"I raced in a tough way and at times I was a prickly, abrasive personality. I didn't haveand I still don't havea lot of time for small talk and nonsense. You layer in the doping suspicion, the fact that I left cycling and I wasn't really around cycling. I mean, I understood these things and I'm totally open and willing to talk about them. But some of these people are so immature. And I've got bad news for them: I'm coming. And I'm coming on behalf of eight million people who are going to die around the world this year, and I think that's a noble reason to get back on my bike. The people that bitch about it and say all these bad things, they view the Lance Armstrong Foundation as a sham, and pardon my French, but fuck them. I've got no time for that. My intentions are pure, and, as I said, it's not stopping."
THAT'S THE short answer.
To be fair, the question Lance Armstrong was answering was not "Why are you coming back?" or "Do you have what it takes to come back?" It was "Are you surprised by all the drama associated with your comeback?" But with a few pointed sentences, he'd knocked down all three. He's getting back on his bike because he wants to take his fight against cancer international. No, he's not surprised by all the drama. And if the poorly kept secret to his past success was the unique ability to convert anger over his critics' words into a combustible, high-octane fuel for riding his bicycle, then yes, absolutely, Lance Armstrong still has what it takes.
Today is Veterans Day, November 11, and we're at Armstrong's home in Austin, Texas. I arrived here wondering how the past three years had affected his well-documented competitive drive. Over this period, the world had watched as Athlete Lancea cancer-surviving, competition-squashing seven-time Tour de France championhad been transformed quite publicly into Celebrity Lance, a slightly heavier and more amicable jock who turned in impressive sub-three-hour marathons but was also a fixture in the tabloids, thanks to a string of high-profile girlfriends and regular late-night partying and/or shirtless jogging with fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey. But who could criticize him? From ages 15 to 34, he'd lived a nearly monastic life, driven by a singular pursuit to be the world's fastest cyclist. When the ride ended, he'd earned more than just a sip of the good life. But now he's older. It's hard to imagine the 37-year-old legend not only beating the clock but reverting so quickly to his ascetic ways.
My first few hours with Armstrong seemed to confirm this. We'd spent the early afternoon at a photo shoot inside his Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny's. (Its name comes from the bastardized Yankee pronunciation of maillot jaune, French for "yellow jersey.") The entire 15,000-square-foot store, housed in a refurbished industrial space downtown, is awash in Armstrong memorabiliayellow jerseys, retired racing bikes, and giant ten-by-ten-foot photos of Armstrong's classic Tour moments. It's a fitting shrine. It's also the kind of place that a coach might dread, fearing that his star athlete will get caught up in his own hype.
During the shoot, Armstrong was relaxed and friendly. He joked around with his shop employees, discussed his recent trip to California to train with the Navy SEALs, and even posed for a few shots with some fans in the parking lot. Afterwards, we drove a half-hour through bad traffic and sat down in his home office, where we're now surrounded by even more memorabiliaall seven of his blue Tour de France cups line the shelves. Armstrong leans back and puts his bare feet up on the table. I know what my first question will be.
OUTSIDE: Are you too mellow now to win the "Mellow Johnny"?
ARMSTRONG: I think I'm mellower than I was in those years, '99 to '05, but I think it's a different kind of mellow. I still pay attention to what's being said about me, but I don't hold that stuff inside like I did then.
What kind of stuff?
Before I was like, That's it, you wrote that headline and I'm not going to talk to you again. I wouldn't do that now. I'd sit down and talk to that person and tell them that was a stupid headline, a shitty headline, and why I think that. If at the end of it all we just have to agree to disagree, then that's fine.
But some of what you're talking about used to motivate you. It was fuel.
Yeah, but my mind is fresher and tougher and more motivated now. From '99 to 2001, my mind was in a really tough space. It was a fighting space. And that dipped a little at the end [of my career]. But I could still find things to motivate myself. And I'll find little things this time. There are always little tidbits.