“I’m Not the Next Greg LeMond. I’m the First Lance Armstrong.”
The growing pains of a man-child and world champion
It’s a Monday afternoon, and Lance Armstrong is waiting in line at Ruta Maya, a pastel-washed corner café in Austin’s warehouse district. His eyes are laser-locked on the pastry case. “Think I’ll get a little snack to tide me over until dinner,” he says nonchalantly, like a regular guy and not your usual fat-content-calculating professional bike racer. “You see those?” He fairly wells up as he surveys a buttery pile of scones. “I used to eat those every morning.” Then he fixes on a new item—oily, chocolaty, sugar-glazed, moist, and warm, the size of a softball. “Um, excuse me, what’s that?” The waiter identifies a cappuccino muffin. Uncharacteristically, Armstrong wavers. A year ago he wouldn’t have thought twice. But now, a week away from the Tour of Mexico, the first major race of the season, he agonizes.
The merits of immediate gratification are obvious. Then again, the stakes have escalated. In Mexico Armstrong will don the rainbow-striped jersey as the sport’s reigning world champion. A jersey he’ll then wear all year. A jersey that he knows is a target for every other rider in the peloton. Maybe he hears the disembodied voice of Eddy Merckx, the legendary five-time Tour de France champion who told him not two weeks earlier that he was within reach of a Tour de France victory…if he shed a few pounds. So Armstrong says no. No pastry. No muffin. No nothing. Just a double latte with a slag-heap of sugar. Hey, a guy’s gotta live.
It isn’t easy being a young man from Plano, Texas, on the cusp of a sprawlingly great adult career. A year ago, as a 21-year-old rookie, Armstrong became one of the youngest stage winners in the history of the Tour de France. He also snagged cycling’s largest purse, a gaudy $1 million, for sweeping a new three-race series called the Thrift Drug Triple Crown, which includes the prestigious CoreStates U.S. Pro National Championships in Philadelphia. He capped off the highlight package last August with a victory in the sport’s most important one-day race, the World Championships, beating the likes of Miguel Indurain, Spain’s three-time defending Tour de France champion. And he did it all with unabashed Texas style. Motorola teammate Phil Anderson, who was similarly hell-bent when he started competing professionally in Europe in 1980, says the first time he knew Armstrong was special was at the Trophee Laigueglia, the 110-mile race on the Italian Riviera, where he broke away to claim the first big European event of the 1993 season. “He was riding with all these stars up front, guys he should’ve been intimidated by,” says Anderson. “But he didn’t care who the hell they were. He just wanted to kick their asses.”
By season’s end, Armstrong’s bullish results had helped Motorola earn a top-five world ranking, a first for a U.S. team. His performance in the Tour de France was perhaps the single most important factor in keeping his team—the only American road-cycling squad that participates in the Tour—from dissolving. In the spring Motorola had announced that it would terminate its annual $3 million sponsorship at the end of the 1993 season, but days after Armstrong got his stage win and had his All-American mug plastered across newspapers worldwide, the electronics giant reversed its decision and hitched on for another year.
“My life has changed forever,” the ascendant Armstrong proclaimed, with almost Churchillian gravity, at a press conference following the Worlds. But back home things hadn’t changed much at all. There was no feature spread in Sports Illustrated, as he’d imagined. Nothing on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” The only people who seemed to grasp the significance of what Armstrong had done were the European journalists, 15 of whom descended on Austin the following December in the hope of seeing a real-life cowpoke with a lariat and maybe a herd of Black Angus. Staffers from the French sports daily L’Equipe, digging for a “Le Cowboy” cover line, even went to the trouble of purchasing a Dallas Cowboys helmet, jersey, pants, and shoulder pads. Armstrong, however, wasn’t feeling playful. “The helmet was, like, a really cheesy one, like somebody had hand-painted it,” he says. “And they expected me to dress up in it to take pictures. No way.”
