Lance Armstrong in Girona, Spain
"I don't like to lose. I just despise it." Armstrong in Girona, Spain, his spring training grounds for the 2003 Tour de France.
SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN AUSTIN, TEXAS, the warm air pungent with pollen, the sky sharp blue, the grass plain brown. Good day for a bike race. You're standing in Walnut Creek Park, a terraced ramble of tennis courts, picnic cabanas, and cedar thickets, talking tire treads with one of the bike hounds who've gathered for a cyclocross event sponsored by the local REI, when a black Suburban rolls up and makes its own VIP spot along the curb. The vanity plate reads oct 2, and you don't have to think twice about who's inside. You remember the press conference—what was it, six years ago?—when he announced his diagnosis to a roomful of reporters who had grown accustomed to calling him brash and cocky and typically Texan, but who now had to figure out how to address an ashen-faced 25-year-old champion who'd just had a swollen, cancerous testicle cut away from his body and was talking about modest things like wanting to live.
That was the day everything changed for Lance Armstrong: October 2, 1996. Year Zero.
The Suburban's doors open all at once and five man-boys clad in various hues of polyester pile out. Lance steps down from the driver's seat—he can't stand being a passenger, rarely lets anyone else take the wheel—and boosts himself into the back to change. Two product developers from Nike lean in when he gets to his bike shoes, recording the moment on digital cameras. The footwear is based on a prototype that Lance eviscerated to his liking with a pair of scissors, and they're hoping he'll wear the new design in July, when he goes for Tour de France victory number five.
"They feel good," Lance says, standing and shifting from one foot to the other. He clomps over to his full-time mechanic, Mike Anderson, who is assembling his bike, and squeezes the rear tire.
"Flat," Lance says. "What's up with that?"
"I'll fix it," says Mike. "Maybe I'll put in a puncture-resistant tube. Looks like there might be thorns out here."
"Dude, I'm losing my warm-up time," he says, sounding a little antsy. "I need to do some squats or something."
You think about going over and saying something, because it all seems pretty mellow. But you don't, and neither does anybody else. Probably best not to bother him before the race, even though it's just a dinky cyclocross—cycling's version of the steeplechase—and you'd love to ask him what the hell he's doing here. It's a training run, sure, but Lance showing up to hammer two dozen locals is like Tiger going to a mini-mall amusement park and wasting everyone at putt-putt. This guy needs to prove something?
Definitely not. At 31, Lance Armstrong is many things, most of which are listed on the cover of his best-selling 2000 autobiography, It's Not About the Bike, in an order that seems telling: winner of the Tour de France, cancer survivor, husband, father, son, human being. He is also a philanthropist (the Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised $23 million for cancer survivors); an adviser to George W. Bush (he sits on the President's Cancer Panel along with three world-famous oncology specialists); and a highly paid spokesman for Subaru, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. This summer, if he succeeds in matching the five-in-a-row record of Miguel Indurain, the mighty Basque who ruled the Tour from 1991 to 1995, Lance will be poised to attempt an unprecedented six victories—a feat that would secure his place among the all-time greats in the history of sport.
Just before the race starts, Kristin Armstrong, Lance's blond, green-eyed 31-year-old wife, meanders over with their three-year-old son, Luke, and the one-year-old twins, Grace and Isabelle. Her parents, Dave and Ethel Richard, and her younger brother, Jon, have also turned out to cheer Lance on. It's a few days before Christmas; six weeks from now, Lance and Kristin will separate, but you wouldn't know it from the way the family looks today.
The racers start off full-tilt, cross-eyed with effort and flirting with lactic acid from the gun, dreaming, perhaps, that Lance is out of shape, or hungover, or doesn't care about this pissant competition. For most of the race—an hour of laps around the park's grassy circuit—Lance hovers 20 seconds behind the lead group, which dwindles from eight riders to one, and then he closes in on Will Black, the Texas state cyclocross and mountain-bike champion. At the finish it's you-know-who in front. Lance crosses the line to scattered yelps and keeps on rolling back to the Suburban to switch bikes so he can ride the 15 miles home.
Black hustles over to shake hands with the Man.
"Hey, thanks a lot," he says.
"No problem," says Lance, toweling off his face. "That was good. You made me work today."
"You coming out tomorrow for that other race?"
"Yeah, I'll be there. Unless I drink too many beers tonight."
"That's cool," Black says absentmindedly. "No! Wait. Do drink a lot of beers tonight."
