Lance Armstrong is in a boat bobbing in Kailua Bay, a little shark’s-fin inlet on the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. The water is an intense, travel-brochure blue, with a gentle breeze and sunshine sparkling on the waves – the kind of place where you wouldn’t mind dropping anchor and wasting away the rest of your life.
Armstrong is about to swim two and a half miles in it.
“Time to put on the ol’ grape smuggler,” Armstrong says. He wraps a towel around his waist and starts to strip. Off comes the Livestrong® cap, the Livestrong® T-shirt, the Livestrong® shorts, the Livestrong® sunglasses, the Livestrong® shoes. He grabs his Livestrong® Speedo and pulls it on, snugly encasing the most famous testicle in sports. He jumps in the water.
“Shit, it’s cold!” he says when he surfaces. Slowly, a mischievous smile spreads across his face. “But it’s warm right here.”
Armstrong’s coach, a wiry ex-triathlete named Jimmy Riccitello, is beside him on a standup paddleboard. He points to a reddish-orange speck on the horizon about the size of a laser-pointer dot. “See that orange buoy?” he says. “Past the boat?”
“I don’t even see the boat,” Armstrong says.
“Just follow me,” says Riccitello.
Armstrong starts swimming. Just so we’re clear: 2.4 miles is a hell of a long swim. Imagine doing a length in your local pool, 25 meters, one end to the other. Then imagine doing 153 more. He swims past coconut stands, souvenir shops, rocky beaches, sandy beaches, jet skiers, a kayaker, a hang-glider, and an unsuspecting family of snorkelers.
After about 25 minutes, he reaches the buoy. On the side, in thick black lettering, are two words: ironman turnaround.
Assuming everything goes according to plan, this October – 16 years after his cancer diagnosis and seven after his last Tour de France win – the 41-year-old Armstrong will compete here in Kona in the Ironman World Championship, probably the most grueling single-day endurance event in the world. The first one was run in 1978, a competition started by a former Navy Commander to see who was fitter, runners or swimmers. The original pitch: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!” Now as many as 70,000 compete in Ironman events each year. “It’s this badge of honor,” says Armstrong. “Like doing a marathon or climbing Everest. ‘I did a fucking Ironman.’ They just want to finish.”
Armstrong, of course, does not just want to finish. He wants to do what he’s always done, from Plano, Texas, to the Pyrenees: He wants to win. “I certainly don’t have the confidence or cojones to say I’m going to win,” he says, his eyes steely. “But I’m very comfortable saying I want to win. And I want to start winning right away. If everything goes right, I’ll be there in any race. To win the Ironman is very difficult. You can’t screw up nutrition or hydration; no mechanical or technical problems. Basically you can’t make any mistakes. But man,” he says, grinning. “It’d be cool.”
During his peak years, between 1999 and 2005, when he won an unprecedented seven consecutive Tours de France, Armstrong’s riding weight was around 165 pounds. Lately all the swimming he’s been doing has added some upper-body bulk, so now he’s closer to 170. But in another way, he’s racing lighter than he has in years.
Until very recently, Armstrong was under federal investigation for possible crimes including fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, and drug distribution – all related to the long-standing, vehemently denied, circumstantially-suspicious-but-never-actually-proven charges that he won those Tours with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. Had he been indicted, he likely would have faced jail time, not to mention untold millions in fines and legal bills. In darker moments, Armstrong told friends that he feared the worst. But in February, the case was suddenly and without explanation dropped. “I’ve essentially been given my life back for a second time,” he says, alluding to the testicular cancer that almost killed him 16 years ago. “It’s all good.”
For Armstrong, there are business advantages to doing the Ironman – including a reported million-dollar donation from the race to the Lance Armstrong Foundation. But there’s something else pushing him, too, a tiny voice echoing at the back of his head – the voice of the doubters, the skeptics, the Armstrong haters. He knows he’ll never win over all of them, but if he can win the Ironman, a tiny part of him thinks, then maybe, just maybe, he might win over some.
“There aren’t too many people on the fence about me,” he says. “But if I am on the fence, maybe I look at [an Ironman win] and go, ‘I don’t know what to believe. But this fucking guy has been at the top for 25 years, they’ve thrown everything they could at him, and dammit, the guy is still there.’
