As Sacramento prepares to be ground zero for the country’s most anticipated cycling event, Lance Armstrong tells our reporter why he’s back in the race
Road signs in France aren’t logical. Positioned at 45-degree angles, at best, it’s a guess if the angle means a left, right or forward. Make one wrong turn and you might spend hours viewing little more than sunflowers and vineyards. The first sign that makes perfect sense might be the border crossing that reads “Welcome to Luxembourg.”
By the time I attended, as a reporter, my sixth Tour de France, in 2002, I began to overcome the country’s directional challenges. Still, I left extra driving time for my interview with Lance Armstrong. I arrived on time in the early evening after the ninth stage at a countryside hotel perched among rolling green hills and grapevines in the small southwestern city of Quimperlé.
Armstrong was an hour late. I remember the occasion well, because the cyclist further delayed the interview.
His U.S. Postal Service teammates and associated staff were already having a meal when Armstrong walked through the front door. He briefly went to his room, emerged with a handwritten note in one hand, acknowledged my traveling colleague Sal Ruibal from USA Today and me, and said to no one in particular, “Where’s the kid?”
The kid in question was a young, baldheaded French boy who had undergone chemotherapy. His parents had discovered where the team was staying, and they’d gotten a faxed note to Armstrong via the hotel staff asking if he could meet with them. The French public reveres cycling, and this family revered Armstrong. For nearly the next hour, the cyclist and the family talked while walking around the hotel courtyard. Armstrong often had his arm around the boy’s shoulders. Not coincidentally, Armstrong’s first book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, which details his comeback from metastasized cancer to an improbable first Tour de France victory, had been published two years earlier.
The scene with that young boy is still vivid in my memory, because it was the first time I fully realized Armstrong had arrived as someone more important than a vastly skilled endurance athlete with a high pain tolerance and a good story to tell. There were no broadcast trucks with satellite dishes, no boom microphones, no photographers, no network anchors checking their makeup. Nothing was scripted.
Armstrong may have been obligated, but he was sincere.
“I do remember it vaguely,” said Armstrong a week ago from his team’s training camp in Santa Rosa, after being reminded of the young boy in France. “I do a lot of that now. … Normally, those are very private and low-key visits. They’re designed for the patients and their families. But I get a lot out of them … It’s motivating for me to do that.”
Now in the early stages of his comeback, after three and a half years of retirement, Armstrong is back after retiring from the sport in 2005—pitching his message of cancer awareness. Beginning Saturday in Sacramento, he will pedal much of the length of the state in the Amgen Tour of California.
But unlike that French countryside hotel scene, little about him is now unscripted.
On and off the bike, Lance Armstrong is a brand. And he acknowledges this.
“Look, I think we all have a brand … It’s not the Yankees. It’s not Chevrolet. But it’s a brand, and I have that. If you polled people and said, ‘What does Lance Armstrong stand for?’ most of them would say Livestrong [Armstrong’s cancer-awareness organization]. If you polled people and said, ‘What does Livestrong stand for?’ The majority of them would say Lance Armstrong. Those two are forever linked.”
Now 37, a divorced father of three, expecting a fourth child in June, a global businessman, philanthropist and now nearly a 12-year cancer survivor, Armstrong remains the most successful bike rider in the history of the sport. He’ll arrive in Sacramento with a heavy entourage and a clear-cut mission. He’ll be the main event.
But he wasn’t always.
Five years before his cancer was diagnosed in 1996, Armstrong was a brash, strong teenager cycling for the U.S. national team. Like he’d done in triathlons, Armstrong knew one way to race: Get to the front and remain there. Armstrong was too muscular, too brazen and too naive to know the subtle and savvy ways of the Tour de France.
With other young riders of his era who advanced to long pro careers—Bobby Julich, of Reno; Steve Larsen, who was raised in Davis; and boyhood friend Chann McRae—Armstrong entered full-time cycling. He had bravado, and even among his skilled national-level teammates, he stood out.
Chris Carmichael, Armstrong’s longtime personal coach, was the national-team coach at the time. There wasn’t much media coverage of the team. Spare bike parts, food, water bottles, first-aid equipment and team staff were priorities. But if there was room for a reporter like me, two rules applied: Pee before the race, and be prepared to help the team when needed.
The young U.S. national team members were so skilled, Armstrong included, most often the only competition was against each other. I recall Armstrong and others pedaling alongside their team cars, exchanging water bottles or feigning the need for Carmichael’s instructions.
