Lance Armstrong has a 17th-century, 15-foot Spanish fresco of the crucifixion hanging on the wall of his Austin mansion. This doesn’t mean – and some of you Armstrong acolytes might want to sit down for this – that Lance is Jesus. God wouldn’t pout and stamp his feet when it was revealed in 2008 he was using more water than any other Austin resident. God would just make more water. God wouldn’t have been dubbed
Osama by the Italian media for dealing with them only through poorly shot home video. God would have reminded them of Mussolini. And God wouldn’t admit that he rode scared last year and contemplated quitting the whole shit show when he was sitting in a smelly Spanish ditch with a broken collarbone. God would have pedaled at the front of the peloton.
But I am also happy to report – except to those of you suffering from Lance Derangement Syndrome – that Lance Armstrong is not Satan in bike shorts either. Sure, he engaged in some black-ops psychological warfare last year with his teammate Alberto Contador that may or may not have included a slap fight, a podium freeze-out, and the hijacking of a courtesy car, but the dude did climb out of that ditch in Spain, finish third four months later, at age 37, in the race rightfully nicknamed the Tour de Lance, and, oh yeah, raise $50 million for LiveStrong, his cancer foundation.
Besides, there’s another reason we know that Lance Armstrong is neither Lord nor Prince of Darkness. At this precise moment, he is bleeding. He sits on a leather couch in his study and stares curiously at a reddish blob forming on his shaved left calf. “That happened the other day,” says Armstrong in a slow uphill climb of a drawl. “I crashed.” He pokes at the blood. “It looks like it’s pulled open a little bit.”
He’ll be 39 in September but doesn’t look a day over 50. Armstrong is beyond gaunt, his skin stretched so thin that it looks like his vital organs are going to make a break for the chunky guy fixing the front gate at any moment. We originally decide we’ll sit outside and talk, but the fat cell–free Armstrong shivers in the 68-degree Texas morning and we head back inside.
In the death march that is cycling, this means Lance is back. “When I first retired, I got fat, ate a lot, and drank beer,” Armstrong says. He pulls out his laptop and shows me a 2006 picture of a man who looks fat only to a world-class cyclist or a manorexic. “Then I started running marathons and working out, and my upper body got way too big for racing.” He scrolls to a 2008 picture taken with some buddies on his Texas ranch. The dude looks buff and about 1,000 percent healthier than the current Lance. “Then when I decided to ride again, it was too late; I couldn’t lose the muscle quick enough. Now I won’t even do 20 push-ups or swim 800 yards – it’s too risky. That was a big problem last year.”
Oh, yes, last year. His third-place finish was alternately seen as a triumph, a testament to mortality, or a delicious comeuppance, depending on your Lanceview. Armstrong has a novel take. “Last year was interesting,” he says. He pauses, glancing up at the crucifix in a WWJD moment. He does the opposite. “It was interesting in the sense that it was just a hobby. You get out there training hard, making all the sacrifices, traveling, racing, suffering, crashing, for nothing, other than you want to do it and it’s good for your foundation.”
Wait a sec, I say – you finished third. That seems like more than a hobby. Armstrong bulls ahead.
“I think for a guy out doing it as a hobby, to get third was pretty good,” he repeats.
That kind of talk ain’t gonna make any new friends. Armstrong professes not to care: He’s got his own team now, as he readies the comeback after the comeback. “People have decided about me,” he says. It’s the one-year anniversary of his collarbone crash and he is trying to access his “Que Sera, Sera” side, not an easy task for a man known to block journalists he doesn’t like from following his Twitter updates. “They’re either with me or they’re not, and that’s a comforting thing.”
There’s no halo or horns, just a dude definitely not pedaling gently into that good night.Lance Armstrong is funny. No, seriously. It’s the day before the hobby remark, and he’s on his bike in an ultradepressing office in suburban Austin. He’s shooting spots for new sponsor Radio-Shack that are being directed by Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap and Best in Show fame. The premise is Armstrong dictating memos to a hapless assistant named Alphonse. The office walls gently mock Armstrong with Successories-style posters of him with slogans like Courageous. Behind his left shoulder, a cobra and a mongoose are locked in a death struggle. “That’s like Alberto and Lance,” says an ad exec watching the proceedings. “I guess we’ll find out in July who is who.”
The commercial is supposed to begin with Armstrong bellowing, “Alphonse, why do people talk like this when they’re using their cell phones?” Guest tinkers a bit. “Say ‘Alphonse’ with a little more anger.”