"OK," Lance says, cocking his head agreeably. "I was going to anyway." He looks around at his entourage and lets out a snort.
It would be nice if it were always like this—no press conference, no throng, no scandal, no pissing in a cup. Then again, normalcy is a place Lance only visits.
LANCE ARMSTRONG IS A WORKAHOLIC. Though his racing season runs March through September, he views his job as a year-round gig. Since he won his first Tour, in 1999, Armstrong's responsibilities have steadily accrued as his appeal has evolved from a feel-good story about an athlete's courage to one that ranges well beyond sports, tapping into Platonic ideals of willpower, leadership, discipline, and determination.
It's demanding work. Armstrong owes 45 days a year to his 13 sponsors, the biggest of which each pay him north of $2 million a year to pitch their products. He puts in another ten days working with his foundation, not to mention countless phone calls and covert visits with cancer patients, sneaking them into his hotel rooms or slipping into their hospital rooms to deliver pep talks that border on tough love. Most recently, he signed a five-year, $12.5 million contract with Subaru. Between these agreements, his $4 million United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team salary, and the $3.5 million in bonuses he'll receive if he wins the Tour again, he stands to make $16.5 million this year.
Though his friends marvel at how he packs 25 hours of activity into every day, the obligations of superstardom are starting to tear at him. He's finding it harder to balance his job, and the needs of his wife and children, with what he wants for himself. The way Armstrong sees it, he has one shot at true greatness—and because his very life, post-cancer, is a second chance, he's determined not to let anything stand in his way. He needs to leave a monument to his suffering, a rock of proof that a fatherless loner from the Dallas suburbs could rise to the top and keep rising. He'll tell you that he's not interested in cycling records, that he just wants to be remembered as the cancer survivor who won the Tour (however many times). Not because his story is so improbable, but because it reflects, in universal terms, the pain he felt growing up. He can be understood. To explain himself, all he has to do is win a bike race.
"I don't even know if it's so much winning, but the fear of losing," Lance tells me, slouching in a wooden rocking chair, a can of Miller Lite in his hand.
It's Saturday evening, a couple hours after the cyclocross race, and we're sitting on the porch of his small cabin on the west edge of Austin. Willie Nelson's warbling through the stereo and the sun is slipping fast into the Texas Hill Country. The property is called Milagro—Spanish for miracle—because, he says, "Kristin truly feels like my survival and the births of our kids were miracles."
"I don't like to lose," he goes on. "I just despise it. I mean, if I lost the Tour, I would be incredibly upset. With myself. If something bad happened—an accident or whatever—I would still be upset with myself. But if I just failed on a performance level, on a fitness level, that would not be"—he pauses, rubbing his ship's prow of a jaw with his free hand—"acceptable."
The drive out here—Lance hunched over the wheel of the Suburban, tacking through town traffic, Pete Yorn blaring on the stereo—testified to his competitiveness. He turned it into a private time trial. I was right on his bumper, determined not to get dropped, when we caught a yellow light. That's when his hand darted up through the sunroof, waving me through, as if to say, "C'mon, don't be a skirt!" Hauling ass to keep up seems crucial, as it must to everyone who deals with Armstrong.
Even now, he can't stop talking about winning. "Like today. I'd have been mad if I didn't win." He laughs, snugging his cap down over his monk's coif of graying hair. "I would have been livid."
When Armstrong talks to you, he engages mentally and physically in the dialogue. He uses his hands like an Italian, his facial expressions like a Frenchman. He speaks in evidentiary terms, listing examples, citing details to support each point, slapping you on the knee for emphasis. His cadence is brisk, just as it is on the bike, but he is not terse.
He tells me about his routine. "I wake up and run right to the coffee," he says. "It's already made. Yeah, baby! Timer. I'd go nuts if I had to wait." And about Luke. "When I get dressed in my cycling clothes, he tells me, 'Have a good day at work!' He was cool today, huh? I heard him every time I came around." And whether it's still anger that primarily fuels him. "Last year," he says of the 2002 Tour, "there was no vengeance, no anger, no revenge. There was none of that... Maybe that made it less fun. Everybody likes to give payback a bit. That's human nature."
I want to know if he dreamed that he'd become as successful as he has. "I'll never have to worry about money, and I never thought it would be like that," he says, looking amused. "I always thought that would keep me busy. It's an interesting place for me to be, because a lot of times when that happens to an athlete, then you see them change—you see their performance change, their motivations and their desires. Mine hasn't changed. I still love it. I still need it. The riding, the training, the building, the crafting, and hopefully, ultimately, the winning. I just get off on it—the whole process."
