The Ride of Lance Armstrong’s Life

Mj 618_348_the ride of his life
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It’s late afternoon and Lance Armstrong is rubbing the sleep out of his eyes when he lets me in through the heavy oak door of his modest home amid the rambling hills and live oak trees at the edge of downtown Austin. He’s wearing U.S. Postal team-issue dark blue sweats and standing barefoot on the parquet floor of his wide, dimly lit hallway. “I forgot you were coming,” he apologizes, explaining that he’s jet-lagged and has just finished a nap after his morning training ride. Yesterday he returned from a week in Europe with his girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, attending her gigs in Paris, Brussels, and London, and fitting in his daily workouts while she rehearsed. On the way home he stopped in Washington, DC, to speak about cancer survival at a National Press Club luncheon. And tomorrow he’s off to Seattle for some testing in a wind tunnel at the University of Washington. He needs his rest.

Even so, he leads me into a narrow, high-ceilinged dining room, fetches us a couple of glasses of water, and settles into a straight-backed leather chair, his feet propped up on the table, stretching his 5’10” frame out until it appears much longer. In the next room his four-year-old son Luke is reading storybooks. Luke’s two-year-old twin sisters, Grace and Isabelle, are asleep upstairs, and Lance’s mom, Linda, is in the kitchen cooking chicken enchiladas. It’s a thoroughly domestic scene – in no way indicative of the fact that the man at the center of it is one of the world’s greatest athletes. I’ve been to Greg LeMond’s house, a 10,000-square-foot mansion with a long driveway on about 10 acres in Minnesota, and Lance’s house is nothing like it. There’s not a hint of MTV Cribs here, no gates keeping the masses at bay, no fleet of Hummers out front. The only sign of his sporting glory are the five framed yellow jerseys hanging in the dining room. Lance put the place on the market in 2002, but after he and his ex-wife Kristin separated in February 2003 he decided to keep it and moved back in to be closer to the kids. Kristin had moved into a new place on an adjacent street, and now the three children shuttle back and forth between the two homes. “The whole divorce thing is not what I ever envisioned,” Lance tells me. “I’m closer to my kids now than I’ve ever been. When they’re here, they’re my responsibility.”

As we talk there are constant interruptions. Lance’s ginger cat, Chemo, comes in and meows, looking for attention. The twins, wearing identical pink sequined T-shirts, come down after their naps and demand attention as well. Lance’s publicist Mark Higgins stops by to drop off some things that need to be autographed. At one point Lance’s cell phone and BlackBerry buzz at the same time. (“They’re coming in fast and furious now,” he says.) I’ve known Lance since 1988, when he was the triathlete rookie of the year at age 16, and he has always been one of the most driven men I’ve known. But never have I seen him spread this thin.

Our conversation turns to the Tour de France. Lance knows that by his age, 32, the four other racers who won five Tours had either retired from cycling or failed in their quests to become the first to win a sixth. But that thought doesn’t deter him. As he talks about it, though, I begin to wonder: Is it even possible for a man to stay close to his three children, keep on top of his cancer foundation work, date a rock star, take care of his cat, stay healthy, and fulfill the endless media and commercial obligations of an international sports icon, all while training to win the world’s most grueling sporting event? If you listen to the cycling world’s rumor mill, the answer is no; something has to give.There is a mythic quality to winning six Tours de France. It’s equivalent to Jack Nicklaus attempting to snag a seventh Masters, Martina Navratilova trying to win her 10th Wimbledon, the Red Sox breaking the curse of the Bambino – feats that have never been accomplished. The cyclist who came closest to winning a sixth Tour was Eddy Merckx, the big, ruddy Belgian who, in the ’70s, won more bike races than anyone in history. He missed number six in 1975 by only two minutes and 47 seconds. Now 59, Merckx is one of Lance’s best friends. He was there in the cancer years and watched the Texan struggle mightily to recover. He thinks this year’s Tour will be the biggest challenge of Lance’s career, but he’s confident that his friend has everything it takes to win. “This is his 10th Tour,” Merckx says, “and he has nothing more to learn. Everything being equal, no sickness or crashes, there’s nobody who can beat Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France.”

“Everything being equal,” of course, is the key phrase. Nobody who watched last year’s Tour can reasonably assume that this year’s will go off without a hitch for Lance. Not only was he emotionally traumatized last year by the split with Kristin, he struggled through a series of physical setbacks. He went into the race recovering from gastroenteritis, contracted from his son. Then his new cleats gave him tendinitis in the hip, and a brake pad rubbing against his rear wheel gave him leg fatigue. There was a troublesome fall in a high-speed pileup on Stage 1, and a moment of panic when his rival Joseba Beloki suffered a terrifying crash right in front of him on Stage 9. During the critical Stage 12 individual time trial, chronic dehydration forced Lance to give up a minute and 36 seconds to the hard-charging German Jan Ullrich. And then, on Stage 15, just as he was making the attack he needed to win the race, Lance took a frightening spill when he snagged his handlebar on the strap of a fan’s shoulder bag. “Last year was tough,” he concedes to me, adding in a whisper, “very tough.”

“Lance was totally vulnerable on Stage 13, the day after that time trial,” says Chris Carmichael, his personal coach. “Ullrich should have won the Tour that day. I think if he had taken the yellow jersey there it would have been hard for Lance. He wouldn’t have given up, but psychologically it would have been a big blow.”