“I want this bad,” he says. “If I thought it was cool and good for business, I could just go through the motions and have a respectable finish. But I don’t want to be given the charity slot and get 20th. I want to win.”
Back at the buoy, Armstrong takes a breather on the paddleboard. We’re way out there. The purr of the boat’s motor is the only sound. He takes a few deep breaths, looks back at the city in the distance. “All right,” he says. “Let’s go home.”
Tom Brokaw: Do you ever imagine going back and doing a triathlon?
Armstrong: Yeah, for sure. I would actually be more inclined to do an Xterra, an off-road triathlon. That’s with a mountain-bike course and a trail run.
Brokaw: Are you tempted by the Ironman?
—Men’s Journal, July 2006
It’s a few minutes before dawn the next day in Kona, the sky the color of a day-old bruise. The sun isn’t up; the birds aren’t up; the Japanese tourists definitely aren’t up. Armstrong is up.
He woke at five, so he’s been going for about an hour. He checked his email, brewed his coffee, made his customary breakfast (oatmeal, juice, toast with almond butter and honey). He likes getting up early. He can read the New York Times and the Austin American-Statesman on his laptop, drink his coffee in peace.
Armstrong is staying here at a friend’s place while he trains, in a palazzo-style house with cool tile floors, an expensive-looking Buddha statuary, and its own waterfall. It’s spring break, so his kids are here – he flew them from Austin on his Gulfstream – and pretty soon they’re up, too: Ten-year-old Grace is goofing around on a pair of crutches; her twin sister, Isabelle, is playing a video game; 12-year-old Luke is holed up somewhere, doing whatever it is 12-year-old boys do. (“I have no idea,” Armstrong says.)
These are Armstrong’s kids with his ex-wife, Kristin Richard, whom he divorced in 2003. He has them about 40 percent of the time. He says they’re already turning into mini-superstars: “Isabelle could be a great little endurance athlete if she wants to. At the Capitol 10,000” – a road race in Austin – “she won her age group, ran something like a 6:30 mile. And Luke is a great football and basketball player. He’s tall, much taller than the other kids.” (I ask the 5-foot-9 Armstrong how that happened – and he laughs. “I don’t know. Maybe they got the samples mixed up at the sperm bank.”)
Out in the front yard is Armstrong’s girlfriend, Anna Hansen, looking early-morning pretty with tousled hair and a flowing red sundress like something out of a cotton ad. Their baby girl, 17-month-old Olivia, is toddling around the front yard in her diaper. Two-year-old Max is clinging to Hansen’s leg. “What’s up, buddy?” Armstrong says. “Can you say, ‘Hi?’ ”
“Hi,” Max says.
“Max is supersocial,” says Armstrong. “Unlike his dad.”
Hansen and Armstrong have been together since 2008, right around the time he came out of retirement to ride in the 2009 Tour – ostensibly to raise cancer awareness – and ended up taking an un-Lance-like third. They met in Colorado, where Hansen worked for a nonprofit that helped cancer victims. “We were never even dating,” he says. “She’d come to Austin, or we’d meet in Aspen and just hang out. That went on for six weeks – and then she called and said she was pregnant, which I was under the impression wasn’t possible.” (The chemo was supposed to render him infertile. Yet more proof of his superpowers.)
Hansen is an athlete, too. Four years ago, she and Armstrong competed in the Leadville Trail 100, a punishing 100-mile mountain-bike race through the Colorado Rockies. He finished second, went home to take a nap, then returned to the course to cheer her on.