Still, surviving cancer left him with an almost manic urgency, and he's perfectly aware of what this costs him. "I'm burning the candle at both ends more than I ever have," he says. "In terms of training, fulfilling other responsibilities in the off-season. The last three weeks—the amount of travel I've done, and tried to train, and tried to do local races, and tried to have a family, and tried to lead a fairly normal life... That's hard. I can see that there are ways to make it easier, and I can see the end of it coming."
He's talking about life beyond the Tour—when the hypermasochistic training regimen is over, when he doesn't have to sleep in an altitude tent—but he really can't let himself think too far into the future. For now, he loves his job. In February he'll make his annual move to Girona, Spain, where preparation for the Tour becomes all-consuming. There's nothing to do but ride.
"Simple, simple, simple," he says. "Beautiful."
And just when I've settled into what seems like a nice chat with the best and busiest bike racer in the world, I see the animation on his face vanish. My allotted 60 minutes are up.
"All right," he says, hopping out of his chair. "I gotta run. You done with me?"
RIDING A BIKE IS EASY, but because the machine is so efficient, you have to go long and hard and often to reach your potential. So you sit on a wedge of leather and push the pedals for half a day at a time, constantly notching the chain up or down to calibrate that burning in your thighs, knowing that if you don't taste the pain now, it will be incapacitating during a race. It's normal for your hands, feet, and crotch to fall asleep. Cycling numbs the mind, too, and everything is reduced to a visceral level. You become a zombie.
On the subject of suffering and endurance, Armstrong's authority is absolute. He was born in 1971 to Linda Mooneyham, who was just 17 when she had him, and his father split before he was two. He grew up with a stepdad he didn't like and watched his mother struggle to make rent; Linda divorced Terry Armstrong when Lance was 14. His mother was never satisfied with the state of things, and strived to upgrade their lives. "When I used to baby-sit," she told me, "I'd be in this nice home, and I'd say, 'One of these days I'm going to have that.' I wanted something more. I had every excuse to fail, but I was obsessed."
She led by example, working her way up from secretary to global account manager at the wireless telephone giant Ericsson. Her son assimilated her drive. In his autobiography, he says that "everybody told us we wouldn't amount to anything." The message was ground into him at Plano East High School in the north Dallas suburbs, where he didn't fit the middle-class mold. He wasn't good at football, couldn't afford Polo shirts, and didn't belong to a country club. Life sucked.
So he channeled his rising anger into swimming and cycling, and soon began winning junior triathlons. He was particularly fast on the bike and discovered that his endurance level was higher than that of most of the adults he raced against. His mounting victories got him noticed by the U.S. Cycling Federation, and in 1990 he was tapped to join the national team. Even there he found reason to take umbrage: Chris Carmichael, a former Olympian who was the coach at the time, placed Lance on the second-tier squad—a minor distinction, really, but not to a young man determined to be somebody.
The best way to cope, he decided, was to torture himself on the bike. He quickly made a reputation for himself as "that brash Texan" by hammering his way to 11th in the amateur World Championships in 1990. (Carmichael told him that if he had paid attention to tactics, he'd have been on the podium.) Armstrong turned pro a year later and continued ticking off the wins—and his competitors—by snatching the pro World Championships in 1993, the Clasica San Sebastian in 1995, and two Tours du Pont (in '95 and '96). He raced in the Tour de France four times before developing cancer, winning a stage in both 1993 and 1995 but finishing the mother of all bike races only once.
The pace, and his stubbornness, is probably why he ignored the symptoms of choriocarcinoma for six months before he was diagnosed. The story is richly told in It's Not About the Bike: The cancer had spread rampantly, and after the neurosurgeons removed two lesions from his brain, the oncologists had to tackle a "snowstorm" of tumors in his lungs. He refused to rule out cycling again, so they used a chemotherapy treatment that wouldn't scorch his lungs. He received such intensive doses of the platinum-based drug cisplatin that, by the fourth round, it began to dissolve his musculature and burn his skin from the inside out.
Now cancer-free, he's still spooked by the ordeal, almost seven years later. He celebrates October 2 as his birthday and sees things all the time that remind him. "I've never been scared for my life like that since," he wrote to me in an e-mail. "When I go in for blood work, I see the blood coming out, and I wonder if it's cancerous blood or healthy blood. It's a bizarre and scary experience."
Before cancer, Armstrong was a talented cyclist with enormous natural ability, but he didn't eat like he should have or train like he could have. He was living large in Austin, with girlfriends, a million-dollar home, and a Porsche.
