Lance's Next Challenge
Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger
The run has always been the hardest part for Armstrong. He’s not one to pace himself: He goes early and he goes all out. It’s a style that has sometimes served him well in bike racing but it’s the kind of thing that could kill him in the Ironman.

"If you can’t run in this thing, you’re fucked," he says. "You could potentially lose it in the swim, but you win it on the bike and the run – especially the run. I’ve got to make sure that’s where it needs to be."

Armstrong is sitting on his shady back porch, at his Spanish-style estate in the hills above Austin. He just got back from a half-Ironman in Galveston, and he’s still pissed about it. He was hoping to be way ahead when he came off the bike, but his lead was only 16 seconds. He ended up getting passed six times on the run and came in seventh.

"I ran 5:50s up until mile eight, then lights out. The last mile I was walking. It was terrible."

The bigger issue, though, came when Isabelle tried to hand him his medal at the finish. Armstrong says he didn’t see her – but the video is still unfortunate, Isabelle standing there in her little black running shorts, holding a finisher’s medal for her father. And Armstrong, clearly exhausted, walks right past her. She follows him for a second, yelling "Dad! Daaad!" but he keeps walking and then is swallowed by the crowd. The headlines were unforgiving: LANCE ARMSTRONG BLOWS OFF DAUGHTER AT FINISH LINE.

"I don’t think I’ve read anything that hurtful in a long time," Armstrong says. "I’m not a perfect dad; I’m sure there are better dads in the world. But that’s a big deal for me. If the cameras would have kept rolling. . . . Someone said, ‘Hey, Isabelle’s here to hand you your medal,’ and I turned and she gave me the medal. But the fucking headlines: ARMSTRONG THE JERK IGNORES HIS OWN DAUGHTER . . . ."

Part of the reason Armstrong always fought the drug allegations so vigorously is because he didn’t want his kids growing up to think he was a liar and a cheat. Now that they’re older, it’s getting harder to shield them. "They’ve had kids say stuff," he says. "Like, ‘Hey, your dad was on TV, they said he did drugs.’ Kristin and I spoke to them and said there’s stuff out there, but we didn’t get into the specifics. I don’t need to sit here and make a case for my own kids."

Armstrong’s career arc has a kind of perfect poetic symmetry to it: Promising young cyclist gets cancer, beats it, comes back stronger than before, more dominant than anyone in the history of the sport. ("If he never gets sick," says Knaggs, "there’s no way he wins those races.") Then he gets accused of cheating with the same drug that once helped keep him alive.

At this point, Armstrong’s climb to maintain his reputation might, as they say in the Tour, be hors catégorie – too steep to even classify. To believe that he’s clean means believing in an almost unbelievable confluence of circumstances: that during a period when an overwhelming majority of Tour riders were presumed to be doping – seven of the eight riders he shared the podium with have been implicated, rightly or wrongly, in doping probes, and at least four of his former teammates have since tested positive or confessed – not only was he among the small percentage who wasn’t on something, but he was stronger and faster than everyone who was.

Armstrong has issued hundreds of denials over the years, from precise legalese to righteous indignation, but interestingly, not once during our many hours of conversation, does he claim he didn’t dope. He swears he’s over it. "I’d never waste another minute trying to convince somebody I’m innocent," he says. "I think everybody’s made up their mind. Nobody’s on the fence about me anymore. It’s kind of refreshing. If someone says, ‘I think you fucking cheated,’ I go, ‘OK, great. Can we talk about something else? Because I really don’t give a shit what you think. I’m not going to waste any more time having that argument.’ "

As for the people who think he cheated, he says, "There are two parts to that population. The part that says, ‘I think that guy’s a fucking cheater and I hate his guts,’ and there’s the part that’s like, ‘I’m sure he cheated – they all cheated. But I don’t care – he’s doing good stuff now.’ That part’s way bigger."

Armstrong has a tendency to do this – to set up "cheater" and "cancer warrior" on opposite sides of his moral scales, with a clear implication of which one should weigh more. And in his defense, he’s done a lot. The Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised over $450 million. But more important, he’s literally changed the terms of the conversation, reframing victims as survivors and the disease as an opponent to fight and beat. "Not that it’s all about numbers and dollars and keeping score," he says, "but if you look at the funds the foundation has raised, at sales of the Nike Livestrong collection, at all the stuff that has my image attached to it, nothing has suffered. Not one thing."

Armstrong has a model in mind for how good deeds can transcend controversy. "The king of this," he says, "is Bill Clinton. He’s not perfect. We all know what we know. But he believes in what he believes, and he just keeps doing what he’s doing. He’s Teflon. I love that guy."

Hansen says he cares more than he lets on. "Lance is a tough man, obviously, a manly man. He has this tough exterior, and he’s gone very far with that. But he really does have a sensitive side. And deep down, he does care what people think."

So what makes him go? He has five great kids, a summer home in Aspen, plenty of money. Why would he want to spend six hours a day training to get the shit kicked out of him by a bunch of 28-year-olds, ­getting worn down so bad that he, Superman, the King of the Alps, is reduced to walking at a race in Galveston? "I suppose I need it," he says. "I enjoy the training. I enjoy the suffering. There hasn’t been one day where I’ve said, ‘I don’t want to do this today.’ I get frustrated like any sportsman would. But nothing says to me, fucking pack it up and go play golf, or go drink beer with your buddies."

Armstrong knows this is his last chance to compete at a world-class level. "There won’t be anything after this," he says. "There’s nothing else I could do, unless I was a closet golfer and played the senior tour, which I’m not. So this is it." No one is quite sure how he’s going to handle it.

Armstrong needs to start packing. Tomorrow he leaves for Belgium, where he’ll cheer on the team he used to ride for. After that he’s headed to Nice, to preview the course for an Ironman race in late June. It’s one he plans to use to qualify for Kona. And Grace and Isabelle have a volleyball game tonight, which he just remembered.

But first he wants to tell a story about a guy named Frank Erwin. Erwin was a University of Texas regent – the basketball arena in Austin is named after him. "He was an old, salty Texas guy," Armstrong says. "I never met him, but somebody told me a story about him. There was a young kid in his office, who’d gotten screwed over in a relationship or shafted in some deal. The kid says to Frank Erwin, ‘I’m going to find that guy and I’m going to get him.’ And Frank Erwin says, ‘Son, don’t go looking for him. Just put your gun out there. He’ll walk by. And when he walks by, pull the trigger.’ "

Armstrong likes this. "In the past, I’ve always been like, ‘I want to get that person.’ But they’ll all walk by. Or maybe they never walk by, and that’s OK. But if they do. . . ." Then, without a word, he makes his fingers into the shape of a gun and, grinning slyly, pulls the trigger.