King of Pain
He's got seven yellow jerseys. He's not getting paid. He's 37 years old. So why is Lance Armstrong racing again? Because he still has something to proveand nothing else hurts so good.
“I raced in a tough way and at times I was a prickly, abrasive personality. I didn’t have and I still don’t have a 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.”
Lance ArmstrongArmstrong at his Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s, November 11, 2008
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 Lance a cancer-surviving, competition-squashing seven-time Tour de France champion had 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.
“It’s as if I were Charles Manson, Osama bin Laden, and Jim Jones all together”
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 memorabilia yellow 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 memorabilia all 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.
You mean bulletin-board material.
Well, I don’t have a bulletin board, but I do have a good memory. And that’s not a threat. It’s just a fact.
It is a fact. Two years ago, I sat in this exact spot third couch cushion from the office door next to Armstrong, who also sat in the same spot, a high-backed armchair next to the fireplace. I was there to report a December 2006 cover story about his first year in retirement. I had just set my digital recorder on the table and was glancing one last time at my notes when Armstrong asked the first question of the interview.
“What was with that Floyd cover?”
He was referring to the July 2006 cover of Outside, which featured a black-and-white head shot of one Floyd Landis, with the cover line LANCE WHO?
“I mean, two years ago it was me on the cover with the line ‘The World’s Greatest Athlete,'” he’d continued, unwilling to let me off the hook. “And now it’s ‘lance who?'”
We agreed to disagree and the interview was perfectly friendly after that. But it was my first experience with The Memory, the way he squirrels away criticisms and slights for future use. Talking to Armstrong, you get the sense that he has read every word ever written about him, no matter how obscure or irrelevant the source. His closest allies confirm this. “Lance has always drawn motivation from anger and resentment,” his coach, Johan Bruyneel, recently told Belgium’s La Dernière Heure.
This time around, as I set up my digital recorder on the coffee table, Armstrong thumbs away at his BlackBerry, updating his Twitter account, a ten-day-old habit that has already attracted more than 5,000 followers. Sample post: Done in the gym (sharpest workout yet) and riding. Bout to eat lunch. 10:47 AM Nov 13th. We talk for a moment about blogs, which leads Armstrong to comment on a few posts on Outside Online that have taken digs at him recently. He really does read and remember everything.
Describe the call when you told your coach, Johan Bruyneel, you were coming back.
[Laughs] He thought I was kidding. He said, “Call in tomorrow when you’re not drunk.” He didn’t see it coming.
No one did. Everyone I’ve talked to who works with you tells me they were shocked. Was this completely spontaneous?
No, it was a gradual process. This summer I was training for the Chicago Marathon, just training to get fit. We were lifting, running, trail running, riding a lot of diverse stuff. I started to lose weight and really get into the workouts. This is all kind of happening as the Tour’s going on, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get caught up in the buzz.
Was it hard to watch the Tour after you retired? Did you think to yourself, I probably could have won one more?
None of those Tours did I think that. I watched ’06, ’07, and it never occurred to me. I watched it just as a fan. You make observations about the race, the style of racing, the way they race tactically, strategically, the pace of the race, the attitude of the race. But there was not a lightbulb moment during [the 2008 Tour] either.
Everyone knows you’ve stayed in shape, but it’s nothing like training for a full season of cycling. Why go back to that?
I don’t mind the training part. I like suffering, and I like putting myself through hard workouts and the structure around that. My life has been more complicated these past few years off the bike. You know, it’s “You need to go here and speak” and “You need to appear here for this ” It’s a harder existence for me. There’s less structure, and it’s less physical. And I like racing. It could be local, it could be 12 Hours of Snowmass they feel the same to me. I get butterflies just like everybody else. But give me a starting line, a finish line, and a bike I’m lining up.
It says something about Armstrong’s global profile that Vanity Fair, the magazine that scored an exclusive about his 2008 comeback, was once able to contain the 30-year secret identity of Watergate’s Deep Throat but couldn’t keep Armstrong’s bombshell under wraps before going to press. So quickly did the news fly around the Internet that the magazine was forced to publish its scoop online.