Armstrong adds some decibels.
Guest says, “Now say it a little slower, with attitude.”
Armstrong slowly drawls, “Al, Phon, Za.”
The bone-tired crew cracks up. Lance cracks a sly smile and begins humming the Mexican Hat Dance between takes. During a break, I tell Armstrong that the suits rate him a nine out of 10 on the celebrity acting scale.
“Really?” says Armstrong as he autographs a never-shrinking pile of posters. There’s no smile, just an arched eyebrow. “Who’s a 10? Did they say?”
It’s a little surprising that Guest hasn’t made one of his mockumentaries about the Tour de France. It’s all there: skulduggery, buffoonery, pomposity. And that’s before the riding starts.
You know the basics, which is a damn good testament to Lance’s dominance of cycling – a sport huge in Europe, but one that, without Armstrong, draws American ratings south of George Lopez. The bio is familiar. A brash, fatherless boy from Plano blasts onto the scene in the early ’90s. He’s got a giant heart – both metaphorically and literally – and seemingly a tiny brain. He launches mountain-stage attacks that are bravely idiotic in a young Steve Prefontaine way, as they lack planning and timing and basically consist of Armstrong going to the front and holding on until he bonks, spectacularly dropping to the back of the pack. His front-running is comic-tragic in cycling, where you ride as a team and strategy is more convoluted and conspiracy-laden than the Trilateral Commission.
Armstrong wins a couple of Tour de France stages but withdraws from the three-week, 2,000-plus-mile grind in three of his first four attempts. Then in 1996 he gets testicular cancer. It spreads to his lungs and brain. His chance of surviving is less than 50-50. Some sponsors melt away. Most think he’ll never ride again. But he does. Somehow, better than before. Maybe it’s the gut check of the cancer; maybe it’s hiring Belgian Johan Bruyneel as his coach, a man who is an amalgamation of Dr. Phil and Bill Parcells.
Lance becomes a master tactician. In 1999, he wins the Tour. There’s a best-selling, actually readable memoir. And then he wins again. And again. Repeat until you hit seven. This does not please the French. Or the Germans. Or the Brits. Or anyone outside of the contiguous United States. He wins races by minutes, not seconds. Comparing Armstrong’s times to pre-Armstrong times is like the distance between Roger Maris’s 61 and Barry Bonds’s 73.
And that’s the problem. The entire European community thinks he’s doping. In cycling, this is like being accused of smoking pot at a Phish concert. But here’s the thing: Armstrong never tests positive, despite being pricked a couple of hundred times. The Euros start combing through his trash, questioning ex-friends and ex-employees and producing complicated mathematical formulas suggesting it is scientifically impossible for Armstrong to ride as fast as he does. They come close in 2005 – finding some urine samples of his from 1999 that might have tested positive for blood doping – but the second half of the samples were spoiled, leaving the matter still unclear.
“By the last two years, we weren’t having any fun,” says Bruyneel. “It was, get off the bus, race, deal with accusations, then do it again. It became a really hard job. Imagine trying to do your day job, whatever it is, right in Times Square, and that’s what every day was like.”
In his spare time, Armstrong starts LiveStrong, a foundation that immediately becomes a player in the fight-cancer world. After winning his seventh yellow jersey, he retires at the age of 34. “I won’t miss the Tour,” says Armstrong, who then heads out on tour with Sheryl Crow, his post-wife girlfriend. Armstrong splits from Crow in 2006, a move that frankly bothers more Americans than the alleged doping.
At that point, it’s good to be Lance Armstrong. There’s talk of a run for governor. He pals around with Bono and becomes the rarest celebrity spokesman: one who actually knows what he’s talking about. It’s not all do-gooding. Armstrong hits a player phase; Kate Hudson and Ashley Olsen make romantic cameos.
Then the strangest but inevitable thing happens. He gets back on the bike.Here’s a historical truism: most great men are dicks. Picasso, Napoleon, Tiger Woods. To build an empire – or win seven Tour de Frances in a row – you must have a Lone Star–size ego and a dash of megalomania. Armstrong’s heartfelt cancer work immediately draws him out of the worst category with the despots and degenerates, but his self-image is quite robust.
I ask Armstrong why he came back, and he initially says the right thing about fighting cancer, and that’s certainly true. The $50 million that LiveStrong raised last year was a whopping 26 percent increase from the year before, in the teeth of an unforgiving recession. But pretty soon, Armstrong is talking about saving cycling.
