SIX IS THE LONELIEST NUMBER. Across a century of Tour de France history, only four riders other than Lance Armstrong have managed to stand atop the podium five times. For whatever reason—be it physiology, psychology, or some mysterious Gallic curse—no one has yet been able to win six times, much less six in a row. But this July, the 32-year-old cancer survivor, best-selling author, and international sports phenomenon from the Texas Hill Country aims to do just that.
In April, I caught up with Lance at his girlfriend's place in the Hollywood Hills—his girlfriend being Grammy Award–winning rock star Sheryl Crow. (Last September, Armstrong and his wife of five years, Kristin, said that they were divorcing; the couple now share custody of their three children. Since then, he and Crow have been seeing as much of each other as their schedules allow.) He had just finished a four-hour ride in the Angeles National Forest and was taking a dip in Crow's infinity pool. "Not a bad place to mooch a stay, huh?" he said as he climbed out. Armstrong is notoriously strict when it comes to time, so our interview was conducted during his post-training massage. Before I knew it, he was buck naked, and Dave Bolch, his massage therapist, was kneading those celebrated quads like twin slabs of Kobe beef. Full and frank disclosure: Armstrong wasn't entirely naked. He still wore his watch—a Nike Lance 4—which he repeatedly glanced at. With this guy, every second counts.
OUTSIDE: Did you ever imagine that you'd be in the position you're in now? Five and one to grow on.
ARMSTRONG: No. After the first one, I thought that could be the only one. And after the second one. After winning three, I realized that maybe I could continue.
Once, you were the underdog—and you seemed to draw strength from that. But now it's all yours to lose.
You know, I'm more scared of failing than I am excited about winning. I don't want to fail. I don't want to lose. I don't want to let my teammates down. I don't want to let fans down. And I don't want to let myself down.
When you're training, do you consciously think about number six?
I try not to think about that, but obviously I get reminded of it daily. There's even days where I get reminded about winning number seven! I'm like, Wait a minute. It's a little too much pressure to think about a grand total, especially a grand total that's never been done before.
How do you want to be remembered?
Quite honestly, I don't care about having a long-term legacy. I don't mean that in a bad way. It's just that I think it would be incredibly arrogant to walk through my day thinking about it. That's not why I get up every morning.
Why do you, then?
To train hard and win another bike race. If in 50 years they name a street after me, or build me a statue, that's fine. But quite honestly, I live for these days now.
How are you feeling this year overall?
I feel good. No physical problems, no health issues. The team is stronger than ever. And I like the course.
I like the mountain stages, and I know them well. Of the three uphill finishes this year, I've won all three: La Mongie, Plateau de Beille, and L'Alpe d'Huez.
Which of the three is your favorite?
L'Alpe d'Huez is probably the most magical mountain we ride up. It's the most famous mountain on the Tour. And this year, with the dynamic of doing the time trial up it for the first time ever—well, it gives me a big rush.
Judging by your past performances, that should give you an advantage, shouldn't it?
I think so. I've only done one uphill time trial on the Tour, in 2001, and I won that as well.
What's your favorite stage of all time?
I like Mont Ventoux—it's special.
You mean in a miserable sort of way?
Well, it depends. If you're riding good, you don't suffer that much, really. It's painless.
Which rival concerns you the most?
Jan Ullrich [of T-Mobile] is the biggest rival we have. Great rider, great team, a lot of experience, a lot of motivation. But there are 10 or 12 other riders who are solid threats.
Is your old buddy and former teammate Tyler Hamilton one of them?
Tyler's not on the level of an Ullrich, but when I say there's 10 or 12 other guys, he's certainly in there. We don't create race strategy around Tyler, but he's a person we watch and try and defend against. Tyler's a little bit like me, in that he's not a young guy anymore. These are his peak years, his final years. It has to happen now or never.
Choose one: victory in the 2004 Tour or a gold medal at Athens.