"The odd thing is that Lance was, by comparison [with his current incarnation], a slacker," Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins told me. Having worked with him closely, ghostwriting his autobiography and Every Second Counts (his next book, due out this fall), Jenkins explained that, above all, cancer made him serious. "A lot of people have cancer and come away with a gauzy outlook, a determination to work less hard, enjoy their family more," she says. "He's peculiar in this regard. He came out of it ready to work hard. He's been given the capacity to be the best cyclist in the world, and he feels obligated to make the most of that."
Bart Knaggs, 36, a partner at Capital Sports & Entertainment, the firm that manages Armstrong, thinks it was a leaner temperament that transformed his best friend. "He had to beat cancer with his brain," says Knaggs in his singsongy twang. "He was instrumental in the way he was treated. That's when he started to trust his own noggin. He went, 'Wow, holy shit! Maybe I am smart.' He moved from a boxer's mentality to a marathoner's mentality."
ARMSTRONG HAS BUILT a rigidly ordered world for himself that turns on hard work, perfectionism, and a palpable loathing for the forces of chaos. He compartmentalizes the disparate aspects of his life and shifts gears between them on the spot, rarely looking back. Certainly it's an advantage that he has a crystal-clear goal, but what enables him to operate with such singular purpose is the protective shield of his inner circle. He runs this informal organization like a CEO, handpicking smart and successful people to orbit him like satellites.
"I'm careful and wary of new people," he says. "I have a close circle of friends and advisers, and I try to keep it that way."
There's a certain type of man he's always sought out: older, wealthy, and wise. Men like Thomas Weisel, 62, the maverick San Francisco financier who put together the Postal Service team and manages a lot of Armstrong's investments. Or Jeff Garvey, 54, founding chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and a venture capitalist who used to manage a $1.5 billion hedge fund. Or Jim Ochowicz, 51, Armstrong's former team director (at Motorola) and Luke's godfather, who is a broker for Weisel.
Slightly closer to the nucleus are a few friends—young, raw, determined guys willing to be groomed for service. These he calls "brother." Foremost among them is 37-year-old Bill Stapleton, Armstrong's agent and confidant, who founded Capital Sports & Entertainment not too long after landing Lance as his first client, eight years ago.
Six feet tall, with loosely swept-back black hair and a broad face, Stapleton is a former Olympic swimmer who was working in an Austin law firm and hating it when, in 1995, he got up the nerve to approach Armstrong about representing him. Armstrong met him, mulled the pitch for five months, and chose him because he didn't want to be "swallowed up" by a larger firm.
These days, Stapleton is inseparable from his client, serving as advocate, personal secretary, and the bad cop who shuts down photo shoots on time, since Lance hates them. He travels with him on every business trip, working out schedules on the plane, usually a private jet (Armstrong has a 100-hour time-share). At last year's Tour, Stapleton baby-sat comedian Robin Williams, Sally Jenkins, former Wallflowers guitarist Michael Ward, and producer Frank Marshall, who's interested in making a movie about Lance.
Their relationship is a testament to the loyalty Lance demands of his posse. The two men are bound by a simple two-page contract that either side can terminate on 30 days' notice. And loyalty pays well. Considering that the typical sports agent's cut is 15 to 25 percent of a client's salary, Stapleton makes roughly $2 million a year.
"What I like is that when Lance needs something, I'm the go-to guy," Stapleton says. "I have a tremendous respect and admiration for this guy. To have someone I admire look to me for advice and counsel means a lot. I mean, I'm a fan. I'm not a freaked-out fan. I'm not a geeked-out fan. But I believe in this guy."
Busy as Armstrong is, he's diligent about responding to the 50-plus e-mails and phone calls he gets each day: queries from Carmichael, checking in on his training regimen; from his mother, asking about the new cancer center in Dallas that is naming a surgery room after him; from Johan Bruyneel, the director of the USPS team, confirming his racing schedule; from U2 frontman Bono, asking if he can speak at an AIDS benefit in Omaha this weekend; from Kristin, about when they should move into their new house in Austin; from Sally Jenkins, wondering if he's read the latest chapter of the second book; from Stapleton, asking if he can sign 600 posters for charity; and from John Korioth, a cycling brother, wondering when he wants to meet tomorrow—to ride.