“It’s the third-biggest sporting event in the world, and it attracts worldwide attention and worldwide sponsorship and millions of spectators a day. It’s massive,” he says. “But in so many other ways, it is completely ghetto. Everybody looks at the other person and thinks that they’re either trying to fuck them over or they’re getting fucked.”
That’s true. But that includes Armstrong. Outside of America, his September 2008 comeback announcement went over about as well as a George Bush European vacation. British columnist Paul Kimmage declared Armstrong “the cancer in this sport,” adding: “For two years this sport has been in remission. And now the cancer’s back.” Boy, that seemed like an unfortunate metaphor! This being cycling, that wasn’t the end of it. Armstrong appeared at a Tour of California press conference in February 2009 where Kimmage, referring to suspended riders Floyd Landis and David Millar, asked him, “What is it about these dopers that you seem to admire so much?” Their exchange is priceless. (“You are not worth the chair you are sitting on,” Lance says at one point.) Thousands of YouTube watchers agree.
Still, Armstrong says he returned to be a uniter, not a divider: “There was an aspect that said I need to go back and settle this thing down because cycling was out of control and it needed some stability; it needed a leader.”
He shrugs his bony shoulders. “I’m not sure I’m that leader, but a lot of other guys in the group, guys that I didn’t need to kiss my ass, said, ‘I’m glad you’re here because you’ve given us some direction. If there’s one guy who’s going to have our back, and if it’s shitty hotels or dangerous road conditions or getting screwed around by different doping agencies, or whatever it might be, Armstrong’s going to get our back.’ ”This might have been true in a macro sense, but it certainly wasn’t exactly true within Lance’s own team. Armstrong insisted on reuniting with his old friend Bruyneel. This was laudable, but problematic, namely because (a) Bruyneel was working for team Astana, an underfunded squad mysteriously financed by the government of Kazakhstan, so the Borat jokes came fast and furious, and (b) Astana was led by the lyrically named Spaniard Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour de France winner. This wasn’t the equivalent of Obama and Clinton running together; this was like Obama and Palin teaming up. Tour teams are made up of nine riders, but there can be only one boss; the other eight are known as domestiques, a charmingly demeaning name that perfectly captures their responsibilities: fetch water, block the wind, even give up their bike, all in the service of the team leader. “In retrospect, it was like putting a world conqueror on the team with a young man who wanted to be a world conqueror,” says Bruyneel.
The situation deteriorated into a he-said, he-said conundrum conducted in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Before stage 8, according to Bill Strickland’s excellent new book Tour de Lance, Contador and Armstrong had to be separated from punching each other during an argument about who wasn’t following Bruyneel’s team instructions. “It was nearly fisticuffs,” Strickland quotes Armstrong as saying. Armstrong backpedals some in talking with me, denying that the incident came close to blows, but he doesn’t mask his contempt for Contador.
“I’ve won the Tour seven times,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of things in cycling. But at the end of the day, I listen to Johan; I listen to the director of the team. I don’t make up, Oh, my radio didn’t work or I didn’t understand, I don’t speak English. I don’t give excuses. I listen to the director, regardless of how many times I won the Tour. That was my only point to Alberto: ‘Look, we’re all in this together. You’ve got to follow team orders.’ Then he said, ‘Well, you’re not following team orders.’ I was like, Excuse me?”
By the end of the Tour, Armstrong admitted Contador was the better rider, but he got in a last fuck-you. Two days before Contador clinched his second title, Armstrong and Bruyneel announced they were forming a new team the following year with RadioShack. They wound up taking everyone along from the Astana team, except Contador. On the Paris podium, Armstrong and Contador shook hands for a half-second and then didn’t make eye contact. “He is a great rider and has completed a great race,” Contador said later of his rival, “but it is another thing on a personal level, where I have never had great admiration for him and never will.”If this were the old Lance, you could say, That’s the ball game. Contador has pissed the Texan off and now it’s time for Armstrong to hunt him down like Bambi’s mom. In the golden era, Lance rode on anger. “Back in the day, we paid attention to everything,” he admits. “We read everything. We saved everything. We remembered everything.” Sometimes Armstrong would invent feuds to stoke his fury. But the new Lance isn’t quite as angry.