“We loaded up the car, threw the cooler in there. We got beers, we got lawn chairs, we got speakers. I’m sitting there thinking she’s going to think I’m the greatest dude ever.” But Hansen had other plans. She was racing against the cut-off and had no intention of stopping. “I see her coming and start yelling and waving, and fwoom – she doesn’t even stop. I’m like, what the fuck? A hug, a high five, a kiss, nothing? At the finish she said, ‘Now you know how other people feel.’ ”
Armstrong gives Anna a kiss and starts readying his bike. He’s got his shirt off, and you can see his sharp tan lines from hours spent in the sun in a cycling jersey. His pale, muscular chest is a road map of scars – the one where they stuck the catheter during his four rounds of chemo, the fresher-looking white one where he broke his collarbone during his 2009 comeback. Inside his rib cage are the weather-balloon lungs with their freakishly high oxygen uptake, the heart that beats an alarmingly low 32 times a minute but at its peak can hit nearly 200. The rest of his body is like a collection of recombinant parts: the taut, wiry arms, the quads like slabs of beef, the calves of granite.
Today will be a long day. He’s doing five hours on the Ironman course – 40 hard, uphill miles and then back down through the mountains. He clips in and sets off down the road with Riccitello alongside him. I follow in the support van with Dave Bolch, Armstrong’s soigneur – the specialized assistant who does everything from give him massages to mix his water bottles.
Armstrong rides through miles of barren lava fields, like the surface of the moon. He pedals with his famously fast cadence – “like a cat climbing a tree,” he once said – slicing up the hill. Kona’s fabled ho’omumuku crosswinds are swirling like crazy, and a couple of times he gets blown into the road. Pretty soon the wind is too much for Riccitello, and he has to get in the van. You can see why Armstrong usually trains alone.
He rides on, hugging the coastline. He’s out of the lava fields now and up into the plains, riding past macadamia farms and cattle ranches and mango and avocado trees. He passes families of black mountain goats, signs for donkey crossings, and tsunami evacuation zones. On one scenic stretch he points out to the bay, to a pod of dolphins.
“He’s flying today,” Riccitello says. “He’s not even breathing hard. It makes me sick.” Armstrong’s best friend and training buddy, John Korioth, says he can go from couch potato to race-fit in just two weeks.
Eventually we get to Hawi, birthplace of King Kamehameha – where the race turns around, but he keeps climbing, passing 1,500 feet, 2,000, 2,500, 3,000. It’s raining now, and there’s a wicked headwind with fat drops splattering his face. Every once in a while Armstrong lets out a powerful exhalation, clearing his lungs like a horse after a strong gallop, but for the most part, he doesn’t seem to get winded. At one point, passing through a misty pine forest, he drops back alongside the van, docking on the window to steady himself. “Did you know this place has 11 of the 13 climates?” he says with little effort. “Everything but the hottest and the coldest.” (He pedals off again, and Bolch chuckles to himself. “Thanks, Professor Wizard. That’s his big fact. He tells that to everybody.”)
It’s easy to forget, now that he embodies cycling so fully, but Armstrong actually started in the triathlon. He switched to bikes full-time in 1991 because he wanted to compete in the Olympics, but as a teenager he was a cocky young tri star, appearing on Triathlete and being named Rookie of the Year at 17. He would lie about his birth date to meet age requirements, and the older pros nicknamed him “Junior.”
Armstrong signed up for his first tri in Dallas at age 13, when he saw a sign in a bike store. He was already a competitive runner and top-flight swimmer – and so, he says, “I just put the three together.” He won that race, and also his next one. Pretty soon he was racing all over the country. Once, before a race at Lake Dallas, he got hit by a Bronco while on his bike and had to get stitches in his foot and head. The doctor told him he couldn’t exercise for three weeks. Six days later, Armstrong pulled the stitches out of his ankle, borrowed a friend’s bike, and showed up at the start. He was first out of the water, first off the bike. He got beaten in the run and ended up taking third.
After he retired from cycling for good in 2011, he started thinking about getting back into tris. He had already run marathons in New York and Boston, and had never stopped swimming. When he committed to the race, he and his business manager, Bart Knaggs, convened a meeting of the so-called F-One group, a team of equipment designers, product reps (Nike, Trek), physiologists, and engineers whose singular goal is to help him win. “Twenty people in a room talking about one guy doing a one-day event,” Armstrong says. “How crazy is that?”