It was huge news for cycling. The sport has been all but forgotten by American fans, owing as much to Armstrong’s absence as to a series of escalating doping scandals that have ruined the world’s best remaining riders Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, and on and on. You’d think that the organizers at the Tour de France would have welcomed Armstrong’s comeback as a miracle opportunity. Instead the new president of the Tour’s parent company, Jean-Etienne Amaury, told the French paper L’Equipe, “We cannot say that [Armstrong] has not embarrassed the Tour de France.”
Such is the twisted relationship between Armstrong and the French. In 2005, L’Equipe published an extensive investigation about Armstrong’s alleged doping at the 1999 Tour. Among many claims, the paper cited an independent test performed on urine samples taken from Armstrong during that year’s race. In 1999, tests for EPO, a popular performance enhancer that increases an athlete’s red-blood-cell count, didn’t exist. L’Equipe claims that, after new testing technologies were used, the retest of the samples came back positive. Armstrong vehemently denied the report, and a subsequent inquiry, undertaken by independent Dutch investigators, cleared him of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, many of his fiercest critics French or otherwise still point to the L’Equipe story as their smoking gun.
Since Aumary made his remarks, Armstrong has also been criticized for having the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) bend its rules to allow him a last-minute entry to this January’s Tour Down Under, in Australia. He’s had to answer questions about whether he’ll be the leader of his new team, Astana, which includes 26-year-old Spanish prodigy Alberto Contador, who’s already won the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España. He’s been accused of gamesmanship for withholding his decision about whether he’ll ride in next year’s Tour. (He waited until December 1 before making it official.) Then there are the obvious criticisms about Astana itself. The Kazakhstan-based squad withdrew from the 2007 Tour de France for doping violations and wasn’t invited back for last year’s race. For a cyclist trying to move beyond the specter of drugs, joining Team Astana was a curious choice.
Were you surprised by all the flak?
A lot of drama. But yeah, we knew that there would be some reaction positive and negative. And I think, by and large, most of it has been positive. There’s definitely going to be people I mean, listen, some of the stuff that I’ve read, the negative stuff? It will make your skin crawl. It’s as if [I were] Charles Manson, Osama bin Laden, and Jim Jones all together.
You had to know that your new team would enrage some cycling officials.
But you put that up against your loyalty to one person.
And that’s your coach, Johan Bruyneel?
Yes. Johan Bruyneel is without a doubt the greatest coach in professional sports. His record is unmatched. And I’m a very loyal person. I find my people that work well, and if they work, I don’t change them. Ever. I know that there’s some history with [Astana] a couple of years ago at the Tour. But I would ask that the people think about the men involved, myself and Johan.
Two of the world’s best racers are on your team now: American Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador, who didn’t exactly cede the title of team leader when you announced your comeback.
Yeah. Alberto, he gets a little carried away because he talks so much. He’s young, and that’s what young guys do. Anytime someone puts a microphone in front of him he’ll start talking. But there are no tensions going into camp. We’re not going to pick the leader in October or November.
But you can’t say that about your previous years. No one on the Discovery Channel team sat around in November wondering who the team leader was.
Clearly this is different. There’s a real chance that I’m the third-strongest guy on the team. And that’s fine. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. As a professional cyclist you’re supposed to support the strongest man, and I will support those rules because that’s what I want. The purpose of this comeback is this international message. If the international campaign is successful, I’m not that concerned about where I place, even if I’m fifth in the Giro and fourth in the Tour.
But raising awareness through the bike means you have to be competitive. The headlines can’t be “Lance Drops Out.”
No. That can’t happen. That would be real bad. But that’s not going to happen.
Your first race, the Tour Down Under, is in two months. How do you think you’ll do?
No clue. Clueless.
Are you scared?
I’ll be nervous, absolutely.
