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.
Have you sorted out your new life?
I’m getting there.Whatever that means.It’s a process. You know, I did this for 20 years. That may sound funny because I’m only 34, but I started doing pro triathlons when I was 15.
So you can’t reach up and switch it off.
No, it’s a hard shift. I mean, physically it’s difficult, because the body has been used to doing that for so long. For over half of my life, every day exercise, exercise, exercise. If you took that away from anybody it would be a dramatic adjustment. On the emotional side, it’s a different set of challenges. But I’ve been busy as hell, which has been good. It keeps me going and motivated.
One of the things that I went through when I retired is that I had such a routine. I would get up at six in the morning and I would have a flight plan. I knew where I was going to land at 6:30 every night. Now I’ve got to get up in the morning and follow my own flight plan, and I haven’t completely worked out that regimen yet. Is that part of what you’re going through?
Well, my life before was very simple: eat, sleep, train. That’s it. There’s nothing else. And everyone leaves you alone and lets you do that. Now, in my new job as a cancer survivor and as a person who wants to effect great change in that arena, it’s much different. I’m in meetings or I’m traveling more.
World’s greatest athlete, staying tuned up all the time. How much of that are you doing now?
I’ve had about six months when I’ve completely let myself go.
But your version of letting yourself go is different.
Yeah, but when I finished the Tour on July 24 I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “That’s it.” I mean, I was 3 percent body fat. I was in the best shape of my life. I said, “Hey buddy, that’s it. It’s over. Take a good look, ’cause it’s never coming back. You’ll get soft, you’ll breathe harder, your ass will hurt more when you ride, your back will hurt, you’ll start to lose it.” And I knew that.
You didn’t train every day?
No, I had no desire to train. I still like to go out and do stuff, but I didn’t do much. I would run occasionally; I would ride occasionally. And the travel doesn’t help. When you’re on the road that much, really the only thing you can do is run or go to the gym. You can’t take a bike everywhere you go, because you don’t know where you are and it’s hard to carry a bike around. But now, in the past week, I’ve been getting back into it.
What does that mean? Are you riding every day?
Whatever I can do. I’m working with a trainer, somebody who actually goes around with me. Because I can’t miss that component; otherwise the balance is way off. I’ve done it too long. And it doesn’t need to be six hours a day. Like, yesterday we rode two and a half hours. The day before we did a 5K run in the morning, and in the afternoon we did a little ride followed by some core exercises and stretching.
What’s the objective?
The objective is to limit the slide. I’m 15 pounds heavier than when I finished the Tour. And just to feel good. When I exercise every day I feel a lot better. It’s funny, I was mountain biking last week with Laird Hamilton, who is the toughest of the tough dudes. And he’s not particularly complicated, a pretty straightforward guy. And we’re just riding along, talking about this whole thing, what you do when you retire, and he says, “You’re not going to like yourself out of shape.” And it’s true. I don’t need to have 3 percent body fat, but I want to be fit and healthy and feel good.
What’s your diet now?
Well, it’s gotten better [laughs]. I eat a lot less now than when I raced. When you exercise six hours a day your body’s gonna need some food, decent food.
Do you have a regimented diet of some kind?
No, I’m a big fan of traditional European food. I like cold beer, good red wine, and good food, but I don’t eat a lot. I read somewhere that one of the healthiest places is Corsica. A lot of olive oil, a lot of fish, a lot of red wine.
When was the last time you had too much to drink?
Recently. I mean, for 20 years I lived like a monk, but now if you open a bottle of red, I’ll be the first one at the table.
Or crack a Corona?
A cold Corona with lime. Or a margarita with great tequila, not too sweet, no salt. Sign me up. I love that. I love it.What are your priorities these days?
Well, the first priority is my kids. My son is six and my twin girls are four. It’s a critical time in their lives, a fun time. They’re doing all kinds of fun and crazy things: learning to ride their bikes with no training wheels, learning to tie their shoes. So you get to witness all that stuff. Whereas before I was in a divorce situation. I would go to Europe for two or three months, and the kids would stay home with Mom in Austin. Terrible. I would just hear about these things. So now, being at home with them is just amazing. My second priority is cancer. For me it’s a competitive thing. It’s a bigger competition than any Tour ever was.
As a competition, what is it that the Lance Armstrong Foundation is trying to accomplish with cancer?
