The Tourminator Tells All
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When Outside editor-at-large Hampton Sides interviewed Lance Armstrong for the July 2004 issue, the five-time Tour champion was being kneaded—buck naked—on a massage table in the Hollywood home of his rock-star girlfriend, Sheryl Crow. Here, read the complete, unabridged transcript of their discussion.
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 fans down. And I don’t want to let myself down.
How has your training differed this year?
The type of training and the intensity of the training is exactly the same. The only difference is that in years past I’ve spent the entire season in Europe whereas this year I came back to the States for a month of it.
Was that to be closer to your kids?
Yeah. I did the two months away, and came back and spent part of this month with them. Then I go back to Europe for the final build-up for the Tour. You lose about a week with the travel. I try to make up for it in anticipation of those trips by doing a little extra work and trying to get to a certain level, because I know that I’ll miss a week. But I get to see my kids, so it’s all worth it.
Are you doing anything new this year to mentally prepare for this race?
No. I’m pretty relaxed this year. Of course, anything can happen.
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 performance, 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. So, I’ll do my normal stuff, and get the equipment side of things down.
Anything new in your equipment that you care to divulge?
Mostly position stuff. New frame on the bike. Light stuff. We’re always tweaking. A little work on apparel, shoes.
New shoe? How did you tweak your shoe?
Nah, nah, nah. That’s all I’m gonna say. It’s a new shoe. You’ll see.
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.
As you’ve aged, you’ve learned to deal with every nuance and every permutation of suffering and pain. Is there an art?
I had to manage it last year because I was suffering a lot more than I had ever suffered before. Yet I was still leading.
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 riders who are solid threats.
Is your old buddy and former teammate Tyler Hamilton one of them? He’s mentioned more and more as someone who could be a contender in the coming years, if not this year. How’s he looking this year, and how do you juggle the friendship with the fact that he might be a true competitor?
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 certainly a person that 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.
People rarely come out of nowhere in this sport, do they?
Rarely. I would be surprised if we were surprised. It’s tough to come out of nowhere, to the podium. Can somebody come out of nowhere and finish in the top ten? Or win a stage? Or have some other presence in the race? Yes. But to finish on the podium? Very unlikely.
Choose one: victory in the 2004 Tour or a gold medal at Athens.
That’s easy. For us in our sport, the Olympics are a great event but the Tour is of far greater importance: It’s the granddaddy—a big, big difference. For me, there’s only one bike race this year. That’s the Tour de France.
So you’re not thinking about Athens at all?
Every day, when I go out on my bike ride and I envision races or tactics or scenarios, it all has to do with the Tour. I never think about Athens. But don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that the Olympics is your corner bike race. It’s an important event. And globally, from a sporting perspective, it’s the biggest. 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 and start to come back up in good condition again.
Last year, you won by a thread—just 61 seconds. Does that motivate you, remember 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 improve as you get older. You don’t get any stronger. 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 was 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 I was passive, ’cause I was suffering—when the moment came, when it was all on the line, I was absolutely aggressive. If I go all out on training and I feel great, I can attack just the way I did ten years ago. That’s my nature. 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. ‘Cause that’s a bit of a waste of time, I think. Right now I’m hired to do something that I want to do and I believe in, and I don’t want any distractions. 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. He totally knows. Even the girls, when I put on my bike clothes, they know Daddy’s going to work.
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. I see that now with Eddy Merckx’s son. It’s tough to grow up doing a sport that your dad did well.
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, I suspect.
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, then it got on the chat rooms and bulletin boards, and, well, from then on it was endless doughnut jokes. People speculating 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.
Are you still counting every morsel?
It depends on where I am in my conditioning. If I’m behind, then everything counts. As of now, I feel good where I am.
Has Sheryl 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?
How’s the massage going?
Right this second? It’s good. Dave’s a big power guy. He’s a Texan.
I’ve never interviewed anyone as they’re getting a massage.
Sorry. It’s a way to save time.
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 with 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 other 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 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. There are millions and millions of people whose lives are constantly affected by cancer either personally, or through friends, families, neighbors, or co-workers. So, that I think about. Cancer’s not something you kill with one pill, or one therapy, or one procedure. It’s hundreds of illnesses that you have to go and chip away at. I’m realistic, and I respect it because of what I’ve been through.
You’re going around the country and meeting people who are fighting cancer, and the feedback you get from them—I’m wondering if that inspires you.
It does, totally. When I’m out the door and things aren’t going that well or I’m having a tough time, they help to get me through that. It’s inspiring for me to know that somebody might be sitting in a hospital somewhere watching the Tour de France on TV. To even think that they would be sitting there feeling stronger or better or more optimistic about their situation because of a guy winning a bike race—that’s a thrill for me.
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 with 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. I only eat McDonald’s every New Year’s Day. It’s like my black-eyed pea.
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, can be enough to piss them off. Let’s hope it 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.
How’s the massage going now?
Dave, you’re doing good, buddy. I get a massage almost every day during the season. It helps recovery when you’re training hard. Good massage, good rest, good diet—it all counts. God, I probably get 200 massages a year.
That’s one of the perks, I guess.
Yeah, but sometimes I don’t want ‘em. Sometimes I’d rather be doing something else. For instance, it’s not a secret that I’m a fan of beer. [Laughs.] But alcohol is pretty much a no-no. Beers are few and far between this time of year. I’ve pretty much cut them all out.
Why is cycling such a huge deal in Europe and so marginal here? Your involvement in it has changed that, and the coverage has probably increased exponentially because of you, but still, the nuances of the sport, the strategies and tactics and personalities of the sport, are lost on most Americans. Why is that?
When you look at the Tour, these races are 100 years old. We don’t have anything in America that has history like that. It’s woven into their culture. So kids are raised on cycling, watching cycling, standing on the roadside, reading about it. When you read the sports papers, it’s obvious that it’s one of the preeminent sports over there.
It used to be said that anger was a big part of your drive. But looking at you now—here on the 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.
And you try to channel that and use being pissed off to your advantage?
I think all the best athletes do.
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.