It almost never happened. Though he was a world-champion cyclist at 21, by 1998 Lance Armstrong was a 26-year-old cancer survivor who'd never finished better than 36th at the Tour de France and was struggling to reenter professional cycling. The big teams didn't want him, and he wasn't sure he wanted the sport. His first race back was the five-day Ruta del Sol, a February warmup for the long season ahead. He finished an encouraging 14th. But just two weeks later, while contesting the much more difficult ParisNice, he rolled to a stop in the middle of a cold, windy second stage and got off his bike. Even he doubted he would ever get back on.
Here, Armstrong's coaches, teammates, and closest friends recall their efforts to coax him back, the mental and psychological transformations that followed, and a miraculous Tour de France that ended ten years ago this month with a new American hero.
Too Much, Too Soon
PAUL SHERWEN (cycling commentator and former pro cyclist): I remember Lance's result in Ruta del Sol. To me, that was already a great success. But Ruta del Sol is a startup race. ParisNice is the first vicious race of the season.
LANCE ARMSTRONG: I just didn't feel like being there, so I pulled over and said, "That's it." It was an instinctual reaction, totally irrational.
BART KNAGGS (Armstrong's longtime friend and fellow racer from their junior days, now a partner in Armstrong's management firm): He had big expectations, and all of a sudden he was just one more guy getting pissed on in the rain, with grit in his teeth. He's saying, "Look, I don't need this. Maybe I'll go to school, maybe I'll get a job." We started talking to people about things he could dobe a real-estate guy, a financial guy. But at the same time, we sort of came to a consensus: You know what? This is what he was born to do. Let's rekindle that passion.
CHRIS CARMICHAEL (Armstrong's longtime coach): I really remember one discussion. I said, "Look, you say you've proven enough to the cancer community because you got back to professional cycling and proved you were competitive. Dude, you pulled over and quit, and that's what everyone's going to remember." He didn't like that.
I flew back home, and he called me and said, "All right, we'll do one more race," the U.S. Pro. But he was like "Look, I gotta get out of Austin. I've just been playing golf and drinking beer. If I'm gonna do this, I gotta go flat out."
So we started talking about Boone, North Carolina. Cool hippie town with a college. Really good atmosphere and some great climbing. Then he needed a training partner, and I remember saying, "Hey, what about [American Tour de France veteran] Bob Roll? He'd be perfect." He's funnier than hell, and he was still racing on mountain bikes at the time. And Bob has a good way of getting a guy thinking about stuff in an introspective way, without being forceful.