THERE IS ONE FEAR that everyone in the inner circle shares: disappointing Lance. "There are examples of guys who have endured with Lance and there are guys that haven't," says Bart Knaggs. "Very few of us are the best in the world at what we do. You're at pretty big risk of not living up to Lance Armstrong's standards. Shit, Lance just expects as much out of everybody else as he does himself."
If Lance senses the slightest hint of disloyalty or lack of dedication, you're gone. "The world is black-and-white to him," says Korioth, 36, an old friend who now sells insurance for a living. "And it's a lot easier to make decisions when it's that way."
Shortly before he was diagnosed, Armstrong had signed a two-year, $2.5 million contract with the French cycling team Cofidis. When his illness forced him to sit out the 1997 season, Cofidis dumped him. For Armstrong, it was an ignominious, disloyal move and an incredible blow to his fast-healing ego. (On the other hand, Armstrong has vowed to stick with Nike and Oakley for life, because they honored their deals with him.) Newly unemployed, he showed up with Stapleton at the Interbike trade show in Anaheim, California, that August and announced that he was about to make "the greatest comeback in the history of sports." Then the two sat back and waited for the offers to roll in. Nobody responded.
Armstrong was furious. It didn't register that potential sponsors might see him as a risk, or even damaged goods. He had survived cancer and decided to race again. What more did they need to know? Even Weisel, who had bankrolled Armstrong's first pro-am team, Subaru-Montgomery, and had just started the USPS squad, was lukewarm. Lance took it out on his agent. Stapleton had finally decided to quit the law firm and was working at home for his one and only client when he got the scare of his career.
"It was like 'I've made my comeback, and I want all this stuff, I want all these deals, and they're not happening,'" he recalls, sounding a little queasy. "He sent me an e-mail and told me I had a deadline of three months to get some stuff done or he was going to find somebody else. I was sick to my stomach. I was physically ill. I was like 'I've put so much into this and I'm going to lose him.' It was a real test for me."
Stapleton passed, nailing down the Postal Service contract in six weeks, with Lance getting $200,000 a year and huge winning bonuses to start. The experience cemented their relationship, but the way it played out—Make this happen, or adios—showed how calculating Lance had become. Combined with his ruthless dedication to his schedule, such episodes have led those outside the inner circle to characterize Armstrong as a machine. But Knaggs says the guy he's gotten to know over the last 12 years does indeed have a soul. "His assessment of talent, his insight, is not formulaic," Knaggs says. "The gut hunch is very good."
Armstrong's relationship with John Korioth also shows that he's human. Korioth had gone from brother to persona non grata after being forced out of his post at the foundation in 1998. The two didn't talk again until Korioth popped up in a July 2001 Texas Monthly article, defending Armstrong against long-percolating accusations that he used EPO—erythropoietin, a drug that boosts oxygen levels in blood and is banned from use in cycling. Armstrong was floored that Korioth had stood up for him, and rekindled their friendship by flying him over for the last week of the Tour.
"It was just two dumbass guys holding a grudge," says Korioth. Now, when Armstrong is in Austin, the two ride together every day.
For every example like Stapleton's brush with unemployment or Korioth's deep freeze, there are instances of Armstrong reaching out and giving people a lift. Stephanie McIlvain has been his liaison at Oakley, his sunglasses sponsor, for 12 years. When her three-year-old son was diagnosed with autism two years ago, she quit so she could stay at home and care for him. Armstrong wouldn't have it. He told Oakley he wouldn't work with anyone else, so the company rehired her and let her work from home, with the sole responsibility of tending to Lance.
"He sent me this e-mail the other day that actually made me cry," she told me. "I don't remember why, but he just said, 'Steph, you're an awesome person, you're a great mother, and for that you're a hero.'"
Lee Walker, 62, a key adviser who has taken over as chairman of the foundation, praises Armstrong's "emotional intelligence."
"Lance has a great capacity for making you like him," says Walker, who is six foot ten and wears a black cowboy hat that he calls his "air bag." "So it's no surprise that he's got a devoted band of eclectic, kindred souls who would do anything for him, and I think him for us. He attends to his friends." Walker gives this example: One day, Lance noticed Walker's toes poking out of a ratty pair of shoes. "Next thing I know, I've got seven pairs of new Nikes"—in size 17. "Who else does that?"
IT'S ONE THING TO TALK about how Armstrong organizes every inch of his life around winning the Tour. It's another thing to watch him do it. He hates to gamble, but when he's keeping pace with the best climbers in the world on some hideous mountain stage and then raises the effort another notch, he may as well be staking everything on 13 black. He admitted this to his teammate George Hincapie after trying to help him win the 2002 Tour of Flanders. "He said a lot of times he puts it all on the line," says Hincapie, who hesitated to attack in that race and wound up fourth. "He makes his move and takes a big risk. If they caught him, he'd be done."