To fend off Ullrich, Lance had to dig deeper than he had ever done before. “He fought for the whole thing,” says Carmichael. After the Stage 15 crash he tapped into an inner rage that propelled him to the finish on pure adrenaline. In the end he won, of course, but the margin of victory, 61 seconds, was by far his smallest, prompting some competitors and critics to say that his team had saved him, that his aura of invincibility was finally shattered.

For a man who is aiming to make history this year, it wasn’t an ideal finish.With the race coming down to just seconds, the smallest adjustments in preparation can make the difference. Some athletes might cheat to get that edge: Eight elite cyclists have died since January 2003 from heart failure, possibly due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as EPO; 26 cyclists are currently suspended from the sport for drug use, and Lance himself has become the self-proclaimed “most tested athlete on this planet.”

Lance and his support network have taken a more legal approach. Right after the 2003 Tour, U.S. Postal Service team president Bart Knaggs brought together all of Lance’s various equipment manufacturers – Trek, Shimano, Hed, Giro, Nike – to work as a single unit. It was an unprecedented move. Dubbed F-One, the project has produced a narrower bike, a cleaner, lower frontal body position, and a more aerodynamic racing suit and helmet, which could help Lance gain seconds in the time trials (see “Well Equipped,” below). The new gear has been touted by some insiders as the cornerstone of his preparations for this year’s Tour, but the truth is more complicated than that. “I always say you win the Tour de France in the mountains, not the time trials,” explains Carmichael. In other words, the seconds all this new technology will shave off Lance’s time trials will be crucial, but the differences in the climbs could be even bigger. Just as important, all this technological wizardry can give Lance a psychological advantage. Making his opponents worry that he has an edge can be as valuable as having that edge.

Potentially more significant than F-One is a program that addresses the dehydration problem that almost cost Armstrong last year’s race on Stage 12. “I was chronically dehydrated from the beginning of the Tour, and even before that,” he recalls. “I would drink water all day long and still not be hydrated. My bladder was hydrated, but not my cells.”

There are several factors that may have led to Lance’s dehydration. Carmichael blames it on having pushed too hard in the Dauphiné Libéré, an eight-day preparation race that Lance won that June. On top of that there’s the fact that France suffered a heat wave last summer that ended up killing as many as 15,000 people. There was also Lance’s pre-Tour bout with gastroenteritis. And Lance himself thinks that his dehydration could have been due to the toxic platinum-based chemotherapy he underwent during his cancer treatment in late 1996. Regardless, he and Carmichael decided they had to do something to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. The coach believes he has found the answer in a new glovelike device from a company called AVAcore that lowers your core body temperature (and hence reduces the chance of dehydration) by pulling heat from blood vessels in your palm. Carmichael has been testing the unit for the past year, and he’s ready to use it before key stages in this year’s Tour, having Lance wear the glove for a few minutes between warm-up sessions on a stationary bike. At the starting line Lance’s muscles will be warm but his core will be cool.

There’s one more thing Lance is banking on this year: his excessive attention to detail. Contrary to the rumors, the truth is that he’s training harder than ever. In preparation for the critical uphill time trial at the Alpe d’Huez, Lance rode up and down the mountain 10 times in May alone, studying every bend, gauging the best line to use through the corners, checking where to shift gears before the steepest grades, and looking for flatter sections where he’ll be able to crank back momentarily to conserve energy. He has also made reconnaissance trips to all of this year’s other mountain climbs and has ridden around the Stage 19 time trial course at Besançon and over the cobblestone sections in Stage 3. Even when he’s hanging around Europe with Crow he rides every day and discusses his fitness and training plans with Carmichael. There have been some adjustments to fit Lance’s hectic schedule, of course (and, to be sure, he’s taken criticism from some fans who say he’s become too wrapped up in being a celebrity), but Carmichael swears it hasn’t affected the results. He cites an altitude camp that was originally planned for the mountains outside Silver City, New Mexico. When Lance decided he’d rather train out of Crow’s house in L.A., they simply moved the entire operation west. “A lot of the climbs we had to drive to,” Carmichael says, “but it was fine. He’s never like, ‘Okay, cut it short because we’re going to a party.’ He trains flat-out.”

Tour de France race director Jean-Marie Leblanc doesn’t doubt it. Lance’s obsessiveness, he says, sets him apart not only from his current competitors but from the past five-time champions. “Lance is the greatest professional that I have seen,” Leblanc says, “from his preparation to his training, intelligence, research – everything. That’s why I believe that he will be the first man to win six. He’s a perfectionist.”Back in Austin I ask Lance how important it is to him to win this sixth Tour. Can he possibly have the same hunger he had back in 1999, when he won his first? “It’s just as important as all the other ones,” he says. “I have no real personal pressure to try to win because it’s never been done before, or for any reason like that. It’s just important because, on a basic level, it’s all that matters.”

Is he worried about whether he can keep up this insane juggling act that his life has become? “I think I can do it all,” he says. “It’s hard. But if I lose the Tour because I’m trying to manage my life – spending time in Europe and spending time here and seeing my kids…” He trails off. “If I lose because of that, then you know what? It was worth it.” He pauses and lets that sink in, as much for his own benefit as for mine. “But I think I can do it. It’s a big challenge – and I always like challenges.”

As I get up to leave, Lance turns to sign the books and posters his publicist dropped off. Then he follows me outside, where he starts playing with the kids, pulling the twins in a wagon while his son drives a toy electric truck down the driveway. Lance is home for 36 hours, and there’s no time to waste.

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