Surprisingly, Armstrong’s big year was met in the stateside cycling world not with abundant praise, but with a kind of dweebish referendum on whether he was a worthy role model. His outspokenness and sound-bite savvy annoyed many older riders. (“I’m not the next Greg LeMond—I’m the first Lance Armstrong,” he was heard to say more than once in his sturdy drawl.) His showy victory celebrations, some thought, crossed the line from triumphant joy to trashy gloating. In other sports Armstrong would have been hailed for such self-assuredness and swagger, but in the understated ranks of cycling, he noted, his popular image veered toward “an arrogant little punk who doesn’t appreciate the things that have happened to him.” He even caught grief from safety activists, who chastised him for riding in the Worlds without a helmet. Among the ticked-off was nine-year-old Bobby Lea of Queen Anne’s, Maryland, who called for Armstrong’s censure in a letter published in the racing journal VeloNews: “Maybe Motorola should rethink its sponsorship policy and only sponsor riders who are truly committed to wearing their helmets,” the grade-schooler fumed. “How am I supposed to tell my friends to wear their helmets when the world champion does not?”
Armstrong felt overwhelmed. One day he was a free-spirited prospect; the next he was the second coming of LeMond, a cycling savior and potential helmet-wearing, politically correct champion for English-speaking cycling fandom. At 21 he’d had a career year, and now, on the verge of a new season, he needed to work toward an encore. But what would suffice? “It’s all happened so fast,” says Armstrong. “People have to realize I’m not a 30-year-old ambassador for the sport, but a 22-year-old trying to take it all in and be cool about it.”
The four riders have been on the road for a few hours when the sign for the town of Marble Falls comes into view. They’ve already shed their tights and jackets, the day turning warm and sunny in the rugged Texas hill country west of Austin. The hills roll up in swells, each scrub-brushy summit an overlook upon a seemingly infinite spread of premium longhorn and Brahman ranchland. In far-off thermals, teams of turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks orbit with calculating grace—rising and falling, searching for their next meal with no discernible effort.
This is Armstrong’s favorite ride, a 120-mile circuit around sprawling Lake Travis, past Nameless Road to the Circle K, and back to Austin. Armstrong happily grinds along in a big, macho gear over the rolling terrain, good-naturedly baiting his partners to follow his lead. “Meow, meow,” he purrs, leaking a dimpled smile from beneath his sunglasses.
Along for the ride today are Frankie Andreu, Björn Stenersen, and George Hincapie, Motorola teammates who’ve descended on Austin to train with Armstrong before heading for the Tour of Mexico. They don’t respond to Armstrong’s taunts until he starts flicking his head around to take stock of who’s where and jockeys into position for a sprint. The 20-year-old Hincapie, a newcomer to the team this season, is in trouble. He’s gobbling Fig Newtons when he sees Armstrong swivel around, and now he’s madly trying to stuff them down.
Too late. Armstrong bursts out of the saddle as if he’s heard a starter’s pistol. In the moment they all break it looks like some whimsical pantomime, a kind of vaudevillian flurry of arms and paddle-wheeling legs. Heads are down, chests pinned to handlebars to shed the headwind. The bikes violently rock side to side in the flail of effort, torqued so hard that it’s amazing they don’t slam right over. The sprint lasts perhaps 100 yards. Armstrong wins. He always wins. “Hey, he’s world champion,” says Andreu, who was Armstrong’s roommate last year in Europe. “He’s supposed to kick our butts.”
It isn’t that Armstrong looks domineering. He’s of average height and weight—five-foot-ten, 165 pounds—with the square shoulders, broad smile, blemish-free skin, and glossy, gapless white teeth of a milk-ad model. When he goes unshaven, his beard looks more like an act of adolescent desperation than the menacing accent on a game face. What’s menacing, of course, is what’s underneath the hood.
At this point in his career, Armstrong’s coaches say he is physically and emotionally suited to one-day races, the sport’s abusive, eight-hour, 200- to 300-kilometer marathons. Specifically, he is one of the handful of riders who can make an explosive surge even with 150 miles in his legs. “A lot of riders can race at 200 kilometers,” says Jim Ochowicz, Motorola’s general manager and directeur sportif, who brought the first U.S. squad, then Team 7-Eleven, to Europe in 1985. “Lance is one of the few who can do it at 250.” Some explain the ability as one-in-a-million genetics. Edward F. Coyle, who oversees the human-performance lab at the University of Texas, says that Armstrong generates perhaps only one-fourth as much fatigue-causing lactic acid as most elite cyclists. Others, like his mentor and former national-team coach Chris Carmichael, attribute Armstrong’s capabilities in large part to something else: his predatory instinct.