“I’ve got a great life with my kids,” he says. On cue, his girlfriend, Anna Hansen, wanders in holding their one-year-old son, Max, who looks remarkably happy for a toddler who just got his booster shots. “He was great,” says Hansen, a tall blonde whom Armstrong met while she was working for a Colorado nonprofit that organized outings for cancer victims. Lance cuddles Max, who is wearing a T-shirt from Mellow Johnny’s, his dad’s Austin bike shop. “This kid is great,” he says. Later, Armstrong expresses good-natured disappointment at older son Luke’s failure in the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Dad takes all the blame. Last year, Team Armstrong did well with the aid of some graphite on the axles of the tiny race cars. “They kept the cars last year to put them on display at the school,” says Armstrong, sounding like a Tour de France conspiracist. “They may have taken them apart so when they sent the rules this year, they actually had a rule in there: no graphite.”
All this domestic contentment is great for Armstrong as a philanthropist and a father, but maybe not so good for him as a cyclist. “When I first came back, I was absolutely petrified in the peloton,” he admits with a sigh. “We’d come to fast downhills with corners and fighting for position, and I had completely lost my mojo. It became a point that people talked about. It’s like, ‘This guy can’t ride a bike anymore.’ ”
Armstrong’s timidity led to the worst crash of his career, last March during the first stage of the Vuelta a Castilla y Le”n in Spain. “We came from a big road down to a small road, hard ride, and I was near the front, and then it just started going downhill fast with some turns, and I just kept getting pushed back and back and back, and next thing I know, I said, Fuck, I’m in the back of the group. And that’s when the crash happened – just some slappers crash in front of me, and then I go flying. That never should’ve happened, but it happened because I was scared.”
Armstrong goes silent for a second as he lets the words sink in. “That day, I not only said, ‘Why am I doing this?’ but I said, ‘I ain’t doing this anymore.’ I was sitting there looking around, and there’s a helicopter a hundred feet above me. There’s an ambulance pulling up. The race is long gone. It’s this nasty ditch. I’m looking around going, ‘What? Get me out of here.’ ”
Armstrong returned to Austin after the crash and went for a slow ride with his business manager, Bart Knaggs, a sandy-haired buddy who has known Lance since they were both 20. “Man, I don’t have it,” Armstrong told his friend. “I don’t have the comfort. I don’t have the certainty. I’m just not in rhythm.”
Bruyneel and Knaggs let him brood for a few days. Then Bruyneel reached him on the phone.
“What the fuck are you doing?” asked Bruyneel.
“I don’t have it; I don’t know,” said Armstrong.
Bruyneel ignored him and kept making plans for France until Armstrong realized he didn’t want to go out sitting on his ass, broken in a Spanish ditch. He went back to work, climbing hills in New Mexico and Colorado. He got his mojo back at the Tour de Gila, setting himself up for France and his third-place finish, an even more remarkable accomplishment considering where he’d started. With the notable exception of his sniping with Contador, the media and fellow riders talked of a friendlier Lance. Even the French came around.
“Before, anytime we would be close enough to a Frenchman, they would say, Listen, do you want to be popular? Lose,” says Armstrong with a sad laugh. “And then we would immediately say, No, we’ll take unpopular. That relationship has turned around totally.”When the anti-armstrong camp mocks Lance Legend, they compare Armstrong 2.0 to Michael Jordan’s last, winded comeback with the Wizards. That’s exactly the wrong MJ analogy. Think back to Jordan’s first comeback from baseball in 1995. There were magic moments – dropping 55 on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden – but he was embarrassed in the playoffs by a young Shaq. He’d lost a step, everyone whispered. But the next year, with a full off-season of training, Jordan came back and was the baddest man on the court, taking MVP and the first of three more championships. This year, Armstrong insists, he is completely focused on racing. He gives an example.
“Before, if my seat moved a millimeter, I knew it. My seat height was so low last year, and people would tell me, ‘Hey, your seat is too low.’ And I said, What are you talking about? And then this year I decided to really focus on the seat height, and I got it to a place where it was back in ’04 and ’05. And then I went and compared where it is today to where it was all of last year. Two and a half centimeters too low! That’s like saying, ‘I’ve got a six-inch lift in one of my shoes.’ That stuff didn’t register with me in 2009.”
This being Lance, he can’t quite steer clear of anti-doping controversy. He’s now working with physiologist Allen Lim, considered one of the nice guys of cycling and a proponent of clean racing but still a controversial figure since he was Floyd Landis’s training guru. Landis won the Tour de France in 2006 but was then disqualified for having elevated testosterone levels. (Lim says he knew nothing of Landis’s alleged doping.)