Well, we can definitely increase awareness. Just by me getting out and talking about it increases awareness. Unfortunately, it’s bad news – whether it’s Peter Jennings, Dana Reeve, Sheryl Crow, Ann Richards, or anyone who makes the news with regard to cancer – that brings awareness to the disease. But the news comes and goes so quickly. In less than a month you had Sheryl and Ann Richards diagnosed, and the death of Dana. And everyone said, “Oh, my God, we’re all going to get cancer.” And, boom, a week later it’s gone. So I can get out and keep it in the spotlight.
Is the eradication of cancer the goal, or the diminution of it, or what?
Or the funding. We have to work on the process. The process is broken in this country. I think, on an overall basis, that cancer is not a priority, and it’s huge. As our population gets older and older it will be the number one killer. The odds are startling. One out of two men, one out of three women. Yet at the same time, without being political, we spent more in Iraq in seven months than we spent on the war against cancer in 35 years. That to me is completely unacceptable.
I have to ask: Do you stay in touch with Sheryl?
A bit. Not much. That’s a hard one, having been in a relationship for so long and then breaking up three weeks before the diagnosis. When you break up you don’t keep in touch, and then something like this just naturally pulls you together. It’s hard, terrible.
You must have been stunned by the news.
Oh, my God. February 20. I’ll never forget.
Did she call, or did you read about it?
She pinged me on my BlackBerry.
Isn’t it going to be hard for you to have personal relationships from this time forward, because they’re always going to be in the gossip pages?
Last week I was in L.A. at a few parties, and people just wanted their picture taken. I have to avoid those situations. I mean, first and foremost out of respect for Sheryl, that just doesn’t need to happen. ‘Cause I still love her. I’m still her biggest fan. She’s sick but doing very well. That doesn’t need to be talked about.
Ever just want to go away and hide?
Yeah. I’m never alone. A few weeks ago, actually, right after Sheryl’s diagnosis, when everything was taken care of, I took a road trip up to Northern California all alone. Five days. Drove all the way from San Francisco to the Oregon border.
Yeah, by myself. Rental car. Couple of books. No agenda. No plan. Found hotels or inns or B&Bs along the way.
People must have been stunned when you walked in.
[Laughs] Yeah, they were pretty amazed. They were like, “What are you doing here?” I was like, “Just taking a cruise.” I’d never done it. I was scared, but it was amazing.
Scared because you had been surrounded by an entourage most of your life?
Yeah. I had never been all alone.
Did you learn anything about yourself on that trip?
It wasn’t as productive as I had wanted, because of Sheryl’s situation. My intention was to have no computer, no phone, no BlackBerry. But I ended up having to have that stuff because I wanted to make myself available so we could talk during that time.
If you still love her, how did it go off the tracks?
Uh, listen… I mean, I think we’re at different points in our lives. I don’t think, I know we are. And it was a great relationship. It was tough at times. I still think about her every day. Primarily now because of her health and hoping that everything works out. And I’m fully confident that it will.
Lance, you have a social consciousness about being a father, about cancer, about what’s going on in the world. Do you think the cancer thing is a lifetime mission, or can you see yourself branching off into other interests as well as social things?
I hope it’s not a lifelong mission. I think that we’ll make baby steps along the way. With research, sometimes therapies come along that benefit multiple types of cancer. But there’s not a silver bullet. We’re gonna have to chip away at this thing. So, yeah, there will be other things that come along that get my attention. This summer I’ll be hosting the ESPYs, for example. It’s something new and different, and I never would have thought I’d do that. An athlete’s never done it. It’s the Oscars of sports. And to be the Billy Crystal – there’s a lot of pressure.
You’re not gonna sing, are you?
I’m not opposed to anything. I won’t dance. But that’s it.
After the ESPYs, do you want to take a more active role in sportscasting?
Probably not. I don’t know. I mean, we have this relationship with Discovery Channel – they sponsor the cycling team – and it looks as if we’re going to do a documentary this year on cancer and the whole process and what’s wrong with it and how we can fix it, and I’ll host it. That’s much more interesting to me than covering the Tour de France.
Did you watch the Winter Olympics?
Were you aware of the drama of Bode Miller?
Yeah, but through the paper. I was aware of Bode because of comments he’s made about himself and his partying.
Were you surprised he flamed out?