I ask what the response of the other top competitors has been so far. “I don’t need to lie to you,” he says. “Definitely mixed. But my career has always been that way. Even in cycling there were guys who were scared of you or intimidated by you or flat-out didn’t like you. That’s OK. I don’t need their permission to be here. I might beat them a time or two,” he says, smiling, “but I’m not here to make their life miserable.” If he were to win, Armstrong would be the oldest Ironman champion ever.
Armstrong once called the Tour “essentially a math problem,” and he’s treating the Ironman the same way. His goal is to complete the swim in under 50 minutes, and the run in under three hours. He’s got the bike part pretty much down.
Finally, after three hours of climbing, Armstrong stops at the ridgeline, kicking out of his clips for a Snickers and a Coke. (He also tries to take a leak but there’s a convertible pulled over up ahead, and the passenger, a middle-aged woman in a purple scarf, is doing a very bad job of pretending to take pictures of the scenery. Armstrong opens the back door and goes behind the van instead.) Looming above us is Mauna Kea, at 13,000 feet the tallest volcano on the island. He says he’s ridden up Mauna Kea twice – right now there’s snow on top. (Bolch: “Did you know this place has 11 of the 13 climates?”) Armstrong bombs down the highway doing 60, easy; his brakes are an afterthought. The Pacific is so wide and blue up ahead that it looks like he’s going to ride right in. Within 15 minutes he’s at the bottom of the hill. Armstrong looks giddy. “Well, that was fun!” he says. “That was worth the price of admission.”
Later, after he has run and had a massage, we reconvene at the house. We wander down to a beach-club bar nearby and order beers. Armstrong has his shoes off and his feet up. These days, this is his routine: work out in the morning, five or six holes of golf in the afternoon, then back home for a couple of beers while he watches the sun set. “Let’s be honest,” he says. “My life has changed drastically the last two years, and it has changed drastically the last month.”
Cheating and cycling have a long history together. Maurice Garin, the winner of the first Tour de France, in 1903, was disqualified the following year after he was caught taking the train. In the early days, cyclists were essentially lab rats: They raced on caffeine, cocaine, strychnine, amphetamines, nitroglycerine, ether, even brandy. In 2004, one French rider admitted to rubbing salt on his testicles until they bled so he’d be allowed to use cortisone.
In August 2010, a grand jury convened in Los Angeles to decide whether to indict Armstrong on federal charges. The investigation was led by an FDA agent named Jeff Novitzky, most famous for investigating Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and the sprinter Marion Jones. The biggest issue was whether Armstrong had used a drug called erythropoietin, or EPO, an artificial hormone that boosts the production of red blood cells, which deliver oxygen to the muscles. He’d been given EPO as part of his cancer treatment in 1996. But if he were found to have taken EPO later on, when he was racing again – and, crucially, to have lied about it while accepting sponsorship money from the U.S. Postal Service, a federal agency – he could be brought up on charges of conspiracy and fraud.
Armstrong had been under investigation before. After a French TV crew filmed two men from his team dumping bags of medical waste on a roadside, French authorities launched a two-year doping inquiry, which was closed due to a lack of evidence. But this latest inquiry was based on more than trash. Novitzky reportedly contacted several of Armstrong’s teammates, including Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, and George Hincapie, whom Armstrong once described as, “like a brother to me.” The most damning charges came from Landis and Hamilton, who appeared on Nightline and 60 Minutes, respectively, to accuse Armstrong of doping. Armstrong vehemently denied it, pointing out that both were admitted cheaters and liars. Still, their accusations had the advantage of specificity. It was like something out of a spy novel: midnight deliveries of mysterious white bags; secret cellphones; code words. They painted a picture of a drug ring, with Armstrong as its kingpin.
Armstrong has always prized loyalty, and this represented a serious crack in his wall of cycling omerta. He and Hamilton were never especially close, but for a while, Landis was Armstrong’s protégé. I ask him if he felt betrayed. “I’m not even going to comment on those guys, because it opens me up to civil cases and stuff,” he says. “But I wasn’t surprised. The truth is, one of the riders” – he means Landis – “was making threats for years. After a while, I was like, ‘You know what? Go ahead – do it or don’t. Leave me alone.’ ”
In public, Armstrong struck a defiant tone. He lawyered up, hiring Mark Fabiani, who defended Goldman Sachs during its SEC fraud case and the Clintons during Whitewater. Armstrong repeated his standard lines: He was the most tested athlete in history, he’d never had a positive test. Sometimes he needled the Feds back: When Novitzky flew to Interpol’s headquarters in Lyons to meet with European police officials, Armstrong posted a taunt on Twitter: “Hey, Jeff: Como estan los hoteles de quatro estrellas y el classe de business in el aeroplano? Que mas necesitan?” (Translation: “Hey, Jeff: How are the four-star hotels and business-class flights? What more do you need?”)