I’ve witnessed Armstrong in many races away from the Tour de France. When he began to win events like the now-defunct Tour DuPont and Thrift Drug Classic, spectators compared him to Greg LeMond, the only other American to win the Tour de France. Armstrong often replied: “I am not the next Greg LeMond; I’m the first Lance Armstrong.”
But more than any of his career cycling dramatics, what I’ve been asked about most is Armstrong’s relationships with women.
I don’t know Kristin Armstrong, the cyclist’s former wife, or any of his other romantic interests. But years ago, I spent a fair amount of time with Armstrong’s mother, Linda, who traveled with her son. When Armstrong won, he often tried to escort his mother onto the victory stage. Race promoters squawked, but Armstrong said more than once if his mother couldn’t accompany him, he wouldn’t go—and he got his way.
It’s probably no coincidence most of the women Armstrong has dated, the woman he married and divorced, and the woman to whom he reportedly has become engaged, look strikingly similar to his mother.
I knew Armstrong better earlier in his career.
Unlike many cycling journalists, I appreciate the sport but I’m not an avid cyclist. I don’t shave my legs, and I’ve never asked a rider what gear ratio he used in a sprint. When Armstrong and I spoke individually at races or in airport waiting rooms or one time a few years ago in a pub, I’d asked him about his fondness for music, cars or his art collection.
“Still listening to Jane’s Addiction?” I asked once. Armstrong’s response: “How’d you remember that? Nah, Pearl Jam … the Wallflowers.”
I had been among the many sportswriting voyeurs who covered every day of Armstrong’s first Tour de France tenure. Through the years, I’ve attended dozens of Armstrong press conferences, some serious, others when he enjoyed engaging the media. More than once, when a reporter’s microcassette-tape recorder positioned in front of him clicked off, he said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Reporter. I’ve got your back.” He’d then turn over the cassette and press the record button.
Teflon and Twitter
Armstrong left pro cycling in 2005 in the best way possible. He announced his retirement in April and three months later won his seventh straight Tour de France. In 11 race appearances, he claimed a combined 25 prologues, individual stages and team stages. He wore the race leader’s yellow jersey 83 days (second only to Eddy Merckx).
As Armstrong celebrated on the winner’s podium, in what was expected to be his final ride, I reported for The Sacramento Bee and other newspapers:
PARIS—Amid unsettled skies, historic monuments and a final burst of late afternoon sun, Lance Armstrong ended his improbable and remarkable career Sunday. Riding among 154 other cyclists, Armstrong, 33, captured his unparalleled seventh straight Tour de France title on the Champs Elysees.
With the exception of a near fall on a slick corner halfway through the 89.8-mile 21st stage from Corbeil-Essonnes, the Austin, Texas, rider spent the final four hours of his career accepting acknowledgments. The respect came from teammates and competitors, all fully aware of the victor’s athletic accomplishments and his now his nearly decade recovery from metastasized testicular cancer.
By the time he retired, Armstrong had a multifaceted legacy. Lingering but never proven illegal drug-use accusations still hound him. Early in his Tour de France reign, a cartoonist for the French daily sports newspaper, L’Equipe, portrayed Armstrong pedaling up a mountain wearing a cowboy hat, possessing grotesquely developed legs, a sharply chiseled chin and holding a elixir bottle identified with X’s and O’s. The consensus: The widely circulated illustration prompted Armstrong to ride harder.
Particularly during the 2002 Tour de France, Armstrong was both cheered and chastised by French fans. “Doe-PAY! Doe-PAY! Doe-PAY!” French for “Doped! Doped! Doped!”
“The people, they are not very sportsmanlike, some of them,” said Armstrong, during a rare outburst among race spectators. “A boo is a lot louder than a cheer. If you have 10 people cheering and one person booing, all you hear is the boo.”
Regardless of overt support or penetrating criticism, Armstrong was the dominant rider on all of his Tour de France teams. (George Hincapie’s stage-15 win in 2005 is the only individual win by any of Armstrong’s teammates.) But Armstrong was also a respectful champion. He never “attacked” rivals, most notably, Jan Ullrich of Germany, at vulnerable times. When his overall race lead wasn’t in jeopardy, he let other riders win. During his last Tour de France, when former teammate Dave Zabriskie, then the race leader, crashed in an early race team time trial, Armstrong took the race lead. Although he eventually acquiesced per race rules, he told organizers he wasn’t going to wear the leader’s jersey because he had the lead via another rider’s misfortune.
Armstrong is not without warts. Several former teammates have been suspended through the years for drug violations. Other teammates and associates have discredited Armstrong in books and under subpoena. Armstrong and Greg LeMond, the three-time Tour de France titlist, have feuded for years. Armstrong has retaliated against his detractors, sometimes via legal avenues, sometimes via another strong trait. Much changed when Armstrong emerged from cancer, but not his viciously sharp tongue.