Beyond the inner circle, the most important people to Armstrong are the eight guys who ride with him in Europe. As with any cycling team, USPS is built around its leader. They are there solely to block the wind for Armstrong (drafting behind another rider requires 30 percent less energy), chase down cheeky attacks, and otherwise make life as easy as possible for their captain. During the 2002 Tour, the cycling magazine VeloNews calculated that Armstrong spent no more than 14 miles of the race out front, a remarkable testament to the team's professionalism.
Armstrong is the boss on and off the bike. Thom Weisel's company, Tailwind Sports, owns the USPS squad, and he has formal authority, but his star rider more or less handpicks his teammates (only Hincapie remains from 1999). It was Armstrong who insisted on keeping the entire 2002 squad for this year. He even chose the coach, Bruyneel, a master tactician who raced for the Spanish cycling team ONCE not that long ago.
Traditionally, to win the Tour a rider must either excel in the time trials and persevere in the mountains, or vice versa. Since 1999, Armstrong has dominated both disciplines. If anything, he is better in the mountains, where he can watch the faces of his competitors. And of all the mountains Armstrong has faced in the Tour—Sestriere, L'Alpe d'Huez, La Mongie, to name but a few soul-crushers—only one has withstood his willpower: 6,273-foot Mont Ventoux.
The stats and history of this limestone slag heap are impressive in their own right. Ventoux rises 5,251 feet in 13 miles, with some stretches graded as steep as 15 percent. A mile from the top sits a stone memorial to British cyclist Tom Simpson, who in 1967 collapsed and died of heatstroke, presumably induced by amphetamines and the half-bottle of cognac he slugged down in a café at the base to refresh himself. In 1970, the indomitable Belgian rider Eddy Merckx, another five-time winner, had to be given oxygen at the finish. In 2000, Armstrong led Marco Pantani over the last two miles and then, in a show of respect for one of the Tour's finest climbers, let the Italian dart across the finish line first. Pantani denied that his victory was a gift, making Armstrong's graciousness look foolish. Ever since, both Pantani and Ventoux have been high on his shit list.
In 2002, Stage 14 of the 22-day, 2,036-mile race featured Ventoux, looming up out of the vineyards of Provence at the end of a 137-mile shot over windswept plains. It had already hit 90 degrees on July 21 when a group of 11 riders broke away from the pack and built a lead. One of them was Richard Virenque, a Frenchman who had won the Tour's "King of the Mountains" mantle five times and was back after a suspension for using EPO. When this bunch reached the base of the mountain, Virenque sprang away. He was seven minutes clear of the peloton, which was being towed by the Postal Service boys, frantic to get their man what he wanted.
Armstrong sat in second position, conserving energy as one teammate after another came to the front and redlined it until blowing up and getting spit out the back. Soon he found himself in a group of five, two of whom—Joseba Beloki and José Azevedo—were ONCE riders. As they switchbacked across the shady lower flanks of Ventoux, the Spaniards took turns setting the pace, trying to crack Armstrong. Slogging up the steepest section of the climb, Armstrong slipped to the back of the group, perhaps baiting them. Beloki went for it. He downshifted, stood up, and cranked ahead, tacking sharply to one side of the road to keep anyone from catching his slipstream. Armstrong followed his move a split second later, motoring around the others and up behind Beloki as if he were being winched out of a ditch. Beloki never looked back to see if he'd been followed, and as soon as he sat down, Armstrong rocketed around him, hunching low over the handlebars in a fury of blind grace.
Beloki didn't so much as flinch. His elastic had snapped. He stayed seated, shaking his head in resignation, knowing that his chance to gain time on the race leader had fizzled. The only drama left was the race between Virenque, who was still four miles from the top, and Armstrong, four minutes and 30 seconds behind him. The contrast between their riding styles was stark: Lance sat, shoulders still, lips barely parted, legs spinning like a flywheel; Virenque stood up for much of the climb, laboring as if he were stomping grapes. Armstrong made up 32 seconds a mile over the last four miles, no doubt spurred on by several fans booing him and yelling, "Dopé! Dopé!" In the end, Virenque took the stage, but Armstrong destroyed the peloton, climbing Ventoux in 58 minutes, the fastest ever in the Tour.