To grind out a win in a long, one-day cycling race, says Carmichael, you’ve got to want to inflict pain. “Ever read how people say it’s really personal when you stab somebody?” he asks. “Well, a bike race is that kind of personal.” There’s nothing neat or clinical about it, he explains. There’s no divorcing the passion and emotion from the act. It’s visceral.
Watching Armstrong, the comparison can almost be taken literally. He often imagines himself as a boxer, and when he drops an opponent in the late going he sometimes can’t help himself. As he rides away he lifts his right hand from the handlebar, winds up with a clenched fist, throws the knockout punch, sees the head snap.
Armstrong and his girlfriend, Sonni Evans, climb into his curvy, coal-black Acura NSX, which, he beams, “hits 85 in second gear.” It’s his $70,000 gift to himself for winning the World Championships. Armstrong and “the Sonster,” former high-school classmates in Plano, plan to live together in Europe this season, having rekindled an old relationship only weeks ago. Today, at his mother’s request, they’re en route to a small military ceremony in which Armstrong’s uncle will be promoted to the rank of army captain. Captain Mooneyham. “Oooh,” Armstrong utters, hearing the name. He imagines dropping Armstrong, the name he got from a stepfather he hasn’t seen, or wanted to see, in more than five years, and adopting his mother’s maiden name. He sees the winner’s stand, hears the words—Lance Mooneyham—and winces.
Armstrong’s upbringing in a broken home has been rehashed so often in the cycling press that it can sound hollow. “I’m sure there are people who say, ‘Come on with the ma-and-kid story,'” he says. He feigns a melodramatic voice-over. “‘She was 17 when she had him, we all know she had a tough time, we all know he loves her and she loves him, and aw, give us a break.’ But what do you want me to do? It happened.”
Armstrong’s father disappeared before Lance was two, and his stepfather, whom his mother married at 19, was, according to Armstrong, “deceitful.” When Lance was 16, he says, they “kicked the guy’s ass out.” Linda Armstrong had never finished high school and received no support from her family. She and her son grew up together and toughed it out together—at least that’s how they felt.
Ma-and-kid weekends were spent driving to one sports event or another. Armstrong, who had found solace and a certain talent in the pool, became a top junior swimmer and then branched out into triathlon. His mother cautiously kept him motivated. “I never, ever pushed him to do any of this—I just support him,” says the now happily remarried Linda Walling. “Lance and I are both super, super go-getters.”
By 16, Armstrong was one of the country’s top short-course triathletes and a budding superstar. By 17, a senior in high school, he was done. The U.S. Cycling Federation had gotten word that a teenage racer was keeping pace on the bike with the biggest names in triathlon, and Armstrong received an unexpected invitation to train with the Junior National Cycling Team. The local school board said it would bar Armstrong from graduating if he took a six-week leave in the second semester of his senior year, so with his mother’s blessing he withdrew from Plano East.
It was the right move. Armstrong made the 1990 junior Worlds squad, competed in Moscow, and graduated later that spring from another school in Dallas. After his impressive performance, the Russian coach called Armstrong the best young American racer he’d seen in years. Just months later, Armstrong signed a contract with the Subaru-Montgomery professional/amateur racing team. And by the summer of 1992 the richer, more talented Motorola squad offered him a spot. As his mother would say, Lance had turned negatives into positives.
So when Armstrong was facing the biggest race of his young professional career—last year’s Worlds, held in Oslo, Norway—he gave Mom a call in Plano. She requested some time away from her management job at a telecommunications company, crossed the Atlantic, and took up residence with the Motorola camp. She wasn’t there to sightsee. The blond beauty became her son’s…well, his mother, washing his clothes, joining him at team dinners, and reading in the dark while he napped. They were back together again, and if the team was a little mystified by the arrangement, nobody said a word.
