uptake, the heart that beats an alarmingly low 32 times a minute but at its peak can hit nearly 200. The rest of his body is like a collection of recombinant parts: the taut, wiry arms, the quads like slabs of beef, the calves of granite.

Today will be a long day. He’s doing five hours on the Ironman course – 40 hard, uphill miles and then back down through the mountains. He clips in and sets off down the road with Riccitello alongside him. I follow in the support van with Dave Bolch, Armstrong’s soigneur – the specialized assistant who does everything from give him massages to mix his water bottles.

Armstrong rides through miles of barren lava fields, like the surface of the moon. He pedals with his famously fast cadence – "like a cat climbing a tree," he once said – slicing up the hill. Kona’s fabled ho’omumuku crosswinds are swirling like crazy, and a couple of times he gets blown into the road. Pretty soon the wind is too much for Riccitello, and he has to get in the van. You can see why Armstrong usually trains alone.

He rides on, hugging the coastline. He’s out of the lava fields now and up into the plains, riding past macadamia farms and cattle ranches and mango and avocado trees. He passes families of black mountain goats, signs for donkey crossings, and tsunami evacuation zones. On one scenic stretch he points out to the bay, to a pod of dolphins.

"He’s flying today," Riccitello says. "He’s not even breathing hard. It makes me sick." Armstrong’s best friend and training buddy, John Korioth, says he can go from couch potato to race-fit in just two weeks.

Eventually we get to Hawi, birthplace of King Kamehameha – where the race turns around, but he keeps climbing, passing 1,500 feet, 2,000, 2,500, 3,000. It’s raining now, and there’s a wicked headwind with fat drops splattering his face. Every once in a while Armstrong lets out a powerful exhalation, clearing his lungs like a horse after a strong gallop, but for the most part, he doesn’t seem to get winded. At one point, passing through a misty pine forest, he drops back alongside the van, docking on the window to steady himself. "Did you know this place has 11 of the 13 climates?" he says with little effort. "Everything but the hottest and the coldest." (He pedals off again, and Bolch chuckles to himself. "Thanks, Professor Wizard. That’s his big fact. He tells that to everybody.")

It’s easy to forget, now that he embodies cycling so fully, but Armstrong actually started in the triathlon. He switched to bikes full-time in 1991 because he wanted to compete in the Olympics, but as a teenager he was a cocky young tri star, appearing on Triathlete and being named Rookie of the Year at 17. He would lie about his birth date to meet age requirements, and the older pros nicknamed him "Junior."

Armstrong signed up for his first tri in Dallas at age 13, when he saw a sign in a bike store. He was already a competitive runner and top-flight swimmer – and so, he says, "I just put the three together." He won that race, and also his next one. Pretty soon he was racing all over the country. Once, before a race at Lake Dallas, he got hit by a Bronco while on his bike and had to get stitches in his foot and head. The doctor told him he couldn’t exercise for three weeks. Six days later, Armstrong pulled the stitches out of his ankle, borrowed a friend’s bike, and showed up at the start. He was first out of the water, first off the bike. He got beaten in the run and ended up taking third.

After he retired from cycling for good in 2011, he started thinking about getting back into tris. He had already run marathons in New York and Boston, and had never stopped swimming. When he committed to the race, he and his business manager, Bart Knaggs, convened a meeting of the so-called F-One group, a team of equipment designers, product reps (Nike, Trek), physiologists, and engineers whose singular goal is to help him win. "Twenty people in a room talking about one guy doing a one-day event," Armstrong says. "How crazy is that?"

I ask what the response of the other top competitors has been so far. "I don’t need to lie to you," he says. "Definitely mixed. But my career has always been that way. Even in cycling there were guys who were scared of you or intimidated by you or flat-out didn’t like you. That’s OK. I don’t need their permission to be here. I might beat them a time or two," he says, smiling, "but I’m not here to make their life miserable." If he were to win, Armstrong would be the oldest Ironman champion ever.

Armstrong once called the Tour "essentially a math problem," and he’s treating the Ironman the same way. His goal is to complete the swim in under 50 minutes, and the run in under three hours. He’s got the bike part pretty much down.

Finally, after three hours of climbing, Armstrong stops at the ridgeline, kicking out of his clips for a Snickers and a Coke. (He also tries to take a leak but there’s a convertible pulled over up ahead, and the passenger, a middle-aged woman in a purple scarf, is doing a very bad job of pretending to take pictures of the scenery. Armstrong opens the back door and goes behind the van instead.) Looming above us is Mauna Kea, at 13,000 feet the tallest volcano on the island. He says he’s ridden up Mauna Kea twice – right now there’s snow on top. (Bolch: "Did you know this place has 11 of the 13 climates?") Armstrong bombs down the highway doing 60, easy; his brakes are an afterthought. The Pacific is so wide and blue up ahead that it looks like he’s going to ride right in. Within 15 minutes he’s at the bottom of the hill. Armstrong looks giddy. "Well, that was fun!" he says. "That was worth the price of admission."

Later, after he has run and had a massage, we reconvene at the house. We wander down to a beach-club bar nearby and order beers. Armstrong has his shoes off and his feet up. These days, this is his routine: work out in the morning, five or six holes of golf in the afternoon, then back home for a couple of beers while he watches the sun set. "Let’s be honest," he says. "My life has changed drastically the last two years, and it has changed drastically the last month."