But today, with the benefit of hindsight, Armstrong admits he was scared. “I compare most things to cancer,” he says. “When you’re first diagnosed, you don’t know what you’re up against. You start to learn more, and you get a sense of where you are. But this was completely different. You have no idea who your foe is. You have no way to measure where you are in the fight. You’re just lost.”
For Anna, not knowing was the hardest part: “I was like, ‘OK, tell us what’s going to happen. Do you want to go to court? Do you want to take away Tour titles?’ You never knew when it was going to end,” she says. “We were like, ‘Are we going to live with this situation for six months? Two years? Ten years?’ ”
Most of what Armstrong knew he had learned from the press, where the case was, as he puts it, “being leaked to the media like a screen door.” Sometimes he’d open his New York Times to see an article on the top of the front page, where, he says, “the real stories are – the economy, the election, Syria. Those are the days you’re like, ‘Dude, what the fuck is going on?’ ”
In July, his legal team filed a motion to protest the leaks, claiming that even if Armstrong was never charged, the leaks “guarantee that [his] reputation will have been permanently damaged.”
“I’m sure it has been,” Armstrong says. “But I’m OK with that. We all want to be loved, we all want to be respected, we all want to be thought of as fair and ethical and admirable men. But very few people are unimpeachable. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there are always going to be questions.”
In the end, he says the investigation was “the most frustrating and confusing thing I’ve ever been through. I was miserable. If people think I was an asshole before. . . .” He sighs. “There were days where you just damn near crack – personally and privately.” He says he didn’t see a therapist, “although it crossed my mind.” “I wish he would have,” Korioth says. “It consumed him. There were many bike rides where he could go for three hours and talk about nothing but that.”
“He definitely became a different person for a while,” Hansen says. “Just so stressed out. Like it was sucking the joy out of his life.”
On February 3, the Friday before the Super Bowl, Armstrong finished a pool workout in Austin and saw that he had a missed call from Fabiani. He called right back. Fabiani told him there might be an announcement soon.
Armstrong was on pins and needles. “Could be good, could be bad,” he remembers thinking. “I literally sat there like, ‘My life is in the balance.’ ” A few hours later the phone rang again. It was his lawyer. “Lance,” he said. “In five minutes, the U.S. Attorney is going to issue a press release saying that this investigation is closed, and it’s over forever.”
“I’ve never felt anything like it,” Armstrong says. “With cancer, there’s never that day where they go, ‘You’re out of the woods, you’re done, you’re cured.’ This was different. When that call came in, it was the most amazing feeling in my life. It was out-of-body. So intense.”
In an interview with the Associated Press a few days later, Armstrong described a low-key celebration: “I hugged my kids, hugged my girlfriend, and went and opened a cold beer.” But the truth is, he went a little bigger. “We just got fuckin’ plastered,” he says. “About five of my buddies came over, and we just sat there and got hammered. I don’t even remember the night. I was shitfaced. Tequila. Shots. I don’t even remember getting to bed – I was that kind of drunk.”
Armstrong says he was far more worried than he let on. “I had days where I thought I was fucked,” he says, before possibly realizing how this sounds, and backtracking a bit. “But I always thought the right decision would be made.”
Armstrong says he doesn’t feel vindicated, or like he beat the Feds. “In order to beat them you’d have to go through a trial and there would have to be a verdict,” he says. “In this case, it just stopped. For whatever reason, they made their own conclusions.” I ask him why he thinks they dropped the case. “I have no clue,” he says. “And to be honest, I don’t care.”
