It would be hard to imagine a more magnificent performance. Sure, it was ugly and stressful and way too close for comfort, but victory number five at the Tour de France may have been Lance Armstrong’s greatest trick yet. In a good year the win would have sealed his place in history, but bearing in mind Armstrong’s two crashes, his faulty shoes, his diarrhea, his sore hip, his cracked bike – not to mention his marriage woes (and, lest we forget, his battle back from cancer) – cinq is damn near miraculous. Six might be next, but that’s not all he thinks about. Hell, one gnarly wave might get him to change gears altogether, as he tells Men’s Journal.
How long did it take after winning this year for you to start thinking about 2004?
At that final press conference I said I would take a month or so. Lo and behold, I went back to the hotel and damned if it didn’t take five minutes before my team director, Johan Bruyneel, and I started figuring out what we did wrong, what could be different. It’s in our fiber.
So I take it that means you’re going for six? Nobody’s ever won six. What will you do differently?
Believe it or not, I had almost begun to take victory in the Tour de France for granted, a very dangerous mind-set for an event that’s three weeks long with tons of variables. So I won’t do that again. I’m getting older, the others are getting younger, and it’s not easy. I think I can pare down. Back in the old days I would go to training camps with Johan, a mechanic, and a soigneur [a masseur/equipment manager]. But over the years we built up to ten riders, an army of mechanics, soigneurs, friends. It’s too many people on the road. It takes the Rocky factor out of it. I’ll go back to training alone this year.
The crash in the Pyrenees seemed to really energize you. Would you have won without it?
I think I would have won by more. It was definitely a hard crash, all impact. The crash cracked the bike, which meant it didn’t pedal the same. And I lost my water bottles, which may sound silly, but you’re talking about a 30-40 minute effort with no hydration, no sugars. But I certainly had a big adrenaline rush I would not have had otherwise. I was in a full rage. Johan came up in the car and said it was the first time in the Tour he had seen me with “that face.”
Who are the riders to watch? Do you think Tyler Hamilton has a shot at ever winning the Tour?
Tyler has my problem. He’s not a young guy. Because he’s new to the top level, people assume he’s 26, but he’s 33. We all race against our birth certificate at that point. Beloki [Dorronsoro, from Spain] is a couple of years younger and was riding great before his crash this year. He might have been the spoiler, and he’ll be strong next year. Jan Ullrich is, of course, good enough. He won it once and would have won five more times if some other guy hadn’t shown up.
Ironically, despite tensions between the U.S. and France, the anti-American and anti-Lance attitude seems to have waned. Any explanation?
I’ll let Jacques Chirac be Jacques Chirac and G.W. be G.W., but the French people were better to me than ever before. It helps that I’ve been around a while and have made a real effort to speak their language and respect their events. The real change was that they saw me suffer this year. The first few years they thought, Who the hell is this robot? This time I was at my limit the whole time, and they loved that.
In your new book [Every Second Counts, out this month from Broadway Books] you again write a lot about surviving cancer. Is that something you actually think about during tough moments on the Tour?
You better believe it helps. I had the yellow jersey, but I was down. I lost a minute and a half in the first time trial and had only 15 seconds going into the last time trial. I thought, This thing’s over. But being down is good for me. I know I’ve been even lower and I can draw upon those experiences to rescue myself. I think my team understands that too.
Were stories about your marriage a distraction? Your wife, Kristin, was posting diary entries on the Internet this year about your relationship problems.
It certainly hasn’t been the easiest time, and it was definitely on my mind. But the things we’re dealing with are everyday issues, and we’re trying to work through them. It’s a constant effort anyone who’s married definitely understands. We have trainers and coaches for everything else in our life. Nobody has marriage coaches, and we probably need them.
Does anything in particular relieve the stress? You’ve said this was your most anxious Tour.
Robin Williams is a very good, loyal friend and a fanatical cyclist, and he’d come into the bus before the start of a day, and that would do it. Half our team doesn’t speak English, but he’d be going off on somebody or something. Once he was in the car on a flat, boring day, and he stole Johan’s radio and just started doing his Robin Williams thing. He told us he’s “bikesexual.”
What about music? Any particular songs get you through?
I needed heavier stuff for motivation this year. Metallica’s St. Anger album got me a lot of mileage. I love the song by Three Doors Down, a Mississippi band, called “When You’re Gone.” It reminds me of my children. The morning of the big attack on Luz-Ardiden in the Pyrenees, my teammate George Hincapie pulled out his iPod and said, “This is your song for today.” It was by a band called P.O.D. and the song is called “Alive.” Talks about a man who feels like he can fly. That did the trick.
You recently took up surfing. Do you see any hidden connection to cycling?
I tried it for the first time last November in Maui, and I absolutely loved it. The real connection is to swimming, which I grew up doing. The key is getting the feel of the water and the speed to catch the wave, both of which I got pretty easily. I’ve committed to surfing the rest of my life.
What about other sports?
I still don’t get golf. But I recently discovered enduro, a kind of motocross. A year ago I did a trip in Baja with my friend Lyle Lovett, and it was just phenomenal. It’s similar enough to cycling that I adapted well, and just being out there was awesome. Baja is a rugged, strange place. We rode for four days on this coastland that looks like what L.A. looked like 200 years ago. And there are, like, three cows standing around. This year we’re thinking about going from Ensenada all the way to Cabo.
Your vote for the greatest athlete of all time?
Jordan slightly over Ali. MJ had great skills, but he also worked harder than anyone else and that’s why he’s such an inspiration.
Don’t you ever just want to break out a bag of chips and down some cheeseburgers?
I flew down from Denmark to Geneva last night and downed a big old bag of chips and salsa. I had, like, five Coronas. It was excellent. It’s the time of year for that.
Speaking of working hard, on a 1-10 scale, how sore is your body during the Tour?
I was right up to 10 this year. Look, if you’re getting dropped and you can’t hold the pace, you’re at a 10. ‘Cause if you were at a 9, you’d go to a 10 to keep up. Whereas in the past I was at 7, 8, and maybe in the time trials I’d get up to a 10. But this year I was hurting big time.
Doesn’t that officially qualify you as a masochist?
This year, yeah. And I hope to not repeat that. Not that I’m unhappy with the results.