In 2007, LeMond called Armstrong a “facade” and accused him of undermining his relationships with Trek, the bicycle manufacturer whose equipment Armstrong uses. And in an interview with the French daily newspaper, Le Monde, LeMond said of Armstrong: “From my experience, he’s not a nice guy and I’ve had some very difficult periods with him. And I don’t believe he’ll finish up having any friends in cycling.”
Armstrong’s response at the time: “I’m a very busy man. I don’t have time to worry about Greg LeMond.”
Professional cycling teams are prideful of many things, including their sponsoring bike companies’ high-tech and lightweight carbon frames. But I’m convinced every bike Armstrong rides is also made of Teflon.
These days, his use of online social networks, especially Twitter, serves to make his ability to sidestep controversy and communicate his brand easier than ever.
“Look, in the last 10 years, primarily 1999 to 2005, I wasn’t the most openly transparent person in the world,” Armstrong said in the recent interview. “It lead people to say, ‘Well, hmm. We don’t know where he is. We don’t know what he’s doing. He won’t talk to us. So, he must be up to no good.
“Something like Twitter comes along or accessibility to video blogs, you say, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to come back and you may not care, but I’m going to tell you what I had for breakfast and I’m going to take a picture of it. I’m going to tell you when I’m on a training ride. I’m going to tell you when I’m at my son’s flag-football game. I’m going to tell you when I just cracked a bottle of bad-ass red wine. I’m going to tell you how I’m feeling at the races.’ … Anything I put up there, it has to be me.”
Passion and wristbands
Armstrong’s time in retirement, July 2005 to September 2008, took his name off sports pages, but not out of the limelight. What began with a group of youngsters aggressively hawking yellow wristbands at the Tour de France is now the global brand Livestrong. It has raised more than $250 million for cancer awareness.
In retirement, Armstrong took the cancer message to politicians, corporation executives, a varied collection of Hollywood friends and network talk-show hosts. At the same time, Armstrong made headlines with a series of celebrity romances, Sheryl Crow, Kate Hudson, Ashley Olsen and Tory Burch, among others.
But two strong marathon finishes in 2008 took Armstrong off the celebrity page and put him back into the sports limelight. Last August when he finished second in Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race in Colorado, Armstrong proclaimed his passion for cycling had “reignited.”
A few weeks later, Armstrong signed to ride for free in 2009 with Astana and its director, Johan Bruyneel, the cyclist’s longtime confidant and director of all of his Tour de France wins. Armstrong intensified his training and immediately won three small races near his home base in Austin, Texas.
Away from cycling, Armstrong’s life also changed rapidly. He put one of his homes and its surrounding 447-acre estate in Dripping Springs, Texas, on the market for $12.5 million. Late last December, Armstrong announced he and girlfriend Anna Hansen are expecting a child in June. The cyclist’s first three children were conceived via in vitro fertilization; his fourth child is via a natural pregnancy, a unique occurrence for testicular-cancer survivors.
“It’s a hopeful thing,” said Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Armstrong’s friend and CNN medical correspondent. “It means his body healed from the chemotherapy and surgery. It’s a good thing for other men.”
Armstrong made his pro peloton comeback with a 29th-place finish in the six-day Tour Down Under in Australia in January. A week later, he joined teammates in Santa Rosa for a several-day training camp. Armstrong wore a bright-yellow cycling outfit bearing the Livestrong logo; the rest of the team wore official team apparel.
Covering cycling while referring to the same cyclist an overbearing amount of the time isn’t all that satisfying for a sportswriter. But when Armstrong announced his return to a sport, one that was resurrecting itself from a cesspool of drug controversy and infighting, there is no doubt that cycling benefited.
“I came back because I wanted to take the Livestrong message around the world,” Armstrong told me, “and I came back because I wanted to ride my bike again. It’s very simple; it’s not complicated.
“We want athletes to be perfect, and we want them to hit the game-winning shot, walk away and never come back. Sometimes, [the athlete] gets in the locker room and says, ‘Fuck it. I want to come back.’ And that happened to me.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if he got back on the bike for ego, adulation, to silence critics, to hang with the athletes or the media he missed, or to further expand his cancer-awareness mission. When he rolls into Sacramento Saturday and gets on the bike, Armstrong will be doing what he does best. He’ll be giving pro cycling a global jolt it has sorely needed. And he’ll be giving his brand a boost in the process.