Armstrong is firm in his belief that at this point, he has nothing left to worry about. “It’s all tailwind now,” he says. “Other than a health issue or something with the kids, nothing will rattle me ever again.” I ask if that includes the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which is conducting its own investigation. It’s not a criminal body, so they couldn’t send him to jail – but they could strip him of his titles.
“I can give you an on-the-record answer or an off-the-record answer,” he says. “My on-the-record answer is going to be boring.” OK, I say, let’s try off the record. He asks me to turn off the tape recorder, and for the next 10 minutes, he gives the kind of answer you want Armstrong to give – reasoned, impassioned, defiant, a little cocky. In fact, it’s the kind of answer you wish he would give to America, because it’s the kind of answer that would make America go, “OK, cool.”
“In my mind, I’m truly done,” he says, when the recorder is back on. “You can interpret that however you want. But no matter what happens, I’m finished. I’m done fighting. I’ve moved on. If there are other things that arise, I’m not contesting anything. Case closed.”
What about the Tours? Would he fight for those?
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he says again. “I don’t run around bragging, feeling like I have to be a seven-time Tour de France champion. I worked hard for those, I won seven times, and that’s great. But it’s over.”
And still, he’d be happy, even if they took one away? “I wouldn’t be unhappy,” he says. After all, he’d still have six.
Like a lot of superstars, Armstrong has a reputation for being arrogant. “I don’t know about arrogant,” he says. “Definitely a big ego. But all champions have a big ego. If I said something, I backed it up – unless it was the comeback,” he laughs. “Whoops.”
It’s a telling little moment. It’s hard to see sometimes, but Armstrong does have the ability to laugh at himself. He tells corny dad jokes, loves Rush, played cornet in middle school. (“First chair,” he says proudly.) “People have no idea,” he says. “Anna says to me all the time: ‘You’re the biggest fucking dork alive.’ ”
Just then, Anna comes down the hill with two-year-old Max and 10-year-old Isabelle trailing behind. “Isabelle,” Armstrong says. “Do you think I’m serious or goofy?”
“Goofy!” she says.
“What?! Everybody in the world thinks I’m serious!”
Isabelle laughs. I ask her what kind of goofy things he does. “He likes to pull his pants way up,” she says. (Armstrong nods. “I can pull my pants up very high.”) “And he farts a lot.”
“It’s just diet and exercise,” Armstrong says modestly. “Hey, you guys are set for the dolphins. Saturday at noon.”
“Yay!” she squeals. “Are you gonna go?”
“I’ll come watch the end. I have to work.”
“But, Dad, dolphins are so cool! Don’t you remember when I was, like, five? We went to the Bahamas and went to that dolphin place, and I was sitting in your lap and the dolphin kissed me? You don’t remember that?”
“I do remember!” he says. “That was spring break too.”
Isabelle climbs into his lap, and everyone turns to watch the sunset glowing like a fireball over the ocean. “Look at that,” Armstrong says. “That’s insane. That is unbelievable.” He starts explaining how the brilliant colors are thanks to something called vog – volcanic smog. Isabelle mimics his hand gestures, mouthing along with her best Professor Wizard face. Armstrong catches her and gives her a noogie.
Pretty soon it’s time for dinner. He rounds up the kids, and gets four bottles of wine from the bar – two 2006 Cabs and a couple of 2008 Monte Bellos, $175 each – to go. Back at the house, the whole family gathers on the patio for pad thai. Afterward, Armstrong sends down for ice cream sandwiches, and everyone sits around swapping stories and watching YouTube videos.
At one point Armstrong starts telling the story of a bro trip he and Knaggs took to St. Bart’s where they hung out with Jimmy Buffett. “Talk about somebody who has nothing to worry about,” he says of Buffett. “He has fun, and he does exactly what he wants. Fucking Margaritaville, all the time. And he’s loaded – he has hundreds and hundreds of millions, but you’d never know it. I wish I could be more like that. Just a regular guy.”
Isabelle, sitting in his lap, cocks an eyebrow. “You wish you were a regular guy?” The whole table busts out laughing.
“If I did enter [a triathlon], I would have to win.”
—Lance Armstrong, Men’s Journal, 2008
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.