Lim is a proponent of speed through lower body temperature. He’s had Armstrong swallowing pill-size thermometers that test his core temperature and experimenting with pre-race ice vests and other newfangled techniques to keep Lance cool. “We created a new sports drink just for Lance,” says Lim. “Regular sports drinks can leave you with gastrointestinal problems if you’re drinking a lot of them. There’s no artificial colorings or flavors in ours. If it tastes like blueberry, it’s because we’re using freeze-dried blueberries. We’re also using a different kind of salt than table salt.” When I ask him what kind of salt, Lim laughs. “I can’t tell you that.”
The more Armstrong drinks, the cooler he’ll be, and the faster he’ll ride – at least that’s the theory. “The hydration part I have always been bad about,” says Armstrong. “I’m one of these guys that you get two hours into the ride, and you realize you haven’t touched your bottle. That’s always been my story. And that’s a bad thing. It’s taken somebody standing over me saying, ‘Drink.’ It sounds very simple, but drink, drink.”
Still, Armstrong knows that all the seat adjustments and ice cubes can’t guarantee he’ll catch the decade-younger Contador. Armstrong has always been a great time-trial cyclist, so much so that he spent little time training for that aspect in the off-season. This year, it’s a new focus, all with the hope of shaving off a few precious seconds.
“Contador can attack where nobody can follow,” says Armstrong. “Regardless of how young you are, how much you train. His accelerations are unmatched. Unmatchable. But they don’t necessarily sustain either, so you’ve got to be a little more patient there. I need to just continue at a tempo that’s my tempo but is a fast tempo.”
Bruyneel is cautiously optimistic. “Endurance is something that older athletes like Lance have no problem with. We’ll use that.” But then come the mind games. “Alberto is a great rider, but we know him. We know him like we’ve never known an opponent before. We know what he likes and doesn’t like to do on the bike. That will help us. Will that be enough? We’ll see.”Anyone who says that they know what will happen on the cobblestoned streets and mountain passes of France in July is a simpleton or a partisan. Armstrong could win; Armstrong could finish far back in the pack. Either way, it’s a different battle that rages on inside Armstrong’s head. He’s trying to balance the hard-charging myopic rider of his youth with the multitasking father of four he has become. (In late April he announced, via Twitter, that a fifth was on the way.)
The night before I leave Austin, Armstrong invites me to a party for the LiveStrong staff. The loft offices have a utopian feel with an open-office plan inspired by New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg’s digs. Tonight, there’s a performance by Lance’s musician friend Charlie Mars in the foundation’s lunchroom, a space the size of a nightclub.
The foundation is populated with shiny, pretty, good people who reflect the new Lance, but the artwork suggests the old, angry Lance. When you enter the place, there’s a giant Shepard Fairey canvas of a teenage guerrilla fighter. It is from Armstrong’s extensive collection, but seems an odd choice for a cancer foundation – so odd that it was moved to a slightly less prominent spot after some staffers complained that it was too disturbing to see every morning. Amid the desks, there’s another non-feel-good piece by Morgan Herrin of a slain woman with arrows in her body lying across a globe.
Armstrong stands to the side of the stage and sways Max’s stroller to the beat of Mars’s music. “I love the Herrin piece because I know how much pain and work goes into each one of them,” says Armstrong. “I can relate. I’ve got another Herrin at home of a woman’s face covered by an octopus.” The man previously known for weighing his food helps himself to some catered barbecue and a beer. “I am so damn hungry,” he says apologetically. Lance points at two towheaded girls. “Those are my daughters, Isabelle and Grace,” he says with a wry smile. “They’re currently not speaking to me right now. Their teenage years are going to be great.”
He says hello to longtime friend Mark McKinnon, a Texas-based political consultant. There was that talk, pre-comeback, of a run for office – “Lance’s approval ratings are the highest of anyone in Texas,” says McKinnon – but now Armstrong says, “I think of it less and less.” With his kids, friends, and charity surrounding him, there’s a glow to Armstrong not present when he talks about the bike. I ask him why he would give all this up to ride the hellish ascents of France one more time with guys a decade younger. “I think the two lives are complementary,” says Armstrong, who has said that 2011 will be his last racing year. “At least for a little while. I think I love the pain and suffering of riding, and I know it won’t be much longer.”
Mars finishes the set, and Lance heads for the door, Max on his chest. The girls have a sleepover tonight, and Alberto Contador, ice vests, and mountain stages seem far away. But midway through the slumber party there will be a buzz at his door. It’s the cycling police coming for a random blood and urine test. It will come up negative. Some will believe. Some will not. And so it goes.