That's easy. The Olympics are a great event, but the Tour is of far greater importance: It's the granddaddy. For me, there's only one bike race this year.
So you're not thinking about Athens at all?
Every day, when I go out on my bike and envision scenarios, it all has to do with the Tour. But don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that the Olympics is your corner bike race. I'm planning to go to Athens, but it's tricky timing. It's just two and a half weeks after the Tour, which is quite possibly the hardest period after a long race, because you're so tapped out. That's not really enough time to recover.
Last year, you won by a thread—just 61 seconds. Does that motivate you, remembering how close you came to losing it?
Oh, boy, that was a stressful three weeks—too stressful. Basically, I dodged a bullet. It was a bad year. So this year I hope to go back to the models of '99 through 2002.
What went wrong?
I had several crashes and also illnesses. I had all the problems known to man—stomach bugs, sore muscles, sore hips. I was suffering. And I think last year I was a lot more uptight.
A lot was going on in your personal life, with your separation and, later, divorce from your wife, Kristin. That turmoil must have been a factor.
It's not fair to Kristin to say that it was the fault of a struggling marriage that I almost lost a sporting event. And, look, Kristin's still important to me. She's the mother of my children. We're in a good place now and communicating well. Helping each other out. That's going better and I'm happy for that.
And how are the kids handling things?
Really well. From what we can see, there's been no ill effects.
How are you different from the Lance Armstrong who won in '99?
Obviously, I'm an older rider, an older athlete. And as we know, you don't get any stronger as you get older. But you learn some things. You grow wiser, more patient. You become better with tactics, better as a team leader, better able to handle the pressure of the race, especially when it goes poorly.
Was the younger Lance more intense?
Probably he was a little more aggressive. But the rider I am today can still be very aggressive when I need to be. Even last year, when the moment came, when it was all on the line, I was absolutely aggressive. I can attack just the way I did ten years ago. That gene is still there.
You seem to be enjoying your success, but at the same time, your life seems insanely complicated. How do you hold it together?
It's not easy. The stress of the Tour, the pressure of having to manage the lifestyle of a five-time Tour winner—it starts to grind on you. The requirements of an athlete like this become a bit overwhelming. I wouldn't want to do it for the rest of my life, but I can see an end to it all.
So, then, are you retiring after this year?
This is the last year Postal will be our title sponsor. If the team continues with a new title sponsor, then I'll continue. If the team disbands, I'll most likely stop. Because then I'd need to go out and find a new team, new directors, new teammates, new equipment, new everything. It would be too much uncertainty—and, frankly, too much of a hassle. I love the people I'm around now. They're my friends. I don't think I'd be up for trying to re-create that.
What will your life be like when you're finished with all this?
I'm not making plans for post-cycling, not yet. But, believe me, my life will change drastically. I'll go from living the majority of the year overseas to spending most of my time in Texas with my kids.
Are your kids coming to watch the Tour?
Oh, yeah, to the end. The girls are two and a half. Luke's four and a half. He's old enough to understand what's happening.
Do you see Luke on a racing bike someday?
Whatever he wants to do, I would be totally supportive. If he wants to play the guitar or be a teacher or a lawyer, whatever. He's smart, so maybe he'll do something with his brain. It would be hard for him to race a bike, because of me.
Is Luke shaping up to be an athlete?
Like me, he doesn't have much hand-eye coordination. I was his soccer coach last year, and ... we got some work to do!
Is Sheryl going to come see the race?
I think so. She'll be around.
She's not really into cycling herself, is she?
We went to a Lakers game recently, and some reporter asked her if she'd been on the bike. She said, "On the bike? Are you kidding me? I'm just looking for the next Krispy Kreme stand." It was reported on TV, and then it got on the chat rooms and bulletin boards, and, well, from then on it was endless doughnut jokes. People speculated that I was neglecting my training and eating poorly. That's the magic of the Internet. If people think I'm sitting around eating Krispy Kremes, they're sorely mistaken.
