The Man Who Fell to Earth
Once a beloved world champion, Lance Armstrong is now a pariah in his hometown. Will he ever be a hero again? Was he one to begin with?
“Hey, babe,” Lance Armstrong called to his girlfriend, Anna Hansen. “I’ll take the girls. Do they have all their gear? Shoes and whatnot?” He stood in the door of the den of his West Austin home at 3:45 on a Thursday afternoon. It was almost time for his eleven-year-old twin daughters, Grace and Isabelle, to be at basketball practice, and I could hear the girls in the kitchen, talking with a friend. “Okay,” he said, “five minutes.”
Lance closed the door, walked back to the couch, and sat down. It was January 31, just two weeks since his two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which, after more than a decade of fierce denials, he had finally admitted to an audience of 28 million people that he had used performance-enhancing drugs for most of his cycling career. Six months earlier, Lance had been widely regarded as one of the greatest champions the world had ever known. But then he’d been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and his Olympic medal and dropped by his corporate sponsors. The Oprah interview, the ultimate revelation in Lance’s drawn-out, painfully awkward downfall, had been the most talked-about mea culpa since Bill Clinton admitted to having sex with Monica Lewinsky.
Except Clinton had fared better. In print and on the Internet, across the country and around the globe, reviews of Lance’s cold, careful performance had been universally scathing: he was a narcissist, a sociopath, a douche bag. He had selectively told the truth; he hadn’t seemed contrite. The most common refrain was that he hadn’t shown enough emotion. In the days after the interview, Lance had fled Austin to his home in Hawaii. His Twitter feed was uncharacteristically silent.
Sitting on the couch now, however, in black shorts, a black hoodie, and slippers, Lance was the picture of ease. He had about five days of beard on his chin, and his short hair was awash in gray. He had just come from a round of golf with a friend. As we talked, he seemed unfazed by the reaction to his confession. “It’s been a bloodbath,” he said. “But we expected that. You gotta put that stake in the ground and say, ‘Okay, we’re turning it around.’ That had to happen first.”
He paused. “There are days I think, ‘I shouldn’t have done the interview.’ But then I see my kids, see the way they’re acting, the way they’re interacting. I see the way my son plays basketball, the way he hustles, the way he’s focused. I see a different kid.”
He was talking about Luke, his thirteen-year-old. Lance had told Oprah that the reason he was confessing was his children. In the one moment during the interview that he had shown any real feeling, Lance’s eyes had welled with tears as he related how he had told his oldest son to stop defending him at his middle school.
I told Lance that a close friend of his had informed me that, in 23 years, he’d never seen that happen. “I’m not that emotional of a person,” Lance replied. “It wasn’t ever gonna be one or two or three hours of grabbing tissues.”
His life since the interview, he said, had remained pretty much the same as before. He swam, ran, and biked. He hung out with his kids. He occasionally went out with Anna and friends to a handful of local establishments—Whole Foods for lunch, Uchi for dinner, Deep Eddy for beers. So far, he’d experienced minimal fallout from the confession. “No one’s come up to me and said, ‘Hey, f—er,’ ” he said. “Though I’m sure that’ll happen.”
He was proud of his cancer charity work with the Lance Armstrong Foundation and peeved that all of a sudden people didn’t seem to want to give him any credit for it. Still, he was realistic about his situation. “The stain’s not going away—my girls will grow into it. My two little ones will grow into it. This stain will live forever. I’ll never get rid of it. I’ll just try and do the best for my family, my community, my constituency—whatever that may be.”
Twelve years ago, when we’d first met, there wasn’t a doubt who Lance’s constituency was. He was on top of the world back then, and as part of a story I was doing on him, I attended the Ride for the Roses gala, a high-dollar, star-studded fund-raising party for the foundation. Lance came out at the start of the evening to almost giddy applause. “This night is going to be unbelievable,” he said. The crowd clapped wildly at everything—the inspirational videos, the audience members who had raised large sums for the foundation. Lance was treated as a savior. “Lance does something to those of us who know him,” said emcee Harry Smith, “and those of us who admire him.” Shawn Colvin played a song partly inspired by Lance. Survivors came out and told their stories; when Cara Dunne-Yates spoke (she was a blind Paralympic medal winner fighting her third round with cancer), nearly everyone in the room had tears in his eyes. Lance followed her to close the night. “Stories like this are what get me on the bike every day and get us out there.” At the very end, a man yelled out, “Tear it up, Lance!”