Lance Armstrong’s bungalow apartment near the University of Texas is pleasantly overrun with merging piles of clean and dirty cycling apparel, coming and going training partners, and the growling music of Smashing Pumpkins. The Thrift Drug Triple Crown trophy serves as a repository for pens and spare bike parts. With only a few days until the start of the season, Armstrong moves with a sense of urgency, fast-forwarding through the message machine. He’s heard from his mother, a few pals from Austin, and Hennie. Hennie Kuiper, who shares the Motorola coaching responsibilities with Jim Ochowicz from his home in the Netherlands, always calls but really never has much to say. Armstrong shakes his head. If it isn’t Kuiper, then it’s Ochowicz, keeping tabs, offering steady doses of counsel, reinforcement, mock exasperation, and occasional reprobation. You get the feeling that, from Motorola’s perspective, Armstrong is like a gleaming Jaguar that must be parked on the street every night. Someone’s got to keep an eye on it.
Sonni, sitting at the kitchen table, fishes a faxed questionnaire from a big mound of paper. “We gotta do this, Lance,” she says, explaining that it’s for a service that provides personal videos to be used in lieu of business cards. “Not now,” he stalls. “I have to think about it.” Sonni reads anyway, and Armstrong dutifully responds.
“Howard Stern’s autobiography.”
“Most expensive purchase?”
“Best day in cycling?”
“Worst day in cycling?”
Actually there were two worst days, one at the 1992 Summer Olympics and the other coming a week later, in Armstrong’s professional debut. He’d come unglued in the 115-mile road race in Barcelona, an event in which, to much media fanfare, he was picked to win the gold but finished a disappointing 14th. The San Sebastian race, seven days later in northern Spain, was worse. With the professional field hardened from the recently concluded Tour de France, Armstrong fell behind early. As he limped along in a pouring rain—eventually finishing 111th out of 111—the fans booed and hissed, aggrieved by such ineptitude. Armstrong, never having been so disgraced, headed for the airport, figuring he’d return to Texas and think about a new line of work. “I wanted to come home and never race again,” he says. From the Madrid airport he called his mother. “She said, ‘You’ll do better next time,'” says Armstrong. “I said, ‘No, Mom, you don’t understand. I came in last place!'” Then he called his national team coach, Chris Carmichael.
Ultimately, Carmichael steadied him. He told Armstrong he’d look back on the race as the most important day he’d ever had in cycling. He’d finished when any other rider would probably have quit. He had proved something, especially to his new Motorola team. Of course, Carmichael was winging it. But he convinced the cyclist to stay on the Continent, and a week later Armstrong won a stage in Spain’s Tour of Galicia. Two weeks after that, he finished an astounding second in a World Cup race, the Championship of Zurich. Armstrong had achieved better results in two weeks than most of his teammates had all season.
He flashed hot and cold in early 1993 but began to hit his stride in America’s biggest stage race, the 11-day Tour DuPont, in May. He claimed a stage, contended with Mexican veteran Raúl Alcalá throughout, and finished second overall. Armstrong stayed in the United States and won three consecutive races, the Thrift Drug Classic in Pittsburgh, the five-day Kmart West Virginia Classic, and the CoreStates.
In that race, which clinched his $1 million Triple Crown bonus, Armstrong attacked on the notoriously steep Manayunk Wall. He dropped the competition, won by the biggest margin in the race’s history, and posed for the cameras afterward, one arm holding the oversize check high, the other around the mother whom some mistook for a girlfriend. “We were all there,” says former U.S. Pro National Champion Davis Phinney, who has since retired from the Coors Light team. “All the strong riders, all flat-out, going straight up the Wall. We all knew what was going on, but nobody could cover his breakaway. You’re always tempted to say, ‘I could do that if I wanted.’ But the fact is, I really couldn’t. For me it was one of those shining moments of illumination—I’d seen the future, and I wasn’t a part of it.”
The wide-eyed Motorola coaches had seen the future, too. A few weeks after dividing up the booty among team members and staff (Armstrong reportedly took home only about $25,000), they announced that Armstrong would start in the Tour de France. Many, including Carmichael, thought he shouldn’t ride it—that the impressionable Armstrong, who would be the youngest rider in the field, would overextend himself in the world’s most grueling cycling race and possibly put the rest of his season in jeopardy. But Jim Ochowicz wasn’t to be swayed; Armstrong was suddenly a hot commodity and gung ho to race.