Has she composed any songs about racing?
She hasn't been writing about any pelotons lately.
It's a hard word to work into a lyric. What rhymes with peloton?
I don't know. Telekom? Unabomb?
I'm interested to hear what you think of the rap cycling has gotten from EPO and other drugs. It must suck to work in a sport that has a cloud hanging over it. How do you deal with skeptics who assume there's no way you can do it without drugs?
I try to take a longer view and think about 10, 20, 30 years from now, when those victories don't have an asterisk beside them. I read everything that happens within cycling and I'm as amazed as anybody else, because I think that, clearly, drugs work. But they don't work as good as hard work. And I know that for a fact.
And, of course, they kill you—sometimes.
Well, it depends. There's this whole preconceived notion about EPO and young riders dying. I would be very interested to compare every sport—cycling, running, basketball, hockey, football, baseball—and total up how many young athletes have passed out, or passed away, on the field. If it happens on the basketball court, nobody says anything. If it happens on the soccer pitch, nothing. But if it's cycling, they say, "Drugs." I wouldn't say it's not true, because I don't know. But I certainly don't think it's fair in comparison to other sports.
Do you still think much about cancer?
Of course. I'm not scared on a daily basis of getting sick again. I feel healthy and strong; I feel confident that I'm cured of the disease. But this illness is a real bastard. If I said I didn't have any respect for it, I have this idea that it would be listening to me say that.
As you enter the homestretch of your training, what are you leaving out, in terms of diet, that you miss the most?
In Normandy, they have this amazing butter, just unbelievable. And, of course, the bread in Europe is kick-ass. So I think about cutting open a friggin' great piece of bread and absolutely smearing it in butter. God, that's good! You know, the food is so much better in Europe. It's so much tastier—and you'd think so much more fatty, and yet the people aren't nearly as heavy as they are over here in the States.
We need to go on a national diet, don't we? We need to appoint, like, a Cabinet-level position—a Secretary of Obesity.
It's so hard to understand. In France, the diet is oil-based, cheese-based, and alcohol-based. But the obesity rate is much lower. The problem here is fast food, basically.
That's where it comes from.
How has your relationship evolved with the French press and the fans over there? It used to be that our relationship was iffy at best. Every year, it's gotten consistently better.
Last year, with all the anti-French sentiment in the States, did you notice increased tension in the crowds?
I expected the conflict between Bush and Chirac to trickle down to the Tour. I mean, not only am I an American, but I'm from Texas and I've spent enough time with the president for people to refer to us as "friends." But you know what? The fans were great last year, better than ever.
Certainly it was a low ebb in Franco-American relations, wasn't it?
People wanted to change the name of French fries to freedom fries, that sort of thing. I told people in the States, "You know, if the French fans on the roadside had that mentality, I never would have made it." They would have killed me.
They would have sabotaged your race?
It's an open road—anything they want to do, they can do. It happened with Eddy Merckx one year . Some angry fan punched him in the gut, injured him, and he lost the Tour. Simply leading, or looking like you're going to win, could be enough to piss them off. Let's hope that doesn't happen this year.
Apart from some crazy fan, what's your biggest nightmare?
Crashes are by far the biggest concern. Crosswinds can cause them. Sharp turns in unfamiliar villages can cause them. But you can usually avoid crashes by riding in the right position, riding with your team, and totally staying out of trouble. You don't want to be in the very, very front, because that's where the crashes start. If you're a little bit back, you can react. There's just kind of a sweet spot that we try to be in.
It used to be said that anger was a big part of your drive. But looking at you now—here on this massage table, dating Sheryl, house in Spain, international lifestyle—it's hard for me to think of you being pissed off anymore.
Less and less so, it's true. But I still read things that tick me off. Quotes from other riders, especially.
Does it ever worry you that maybe you're not pissed off enough anymore?
Oh, when I need to be pissed off, I can still come up with something.