Afterward, he said, "I didn't come here to win the Mont Ventoux, I came here to win the Tour de France. And I have to remember that, and everyone on the team has to remember that."
PEOPLE WANT TO BELIEVE it's the numbers, that Armstrong's ability to crush competitors like Miller Lite empties is attributable to the various measurements of his physiology. Add them up and the sum explains things, like how he can win without drugs.
The common wisdom goes like this: His heart is a third larger than the average male's; his VO2 max is double that of most healthy men; his anaerobic threshold, the point at which lactic acid kicks in, is freakishly high; and when he attacks, he pedals at 90 to 120 rpm, a cadence 10 to 20 percent higher (and more efficient) than most cyclists can maintain.
Armstrong's numbers have been mythologized like no other rider's. But cycling is not arithmetic. Knaggs, who has logged a lot of saddle time alongside Armstrong, gives what may be the most astute appraisal of his friend's invincibility. "He was this triathlon wonder child, and for ten years that's been the story on him—his big engine, blah, blah, blah," he told me. "But the genetics is just the ante to get you into the room. He knows all these guys have good numbers; they're all good enough physically. To Lance, it's a test of wills."
What underlies his willpower is the knowledge that he has trained as hard as possible. The moment he arrives in Girona each February, he officially goes into monk mode. "I just go from eating and drinking whatever—from having two beers or two glasses of wine with dinner—to absolutely zero," he says. "The strategy is you have to get on the scale every morning. I'll start the season at 79 kilos. I need to lose a kilo every month so I can be at 74 at the start of the Tour. A kilo a month isn't that hard."
His daily schedule is ascetic: "I eat breakfast between eight and nine, then I train straight through lunch. I leave at 11, get back at five, and try and starve until 6:30 or seven, then have dinner. People think that if you ride six hours, which would be 120 miles in training, that you can eat whatever you want—5,000 calories. You can't do that. If you just went out and rode easy on flat roads, you're not burning that much. It might be 300 calories an hour."
He rides for five to six hours most days. No music. No conversation. "I'll answer my phone if it rings," he says of his cell-and-earbud rig. "But I prefer not to talk to anybody."
It's a formidable regimen, to be sure. But there are those who think he gets help in not-so-wholesome ways.
Cycling journalists have always gossiped about Armstrong and doping—as they are bound to do with any champion in a sport whose traditions of drug abuse are as rich as its history, particularly when that champion has performed so magically. But most journalists who cover the Tour are loath to ask about doping, either because they don't want to taint their love of the sport or because they're simply afraid of getting frozen out by the Armstrong camp. Such reporters are sometimes referred to as FWTs—fans with typewriters. David Walsh, the chief sportswriter for The Sunday Times of London, is no FWT.
On the opening weekend of the 2001 Tour, Walsh published a story in which the bombshell was a detailed account of Armstrong's visits to an Italian sports doctor named Michele Ferrari. Ferrari specializes in working with pro cyclists and has been vilified for allegedly administering performance-enhancing drugs. (He once reportedly said that EPO—which can thicken the blood and cause heart trouble—was no more harmful than five liters of orange juice.) He is currently on trial in Bologna, charged with providing EPO to professional riders and managing their use. Until Walsh's article, Armstrong hadn't acknowledged his relationship with Ferrari.
Walsh never outright accused Armstrong of doping, but he amassed alarming circumstantial evidence—evidence gleaned from the Italian carabinieri detailing whom Ferrari has treated; on-the-record quotes from a former Motorola rider and USPS doctor asserting the teams were pro-dope; and accusations of drug use on the U.S. Cycling team. Asked by Walsh if he'd ever visited Ferrari, Armstrong played coy. "Have I been tested by him, gone there and consulted on certain things? Perhaps," he said. Walsh then listed details of exactly when and where Armstrong had met with Ferrari.
The article caused a small firestorm, and when Walsh confronted Armstrong about Ferrari at a press conference a few days before the finish of the Tour that year, Armstrong glared at him and said he had never denied his relationship with Ferrari, had never discussed doping with him, and that the doctor was innocent until proven guilty.
The question is, why not take a break from Ferrari if his reputation is under question? Regardless of whether the doctor is a scoundrel or a scapegoat, don't appearances matter? I asked Armstrong this. "First of all," he said, "I've never heard anybody—a team, a sponsor, anybody who has the power and influence to tell me what to do—say, 'You need to get away from that guy.' Never once. Number two, he's the best there is." Armstrong now says he works on altitude preparation, nutrition, and power output with Ferrari when he is in Europe.