Listen, I’m not a fan. He attacked me, and it’s hard to be a fan when you get attacked personally.
What did he say?
He said something in Rolling Stone that got picked up everywhere that said these guys are clearly cheating, Barry Bonds and Armstrong. He said something like, “Lance can almost be excused because he’s in his room, the doctor comes in, hands him a handful of pills, he doesn’t ask questions, he just takes the pills. But he’s still cheating.” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I ask questions about everything. I’m the question hound. So in hearing that, I don’t know… I wanted to be a fan, but then you quickly become not a fan. He’s such a rebel; I thought he’d raise his level and win big. I really think he’s a gamer.
He’s a gamer. But I think his head was about as screwed up as anything I’ve ever seen.
Yeah, and ultimately I don’t think what he did was fair. I mean, look, doping isn’t fair. But getting people to invest in your story, in your career… that’s not fair if all we came away with in the end is somebody saying, “Yeah, but I partied at the Olympic level.” And, you know, Bode can say all day long that he doesn’t care about the media. But before the Olympics I saw him on probably 10 magazine covers, which you’ve got to stand for, pose for, get made up for, get dressed for…
Plus 60 Minutes.
Yeah, all that stuff. You know, if you don’t care, tell them to write whatever story they want.
Do you think you’re out of the doping business, in terms of people coming back and asking about it?
No, no, I’m not out of that. There are too many people. It’s really become a story. Not so much for me. I mean, if it’s Barry Bonds, if it’s track and field…
It’s now systemic to investigate world-class athletes.
Yeah, but you have a guy like [World Anti-Doping Agency chairman] Dick Pound – he absolutely hates me with a passion. He’ll never let it die. He’ll find a reason to investigate at some point.
How much do you pay attention to it in other sports, like the whole baseball thing?
Not very much. I think the media has changed over the years. You would know a lot better than I, but pop culture today is about what Lindsay Lohan did yesterday, and what Barry Bonds did. It’s not necessarily credible. I try to filter it through my own experience. Clearly Bonds is getting jumped on. Maybe for a reason, maybe not.
The book [Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports] is pretty strong.
Yeah, I haven’t read the book.
He did go from zero to 60. I mean, he was always great, but there was a quantum leap forward for all those guys.
And Tom, that’s my thing: If you want to talk about going from zero to 60, well, let’s just talk about zero. Zero for me was a 15-year-old professional triathlete competing with Mark Allen and Dave Scott, the best of the best. In pro cycling I was the youngest world champion of all time. I was winning stages of the Tour at 21. That had never been done.
You weren’t going from zero to 60.
That’s right. There’s no mystery there. The progression was natural. The disease in the middle was the X factor, the one thing that said, “Okay, buddy, you’re not sure you’re gonna be here tomorrow or next week or next year. You better hit it hard.” It really changed my focus and motivation as an athlete. But you can go back 15 years, and it’s all there.
You have this unusual assortment of friends: Lyle Lovett, Robin Williams…
Tell me about Robin Williams.
Robin’s friendship is really based on cycling. It’s his favorite sport, his favorite hobby. He loves to collect bikes. I’ve never seen somebody with so many bikes. I’ve never seen him on the same bike twice. I’ll say, “Jesus Christ, Robin, what are you doing with all these bikes, and what does your wife say?” And he’s like, “I tell her, ‘You know, I could be into…'” But he loves to bike. We ride if we’re in San Francisco. We ride if we’re here in New York. He’s a fanatic, and he’s been a really big supporter. He comes to the Tour. If I’m getting an award, or if we’re having a gala for the foundation, he’s always there. You can count on him, which is a true sign of friendship.
And good for comic relief at the right moments, too.
The thing about Robin is he’s brilliant. Well-read. That’s where his comedy comes from, his intellect.
Pretty good athlete, too.
You’re right. He’s impressive.
What about Lyle?
Lyle is not into cycling. Lyle and I met through motorcycling. We went on this trip to Baja.
Down on the Baja 1000 course, just cruising around down there on a big tour. And, obviously, he’s another Texan, so he lives fairly close. Comes to Austin a lot and we see each other. Lyle’s maybe the sweetest person I know. Never says a cussword. Never says anything bad about anybody. Never has more than one beer.
But he has nothing to do with cycling.
No. Not that I know of. Horses and motorcycles and music.