Armstrong is a professional cyclist in part because he is a freak of nature; his heart is said to be a third larger than a normal man’s heart. Armstrong is a champion cyclist, however, because he trained as hard as or harder than any rider in the peloton. During his seven Tour victories, he was a master of tactics who evaded crashes on the flats and dominated the time trials. Often, he was the best climber as well not easy for a cyclist with a five-eleven frame that comfortably supports 180 pounds. At the Tour’s legendary “beyond category” climbs, such as Mont Ventoux and l’Alpe d’Huez, a half-pound can make a significant difference, and many of Armstrong’s rivals on the steeps were 135-pound featherweights. Armstrong compensated by developing the most efficient engine credit his work with coach Chris Carmichael and a power ergometer and watching his weight like a college wrestler.
So I was a little surprised when I showed up at his house after the photo shoot to find him stuffing sushi in his mouth by the handful. “I only had a smoothie after my ride this morning,” he explained, anticipating my question.
We were standing in his kitchen before the interview, gathered around a giant granite-topped island. With us were Armstrong’s new girlfriend, Anna Hansen, and Mark Higgins, his longtime manager. Hansen offered me a Whole Foods chocolate-chip cookie. When Armstrong saw the package, his eyes went big.
“Have you had one of those before?” he asked. “Oh, they’re the best. Oh, man, I hate those things. I’ll eat a whole box by myself.”
There were 12 cookies in the package.
How much do you weigh now?
A hundred sixty-eight to 170 pounds.
And what was your peak after 2005?
The most? One-eighty-three when I started this whole thing. But I would start most seasons at 180. At the Tour I would be 163. It’s good that I got a little ahead of it; I’m ten pounds lighter than I would normally start. That’s hard on the body, trying to diet.
Very few people think a 38-year-old could win the Tour de France.
Thirty-seven. I’ll be 37 and eleven-twelfths. [Laughs] No, 37 and five-sixths.
Very few people think a 37-and-five-sixths-year-old can win the Tour.
I’m not far from those people. But I think it’s healthy to have my doubts and healthy to be aware of my body and aware of my fitness. For a lot of reasons, [my age] motivates me. And I don’t want to be the guy that says, “This is definitely going to work” and then it doesn’t work and you’re crushed.
Did you get some inspiration from watching Dara Torres?
Yes and no. It’s a different type of event. You can’t compare a 50 free with a Tour de France. But the lady who won the Olympic marathon [Constantina Tomescu] was 38. Science will tell you that endurance athletes in their upper thirties are no weaker or slower than the young ones. The problem for a 37-year-old athlete is they’ve probably been doing it for 25 years. At that point the mind goes, “Let’s do something else here. This is enough.”
You feel you benefited from time off.
My mind feels like it’s 1998, ’99. And you could argue that I’ve come back from harder things. That’s the way I look at it. I’m coming back three years off, four years off, not training a lot, out of competition. But in 1997, ’98, I came back from a year and a half off, fighting cancer, high-dose chemotherapy, radiation, surgery just no time on the bike. So I’ve tried to take an optimistic viewpoint on it.
In the middle of our interview, Armstrong has to take a call from Nike. Today is the company’s annual corporate awards banquet, in Beaverton, Oregon. They’re patching Armstrong in live via telephone to answer a few questions from the emcee. The volume on his phone is high enough that I can hear both ends of the conversation, which starts off with roaring applause.
NIKE: Lance, are you there?
You betcha, thanks for having me.
How is the comeback going?
You didn’t get my voice mail? I’ve decided to call it off. [Laughter] No, that was a joke
Like a veteran politician, he seamlessly transitions from an intimate media interview to fielding questions in front of a giant live audience. It’s both impressive and fitting; in many ways Armstrong’s life resembles one long political campaign. He’s got a team of advisers who help hone his strategy. He travels from city to city making speeches. He raises tons of money. He has his own version of a campaign slogan “Live Strong” and his own take on the campaign button, the rubber yellow bracelet. And when called upon, he can deliver a flawless stump speech on the fly, even substituting “we” for “I,” uniting his audience under a common struggle.