The hope was that Armstrong would win a stage and then drop out before the difficult climbing legs in the Pyrenees, and amazingly enough that’s what happened. He dramatically stole a win in the 114-mile stage from Chalons-sur-Marne to Verdun, coming desperately close to crashing into the course barriers as he outsprinted the rest of the lead pack over the last 50 yards.
“People say because I’m 21 I can’t handle this intensity,” said a jubilant Armstrong, who had started slowly in the Tour eight days earlier. “But the fact remains that I’ve felt better every day. Today was the proof.” Four days later Ochowicz pulled him out of the race to begin preparations for the World Championships, one month away.
Armstrong’s good fortune wasn’t the only news. Not a week after the stage win, Ochowicz announced that the Motorola execs had had a change of heart and decided to extend the sponsorship for another season. The team, performing well in the Tour even in Armstrong’s absence, landed two riders in the top ten and finished fourth overall. Finally, just days before the Worlds, Armstrong agreed to a new one-year contract worth a reported $500,000, turning down a far more lucrative three-year deal worth an estimated $2.3 million with the Dutch-registered WordPerfect team. More important than the money, to Armstrong, was the familiarity. He was accepted by his teammates—Anderson and other veterans like Steve Bauer saw a lot of their younger selves in Armstrong, and the Texan had earned the respect of the domestiques and other young riders. Armstrong also wasn’t sure that he’d be the team leader on another squad. With Motorola he was the franchise.
The Worlds made Motorola’s decision appear to be a work of genius. Armstrong, coming off a grueling four-week training program, was in the lead group with the last of 14 laps to go. The race had been marred by daylong torrential rains and scores of crashes. Armstrong himself had crashed twice on the 18.4-kilometer circuit, but both times he avoided serious injury and quickly rejoined the front-runners. On the circuit’s next-to-last climb Armstrong surged, leaving Indurain and many of the others behind, and by the top he was in the lead. On the steeper Ekeberg ascent he attacked again, and after speeding down the treacherous four-kilometer descent he saw…no one. With three kilometers left he had a 20-second lead—short of catastrophe, the race was his. Armstrong was so shocked that for one terrifying moment he believed he’d made the most boneheaded mistake of his young life. “I thought I must’ve jumped a lap early,” he says. “I mean, where was everybody?” His handlebar-mounted computer, however, showed 255 kilometers. There was no mistake. In the final 700 meters Armstrong did everything but an end-zone dance, firing punches into the air, blowing kisses, and acknowledging the cheers of the sodden fans with deep, Olivier-quality bows.
Up on the Ekeberg, teammates Frankie Andreu and Andy Bishop had gotten word that Armstrong was moments away from winning. “I was just like, ‘No way,'” says Andreu. As they reached the top, they glanced up at Big Mo, the billboard-size television that was carrying the live feed, hopped off their bikes, and like the thousands of others in attendance watched with amazement as Armstrong broke the finish line, hands held high. Then they got back on their bikes and finished the race.
Within the throngs at the finish was a euphoric Linda Walling. Arrangements were quickly made to introduce the new champion to Norway’s King Harald V, but the royal aides politely told Armstrong that bringing his mother along wasn’t possible. Lance turned on his heel and strode away. “I probably came on pretty strong,” he says, “but man, I don’t check my mom at the door, I don’t care who it is.” Ultimately, the rebuffed royal aides reeled in the champ—and his mother. According to Armstrong, his audience with the king was brief and not terribly memorable. “The King of Norway, I’m sure he’s great and everything,” he says. “But I just wanted to get out of there and go party with the guys.”
By early January of this year, Armstrong hadn’t competed in four months and was antsy to do battle again. At first the time off had been welcome. He decompressed, ate lots of Mexican food, hauled back some Shiner Bock beers. But ultimately even the charms of Austin’s clubby Sixth Street weren’t so intoxicating. The rainbow jerseys had also been eating at him. The dozens he received from Motorola over the winter served as reminders of the upcoming burden he would carry—and perhaps the exposure that never came his way. He’s kept only two. “These other guys that win the rainbow jerseys are gods in their respective European countries,” Armstrong says. “They spend the majority of their off-season flying here and there, doing commercial this and commercial that, and they forget about their biking. Well, I’m real fortunate that I’m an American and nobody wants me.”
