When I first met Lance Armstrong in 1989, he was a self-conscious, muscular 17-year-old who wanted everyone to like him. He’d just accepted Triathlete magazine’s Rookie of the Year award at a San Diego restaurant, and was flashing the aw-shucks grin of the overachieving teenage athlete. By 1991 he’d successfully switched from triathlon to cycling, had already won the U.S. national amateur title, and was representing his country at races all over Europe – where cyclists are treated like rock stars. “I really fell in love with the sport there,” Lance told me. “It’s a big scene, and I want to be part of it.”
He turned pro in August 1992, and within a year zoomed from rookie to world champion, the youngest in 50 years. The awkwardness was gone. Instead he’d acquired a reputation for cockiness, even arrogance.
Then cancer. He revealed on a media conference call that he had only a 65 percent chance of living. “I intend to beat this disease,” he told us, “and further, I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist.” I recalled those words in July 1999, on the eve of Lance’s first Tour victory. I interviewed him on a French high-speed train headed for Paris, and he picked up on something I’d said earlier – that his age was the same as that of the great Spanish racer Miguel Indurain when he took the first of his five consecutive Tours. “Is it true that Indurain was 27?” Lance repeated. “Yes,” I replied, “27, 28, 29, 30, 31…Five years.” “Hmmm,” Lance mused, as he stared through the train’s window at the speed-blurred wheat fields. “Well, we’ll see…”
As he kept winning, one Tour, then two, then five, and now six, Lance the celebrity gradually took over from Lance the bike racer. But, for me, he’s remained Lance the family man. I remember calling him in Austin, after his third Tour victory, when he cut me off mid-interview because his then-wife Kristin and son Luke had just returned from a trip: “The Boss, Luke the Boss is here, I gotta go…”
I never believed the doping accusations leveled at Lance in the European press. Mainly because of the fatherly love I’ve been privy to, a love that made me believe him when he told me, “You think I wanna do something stupid, and see my kid go to high school in 10 years and have somebody across the aisle from him say, ‘Oh, your dad’s that guy that got busted for dope’?”
Back when we first met, I saw a young man eager to be liked, driven to prove his worth. He believed in himself – and now we all believe in him.If you win this year’s Tour, you will go out as having had perhaps the greatest athletic career ever. But you’re also risking being like Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan, athletes who stuck around too long. Are you worried about tarnishing your record?
Not a risk in my mind. I feel strong and have the best team, director, staff, and sponsors in the peloton.
Looking at this year’s course, do you see anything in it that looks designed to make it especially difficult for you?
[Actually] it seems a bit easier, with fewer mountaintop finishes and fewer time trials. But it’s still one of the hardest sporting events in the world.
What’s your greatest concern about the Tour right now?
The first week is always a bit scary. You have to stay with your team near the front and try to avoid the crashes. You cannot win the Tour in the first week – but you can lose it.
You say the course this year is a bit easier, so where will the yellow jersey be won?
The three mountaintop finishes and the last time trial. That last TT could be decisive.
Which riders will you have your eye on?
Well, the one guy that we always watch and are aware of is Jan Ullrich. And Ivan Basso had a great Tour last year and he is someone that is a huge talent.
For the last six years Ullrich has been your main rival. What are the key differences between you two?
He is very strong. I don’t think Jan loses the Tour in July but rather in December. I see this race as a year-round job.
You’ve had many great moments during your 10 Tours, but what are your three worst memories?
The worst was losing Fabio Casartelli [an Italian teammate who died in a crash in the Pyrenees] in 1995. Second was the TT in 2003 when I lost time to Jan and thought about getting off the bike. Third, the Morzine mountain stage in 2000, when I almost cracked.
During the race, aren’t you bothered by hecklers or people spitting at you? Or do they motivate you even further?
Our sport is not unlike others. When the Yankees go to Fenway, they are not welcomed with flowers and champagne. You notice them, but we are usually in the zone and do not get distracted by them.
You’ve had death threats: Are you afraid there will be an incident that could interfere with the race?
The unique thing about cycling is how close the fans can be. If someone wants to cause a problem, they can, but for the most part the fans respect the race.
Who might be the next Great One in cycling?
We have some great young talent on Discovery, like Popo [Yaroslav Popovych].
You won’t be in the peloton in the 2006 Tour, so do you think the race will be wide open?
I am not sure who is going to win in 2005, let alone next year. [But] I think Jan would be the favorite.
What will your role be with Discovery after you retire? Will you coach, help strategize, train?
All of the above.
In this issue of Men’s Journal we’re also excerpting Chris Carmichael’s new book about your workout and diet. What kind of guy is Chris?
He’s my longest-running ally. He is someone I talk to just about every day. He was the first person who told me I was going to win the Tour de France.
