I first met Lance Armstrong four years ago. We were lingering backstage at a memorial concert in Washington, DC, following the 9/11 attacks. Armstrong was a major headliner, having recently won his fourth Tour de France. As a recreational bicyclist, I was as eager to meet Armstrong as a weekend golfer would be to meet Tiger Woods. In person he was the same guy I'd seen on television and read about: approachable, responsive, and businesslike. Somehow we got around to talking about fly-fishing, and he said he was taking it up, so I casually invited him to Montana, where I own a ranch. We traded e-mail addresses and kept up an intermittent correspondence until an unexpected meeting in the spring of 2005, not long before his seventh and final Tour de France victory.
I had just left my post at NBC Nightly News, and my wife and I were taking a leisurely road trip, visiting old haunts along the California coast, when we drove into the picturesque town of Ojai, where a local bicycle race was being held downtown. It turned out to be a fairly serious competition, organized as a memorial for a local cyclist, and much to the delight of the crowd, Armstrong was riding in it. He had called the night before and asked to compete as part of his training.
He finished well back in the pack, but of course his fans mobbed him for autographs at the finish. When I wandered over to say hello and renew the fishing invitation, he laughed. "Montana? Absolutely," he said. "I'm gonna have a lot of free time after July." We scheduled a week in August, but our plans were derailed when fresh but murky allegations about Lance and doping exploded in the French press. Armstrong had to turn all of his efforts to defending himself.
Finally, we managed to meet at my apartment in New York this spring. He arrived alone, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, running shoes, and workout pants. He set aside his omnipresent BlackBerry and allowed himself half a bran muffin as we settled in for a long and candid talk.