It’s a statement Armstrong struggles with. But with relatively few distractions, he did enter the season in superb shape, and his early results were good. At the Tour of Mexico, in late January, he was instrumental in helping his new teammate, Raúl Alcalá, win his native country’s biggest race. (In fact, Motorola’s doctors had to order Armstrong out of the race early for fear that he was already driving himself too hard.) On the last day of Spain’s Tour of Valencia, Armstrong delivered a blistering performance to finish a surprising sixth in the time trial, the race against the clock that had always been his biggest weakness. Then in April he placed second in Belgium’s 167-mile Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the best finish ever for an American in a one-day classic.
If Armstrong and his handlers are to be believed, however, expectations for the rest of the season are reasonable. He’ll focus on a few more one-day classics, perhaps another stage in the Tour de France, and a strong defense in the World Championships. According to his coaches, excelling in those events will make for a great season, especially since he’s now a marked man. No need to take on the Tour de France and the legacy of Greg LeMond. Not at age 22.
But the thinking is that Armstrong will get there, just as LeMond did, winning the Tour on his third try, at 25. His time-trialing and climbing capabilites will develop over years. He’ll utimately lose a few pounds in his upper body to make it easier to attack mountain stage after mountain stage. This year he’ll probably stay in the race through the Pyrenees but won’t be around for the last punishing week in the Alps. “Anybody who says Lance Armstrong doesn’t have the capability to win the Tour someday is either stupid or jealous,” says Carmichael.
The real test, some believe, will come when Armstrong leaves the Motorola nest—as he may eventually do should another mega-offer come down the pike. Will he call his own shots, hack the down times, pick his support people well? “He is very, very protected in a lot of ways,” says Davis Phinney. “He has been very lucky to have mentors like Carmichael and Ochowicz. Chris is like an older brother. He’ll tell Lance something he doesn’t want to hear, Lance will hang up on him, and then he’ll come around.”
During his less emotional moments, however, Armstrong seems to be getting wiser. He doesn’t mouth-off the way he used to, and he no longer drops his name in the same sentence as LeMond’s. As of May Armstrong was a bachelor again—the Sonster has become a touchy subject—but he’s working hard to turn more negatives into positives. “What gets written is that Armstrong doesn’t wear his helmet and that some kid is not going to wear his helmet and get hurt,” he says. “Nobody writes about the hospital visits that I make, the rainbow jerseys that I’ve sent to somebody who’s been hit by a car. But if you’re doing charitable things and not making stupid mistakes in your private life, folks will eventually notice. For the most part I think I’m a good person. People who know me—not to be an asshole or anything—they love me.”
It’s late afternoon, and Austin’s Zilker Park is abuzz with postwork activity. As he walks toward the lifesize bronze statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the late Texas-born guitarist, Armstrong points to the river overpass where locals sometimes crowd the rails to watch bats do their twilight aerial maneuvers, an exotic, instinctual dance guided by powerful, silent sonar rhythms.
Hikers, bikers, and walkers stream along the greenbelt, which extends out on both sides of Town Lake. It’s overcast, chilly almost, but not uncomfortable. Many of the passersby stop to pay tribute to Vaughan’s memory, laying flowers and guitar picks at the statue’s base. Armstrong, who has lived in Austin for four years, watches the ritual from a park bench ten feet away. Another cyclist cruises by, his helmet doffed in deference to the musician. “Man, people here really admired that guy,” says Armstrong, impressed and happily lost in the moment’s grace.
A short time later he snaps to attention. The sky is darkening, the air has gone raw, the shifting wind is now blowing off the river. Hurriedly, he buttons his denim jacket to the collar, tucks his arms in tight, and rushes to the warm interior of his car. A potential head cold averted, Armstrong’s anxiety is gone as suddenly as it came. “What time is it?” he asks rhetorically, as the traffic peels away in his wake. “It’s time for a beer.”