Luck plays an important part in cycling, so are you superstitious about anything or do you have any prerace or race rituals?
I always get on my bike from the same side.
Frenchman Jacques Anquetil, a five-time Tour winner, once said, “To prepare for a race, there is nothing better than a good pheasant, some champagne, and a woman.” Do you think sex before a race helps or hurts?
Prior to a contest I don’t see a problem with it. But I can tell you that during the Tour de France there is not a lot of sex going on…
Play fantasy Tour de France: If there could be a dream race between you and the other all-time greats (Merckx, Indurain, Hinault, Anquetil), who would win?
It would be a good one. Merckx is the best of all time and logic would say he would win.
Name the five greatest athletes of all time?
Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Arnold Palmer, Major Taylor [the turn-of-the-last century African-American champion cyclist].
What are your favorite sports other than cycling?
Tennis, Formula One, and football – the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Longhorns.
Do you know that other famous Texan biker, President Bush? Have you ever ridden with him?
I have never ridden with the president. He’s only got into cycling in the last few years, mostly mountain biking. He is a good guy, likable and charming. Of course, not everyone agrees with his policies, but I wouldn’t go for a bike ride and talk politics.
Because you have won the last six it seems like there is some sense of Europe vs. America in the Tour. Do you think the war in Iraq has had an effect on the Tour or on European attitudes toward you?
We have not shied away from the country and Texas associations. It is a big part of our team. I don’t think the war has had an effect on how we are viewed.
Given the success of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and your work for the president’s Cancer Panel, would you consider running for political office someday?
No political aspirations at this time.
Now that you’re seeing Sheryl Crow, the tabloids are much more interested in you. What’s that like?
We’re pretty lucky because we can fly under the radar compared with some of the stuff you see out there with other couples.
I’m sure you heard the recent rumor that you two broke up. Any idea how that started?
No idea where some of this stuff comes from.
How did you meet Robin Williams and is he a genuine bike fanatic?
We met through the bike. The first time I was at his house he asked me if I wanted to see his bikes. I figured he would have about three or four, but the dude has, like, 60 bikes. I asked him what Marcia [Robin’s wife] thought about all these and he told me that he tells her, “I could be into Ferraris instead.”
Have you biked with other celebs?
I rode with Oprah for her show. We had a race and I beat her at the line, but I think she let me win.
Besides Sheryl, who are your favorite musicians?
Ben Harper, Bruce Springsteen, Grant Lee Phillips. I am a big fan of U2, and Bono, for everything that he does away from music.
Will Smith played a great Ali. Who would you like to play you in a movie about your life?
I’ve had the chance to get to know Matt Damon. He is a fan of cycling and has a connection to cancer. He has even expressed an interest in the role. I think he could train to look like a cyclist.
Over the years you’ve kept the same key players on your team. Has loyalty contributed to your victories and is it more important the more successful you are?
Loyalty is very important to me. Our team has been built around it. You take a guy like George [Hincapie], he has been with me forever. Around each contract negotiation, George has offers to go elsewhere but remains with our team. I don’t think it’s more important if you are more successful. When I am off the bike, loyalty will still be a very important trait to me….
The saying goes: If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger. Is it fair to say that cancer made you faster?
It changed me physically, and made me a different type of racer. Prior to cancer I had a much bigger upper body and broader shoulders. The treatment caused me to lose muscle, making me lighter, so I became a better climber. But it also changed me psychologically, emotionally, and professionally. It made me focus on every aspect of cycling and allowed me to build a great team.
Did you have moments where you thought you might not be able to beat cancer?
Absolutely. There were periods where I had questions, and a lot of those times came after I finished therapy, on December 13, 1996. The next months were excruciating. I wondered if this bastard was going to come back at me.
What advice would you give someone who has never faced his own mortality the way you have?
I would suggest going to volunteer at a hospital or a hospice and get a slice of perspective.
What about someone who has recently been diagnosed with something terminal?
Get informed. Use your resources and don’t be afraid to seek the best treatment you can.
Soon you’ll have a lot more time to travel. Are there any dream trips you’d like to take?
I have been to Australia and would love to get back there, and also see New Zealand. I would like to get back to Hawaii as well, and work on my surfing.
You’ve been known to go mountain biking in your downtime. Where are your favorite places to ride?
Mountain biking is a great workout and one that I look forward to as I move into my second life. I would say Santa Cruz is the best riding I have done.
What about motorized two-wheelers?
I have a Yamaha out at the ranch in Texas for riding on the trails. I just sold my Harley-Davidson because I wasn’t riding it very much.
Is this really the end? Would you consider unretiring?
Come the end of the Tour, that’s it for me. The only place you will see me is sprinting for signs on rides in the Texas Hill Country.