Listen as he explains his comeback and the larger mission to the Nike audience: “Well, we have a lot to accomplish. I remind people who are part of the LiveStrong team here in Austin that we picked a tough fight here. This disease is one of the most complicated, toughest, and most determined foes that any of us will ever face, personally or as a society. There are success stories, which are a great thing, but we’ve got a heck of a lot of work to do. And that’s going to take renewed commitment on our part personally. It’s going to take renewed commitment on the part of the federal government, which I’m incredibly optimistic about after last Tuesday. And it’s going to take a lot of effort from people all over the world.”
A few minutes later, the Nike call ends and Armstrong picks up right where we left off.
What will getting back on your bike do to help cure cancer? In Australia, for example, is there a quid pro quo for you going down there? “I’ll race if you commit to doing X, Y, and Z”?
No, but they understand. They understand that it’s a public-health priority. It’s an ongoing process. Listen, I’ll be the first to admit if I go down there and the government of Australia doesn’t really commit to anything, that’d be a shame. It’d be a waste of time. I think the budget for cancers [in Australia] is about 150 or 160 million dollars. It’d be nice to get that up a little bit.
A couple of years ago you asked President Bush for a billion.
Yeah, never got it.
Are you talking to President-elect Obama?
I have a personal relationship with him not like we talk every day, but I’ve had more than several conversations with him about this. You know, he lost his mother years ago to cancer. He lost his grandmother just two days before the election.
Are you more optimistic about what you can accomplish with Obama?
Absolutely. Anything would have been better than what we had on the cancer front. You had a cutback in funding to the National Institutes of Health. You had a relaxed approach when it came to tobacco. A lot of distractions, a lot of other things they were thinking about spending money on. I think our country ought to invest in these issues like cancer. I viewed [the billion] as an investment, not just spending. And I like George Bush as a person and as a friend. But as a cancer survivor? Terrible.
No matter how vehemently he defends himself against doping allegations, Armstrong knows he can’t prove his innocence retroactively. Instead he wants to end speculation by making himself one of the most transparent professional athletes in history. He’s hired Don Catlin, CEO of the nonprofit group Anti-Doping Research, to run his independent testing program. Catlin is credited with developing the system of “biological passports” now endorsed by the UCI, cycling’s governing body. Rather than testing Armstrong’s blood or urine for traces of individual drugs like EPO or steroids, Catlin will measure his normal levels of red blood cells, growth hormones, and natural steroids, and then use these as a baseline throughout the season. A rapid increase in one of these biomarkers will signal that he’s cheating, regardless of whether drugs are found in his system. (By early December, Catlin and Armstrong still hadn’t started their program.) Armstrong also points out that he’ll be subject to the rules of the UCI, the World Anti-Doping Agency, USA Cycling, and the United States Olympic Committee, as well as the random, out-of-competition controls those organizations require.
Indeed, at press time, Armstrong had been subjected to at least seven random controls since he announced his comeback. As documented on his Twitter profile, the fifth one took place two days after our interview: Done with my “test.” 4th “surprise” control since the comeback. Any other pro athletes/cyclists getting visited this often? 6:40 AM Nov 13th. Still, the doubters persist, and none are more outspoken than Greg LeMond, Armstrong’s onetime mentor and friend. The three-time Tour de France champion has become a tireless, if slightly unhinged, muckraker. Two years ago, LeMond testified at Floyd Landis’s arbitration hearing, and in a bizarre twist revealed that he had been molested as a young adult. Recently, he sued Trek Bicycles, his longtime sponsor and Armstrong’s too for discontinuing his line of bicycles because of his criticism of doping in cycling, which was largely focused on Armstrong. He has implied that Armstong’s VO2 max the measure of the amount of oxygen an athlete can utilize while exercising is too low to make his victories plausible. (Armstrong’s VO2 max is 85; LeMond’s was reportedly 92.5.) LeMond also dismisses independent testing programs like Armstrong’s as “a wolf guarding the henhouse.” Instead he argues that cyclists should be given VO2-max tests immediately following races, which would likely require them to hop on a stationary bike after crossing the finish line.