The thing to remember in the "Does Lance dope?" debate is that Armstrong's blood and urine are tested more than that of any athlete in the Tour, and he has come up clean. The other thing to remember, however, is that it's extremely hard to bust someone on EPO. The Tour instituted a conclusive test in 2001, but it only detects EPO that's been taken within one week. There is no test yet for human growth hormone, which is thought to be the latest scourge of the peloton.
"I don't know that any cyclist will ever be free of suspicion," Armstrong says. "And for that matter, I think it's like a plague that will spread to other sports. So when somebody does anything, from cycling to the long jump to swimming to baseball, they're going to question it. I've been there and I know—it just gets old.
"If you think about what they're doing with genetic doping, I mean, if that happens, it's done," he adds. "I don't think they can test for that. And that will be a real shame."
IF IT'S NOT THE DRUG SNOOPS, then it's a journalist asking Lance whether he'll participate in the Tour—given Franco-American political tensions—or some crestfallen fan postulating on the Web about what went down with Kristin. In his eyes, there's always somebody stirring up trouble. His biggest threat on the roads of France this July will be 1997 Tour champ Jan Ullrich, the German who's back from sitting out the 2002 race after testing positive for Ecstasy—a bizarre drug suspension even for cycling. None of it should hamper Armstrong; the more competition, the better. He still likes to think of himself as the underdog from Plano. That's where he thrives: with the odds stacked against him.
"The longer you try to continue a streak, it's mathematically and historically less and less likely," Armstrong says. "I don't think it's any freakish accident that nobody's won more than five. The numbers, the variables, the bad luck—you would think they would start to catch up to you."
The biggest variable in his life right now is his marital status. Though Lance gives no public indication of tears in the exquisitely controlled scrim of his personal life, his separation from Kristin in February has been hard to handle—for both of them. "It wasn't a big ugly slam, how we got to where we are," she told me in April, dispelling reports that they'd had a row. "We had a serious conversation. You've got a couple that's been together four and a half years, and we've had six homes, three languages, three countries, one cancer comeback, three children, four Tour de France wins, and one rise to celebrity. You're not supposed to cram such a huge amount of events into such a small period of time."
Where they are, it seems, is on the verge of patching things up. In late March, after Lance had already decamped to train in Spain, they met in Nice. "We spent time alone," she said. "We really haven't had that. When we were together, it was great." At press time, the plan was for her, the kids, the nanny, and the pets to head to Girona and stay through the Tour. "We're going to take the month of August and play," she said. "Spend some time alone. Have some fun. I think it's going to be OK."
But none of this has come to pass the last time I see him. It's a pre-war evening in January, day three of five at a television commercial shoot for Subaru in Northern California. Director Zack Snyder has had Armstrong doing laps all afternoon on a road overlooking the Pacific, on Marin County's Mount Tamalpais.
As dusk sets in, Snyder needs to set up one last shot, a little dialogue in front of a Subaru Forester in the sepia light. A helicopter sits poised nearby to zip Armstrong back to San Francisco. Per his contract, a full day is exactly six hours, and knowing that the sun would set at 5:11 p.m., he arrived right around 11. Now it's 5:13 and Stapleton is looking at his Rolex.
Snyder asks Lance to repeat the Subaru tag line—"Driven by what's inside"—and look happier.
"Happier. OK." He does it again.
"Yeah, that's it. Smile," Snyder says.
Lance does a dozen happier takes—bam, bam, bam—and then Snyder calls it a wrap. Lance and Stapleton bolt for the chopper and I follow. Within a minute we're up, fast-forwarding over the hills, the Marin Headlands, the bay. We head toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
"Oh, you wouldn't want to go under it, now would you?" Lance goads the pilot.
We dive. "Uh, guys, we're going under," Lance reports as we tuck under the span. "That's just wrong. Hey, did you hear that Coit Tower is tipping over? You know what they call that? Coitus interruptus."
We rotor down over Pier 23, where a camera crew is scurrying around a shiny new SUV for a different car commercial.
"Oh, they're going to hate me for this," says the pilot, swooping onto the deck and killing their audio in the last moments of light. "Too bad."
"Looks like they're shooting a Lincoln commercial," Stapleton says.
But Armstrong can't hear him. The moment we touch down, he's out the side hatch and bounding over to the black Mercedes Series 5 sedan that's here for him. As the driver comes around to open his door, he reaches out and shakes the man's hand, doing his best impression of a regular guy, and says, "Hey, I'm Lance."