It would be a little hard to get a helmet on that head of hair, actually.
[Laughs] Never tried. He gets a motorcycle helmet on it.
What about mountain biking with President Bush? Has he gotten in touch with you to ride with him?
I did it in August and, you know, I took him easy.
I have to say he tried. He’s very competitive, as you know. I actually like him, personally. He’s a likable guy. I don’t necessarily agree with his politics all the time.
He’s a guy’s guy.
Man, he was going for it. I mean, he had the bike, the equipment, the heart rate monitor. He was huffing and puffing.
Some people talk about you and Texas politics. Have you thought about that?
Yeah, I think about it all the time. But two things: We have to get on top of the cancer problem. If we can get on top of that, we as a community of cancer fighters, then that opens up my time for other things, which could include politics. The second thing, which is even more serious, is that I’m just not sure I want to expose myself and my family to that. I’ve seen a level of cynicism and dirty play in sport that I don’t ever want to see again, and I think politics is maybe 100 times worse.
A friend of mine said if you want to run for office you’ve got to be prepared to take a bath, in public, at the busiest intersection, naked, every day, at high noon.
Yeah. See, I can take the bath every once in a while, but not every day. In sports it’s about drugs. In politics it’s about where your mate’s from, who you’ve slept with, did you inhale.
Are both parties coming after you to appear with their candidates?
I’m up-front with them: I can’t make any political statements or affiliations, because as soon as I do, my effectiveness in the fight against cancer is cut in half. I have to be apolitical. Obviously, I have political views, but they’re mine and are going to stay mine.
What’s going to happen in July, when the Tour de France starts? Will you watch it?
You know, I don’t miss it at all. I miss the training. I miss the team atmosphere. I miss my guys. But the last couple of years I would even say I hated racing. The only peaceful times were when I was at training camps, alone or with a few teammates, or at the races, in the hotel room, at the dinner table with my guys. That’s the stuff I really love. I won’t miss the Tour.
People ask me if I miss the news, and I say I get a rush when there’s a big story, but it goes away quickly. When I think about getting on an airplane, having to fly somewhere, living on two hours of sleep a night, it’s…
Let me sound on that: The Tour is all I did. It’s all I lived for. It’s probably not fair to answer that question until we get to July. I mean, in July I may start pulling my hair out, ’cause it’s the one race that I lived for. But I suspect not. I know that I can never go back.
How involved will you be with the team?
Um, somewhat involved. Not as much as I’d like to be, because of scheduling. They’re in Europe and I’m in the States. I talk to Johan Bruyneel daily, who is the director of the team, but I don’t go to training.
Do you worry at all about being perishable as a spokesman now that you’re off the Tour, or do you think it’ll stick?
What do you mean?
Lance Armstrong, winner of seven Tours, is up here, but now Lance Armstrong doesn’t race anymore. He’s not in the sports pages every day. Does that affect you?
No. But on a fundraising level, our biggest month has been July. Wristband sales, donations, attention, exposure to the disease: It’s July. And that’s not going to happen again. But that’s the reason I have to try to fix the process, because if we get any big victories… I asked the president for a billion dollars when I was there. And if I had gotten that it would have been game over. That would eclipse any Tour.
I imagine you get swamped with offers for speaking engagements and endorsements and such. How many do you get a week?
Well, the endorsements – those dollars are big, so they don’t come along all the time.
But aren’t you a little stunned about how big the dollars are sometimes?
Yeah. We just did a new deal, and it was–
Yeah, and I’m retired.
You know how much Arnold Palmer makes a year?
Do you think at all about where you want to be when you’re 54?
Ugh. No. Hopefully alive. In 20 years my kids will be out of college. I don’t think about those things.
Do you ever imagine going back and doing a triathlon?
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.
Are you tempted by the Ironman?
You’ve been there, done that, and…
No, I mean I’m too busy to train. They asked me, on a competitive level, “Do you want to go back and win the Ironman?” [Laughs] I’m like, “Wait a minute.” I mean, people forget that I’m an old guy for these sports. I mean for cycling. Last year I was the oldest guy to win the Tour in more than half a century.
Do you want your kids to be pro athletes?
Uh, well, with two daughters… I mean, they wouldn’t talk about being an athlete. But my son now wants to win the Tour de France.
Well, gene pool counts.
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