On September 25, Armstrong held a press conference at the Interbike trade show, in Las Vegas, to make an official comeback statement. LeMond was sitting in the front row, waiting to ask the first question.
Did you know Greg LeMond was going to show up?
Yes. The organizers asked me if he could come. I said, Sure. What do I say? No? I think he lost a lot of credibility that day with the press, with the cycling fans. I watched the room. There were several hundred people, and the reaction was not positive. Greg’s got issues. It’s a sad story, all the way from his failed relationships with everyone in his life. And I talk about loyalty, being around the same people; he’s never been able to do that. That’s a fact. Probably because of the stuff that came out at the Floyd thing. And I don’t like Greg, but I don’t wish that on anybody.
So you let him go. He didn’t want to ask any questions; he just wanted to preach. He wants VO2 testing at the end of stages in the Tour. OK, sure. “You just finished out the l’Alpe d’Huez. Son, can you step over here and step on this odometer? We’re gonna put this mask on your face and plug up your nose and we’re gonna do a VO2test.” Yeah, that’ll work.
But are all his ideas really bad?
God bless Greg, but he’s not the guy to lay out the program. He’s not a scientist. You’ve got a well-known cyclist one of the best of all time just constantly screaming. It’s not advancing this cause. We’ve got to stop sitting around and screaming like that. At the end of the day, cycling has done a lot more than anybody else. First to test for stimulants. First to test for EPO. First first first first.
You don’t think drugs are as pervasive in cycling as we’re led to believe?
We have to get away from this “It was the fastest Tour in history because they’re all doped!” No. That’s absolutely, categorically, patently, ridiculously false. Because I can watch Michael Phelps or I can watch swimming [in general], and they were, like, lapping world records. That’s because the human body evolves, training evolves. And the Tour de France evolves. When I won the Tour in 1999, my climbing bike? Twenty-one pounds. When I won it in 2005? Fourteen pounds. Man, you go uphill fast if you lose seven pounds. It’s a massive disservice to just go, “Oh, that’s fucked, he must have cheated.” We’re fools for thinking that. Will people cheat? Hell, yeah, they’re gonna cheat. Did they cheat this year? Yes. Will they cheat in 50 years? Yes. OK. Look, I want a clean sport. I want people to be able to watch the event and say, “I believe that.” But I’m not going to stand on the top of this chair and scream how clean I am. I’ll stand on top of this chair and scream how hard I work and how much I want to win.
Before leaving, I ask Armstrong if I can see the gym where he’s been working out regularly with his trainer, Peter Park. To get there, he leads me down a marble staircase that brings us to a small landing with two doors. One opens out to a side patio and a giant backyard. The other one, windowless and secured with an alarm keypad, is the entrance to the Lance Armstrong home gym, ground zero for the comeback. As he turns the knob, I expect the door to swing open to reveal the world’s most well-appointed workout space, stocked with high-tech machines and 60-inch flat-panel TVs. Instead we enter a drab two-car garage lit by fluorescent bulbs and still smelling a little musty from a recent workout. There is hardly any equipment, and the only luxury is a booming stereo system. It’s little more than a dungeon and very bad news for Armstrong’s competition. He still loves suffering.
When I was here two years ago, there was a lot of buzz about a movie about your life. Now, with the comeback, there’d be a new ending. What does that ending look like in your mind?
In a perfect world, if I could write the script, they would both be very successful the racing and the campaign. I would race fast and I would win on the bike. And then on the other side, the message gets taken around the world and governments step up and commit. They commit dollars, they commit resources, they commit people, they commit passion. And those commitments are firm. But, look, there are seven of these blue cups sitting around here. To be honest, I don’t need an eighth one. I’d rather have a newspaper article framed that writes how successful this was and how the cancer commitments were truly significant. If I had to pick one of the two, I’d pick that one.
But I wouldn’t mind having both. O