Lance always had his doubters, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that back then he was almost universally beloved in Austin. That spring he took me along on a training ride across town (at one point when I couldn’t keep up he’d had to literally push me up a long incline with his hand on my back). Twice we were hailed by locals. The first time was two burly white guys in a moving truck. “Hey, Lance!” the passenger called. Lance smiled. “How’s it going?” he shouted. A few minutes later a black guy in a Delta 88 drove past, slowed, pulled over ahead of us, and got out. He asked if he could take Lance’s picture. Sure, Lance said, and stopped. “Appreciate it!” the man called as we rode away. “Thank you!”
As the years went on, Lance became more than just a local hero—he became a personification of the city itself. Fit, driven, cool, fast, young, weird: Lance and Austin were made for each other. On any given day now it seems as if everyone in town is running or biking on the ten-mile hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake. Packs of colorful cyclists cruise the streets at all hours. Austin is home to healthy businesses like Whole Foods and RunTex and healthy weirdos like Willie Nelson. It’s a hip, high-tech, liberal city in a conservative state, a city without a big-time professional sports team—but with a famous athlete whose sport is revered in Europe and mostly ignored in the U.S. Lance gave Austin swagger and Austin gave Lance a home. It was, he announced after his 2005 Tour win, “the greatest city on the planet.”
But now the incredible feats of athleticism and courage that built his reputation have been wiped out, his foundation is fighting for its existence, and those who loved and admired him are trying to figure out what happened to their idol. For many in Austin, it is an impossible and agonizing puzzle: What does it mean that the things that ultimately led to his downfall—his will, his arrogance, his fighting streak—were the very things that had once made him great? That his single-mindedness harmed so many of his teammates and peers yet benefited so many cancer survivors? That the same defiance that inspired his rise now seems to prevent him from showing remorse like a normal, decent human being? Who is the real Lance, anyway?
I told Lance how I think people in Austin want to like him again. “You were a hero here,” I said.
He shook his head. “That was too perfect,” he replied. “Now the media, certain people out there, my enemies, my foes want me to be a monster.” He paused.
“Mike, I wasn’t a hero, and I’m not a monster.”
Lance was an eighteen-year-old cycling prodigy when he moved to Austin not long after graduating from high school, in 1989. He had grown up in Oak Cliff, Richardson, and Plano and wanted out of the flatlands of North Texas but also didn’t want to go too far from his mother. Austin was ideal—hilly, sleepy, cool. “In Austin nobody seemed to care what I wore,” he wrote in his 2000 autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike, “or whether I ‘belonged’ or not.” The terrain was excellent for training, and he loved the city’s bike trails. He got a small place near Pease Park, in downtown Austin.
Even back then the brash, hotheaded showboater had a knack for getting under people’s skin. He would do anything to win—ride down other cyclists and force them into the ditch, throw f-bombs, and even punches, with abandon. No one was going to get in his way. “I never backed down,” he later wrote. After finishing fourteenth in the 1992 Olympics, he turned pro, winning various European races and a couple of stages at the Tour de France. He spent most of his time training and racing in Europe. At that point in his career, Lance was exceptionally good at short, fast races but couldn’t compete in the longer ones; he didn’t have the endurance and couldn’t climb the mountains.
Few people in Austin knew his name back then, but he became a more ubiquitous presence after he won the U.S. Cycling Triple Crown, in 1993, racing for Motorola. The winnings made him a millionaire, and the next year he brought his team with him to train in the Hill Country. He would lead them on rides on Texas Highway 71 northwest to Marble Falls. He was building a 4,300-square-foot house on Lake Austin with
29 palm trees and a pool. “I’ll never work again,” he told a reporter. When he finally moved into his new home, in 1996, he was earning more than $2 million a year in salary and endorsements and driving a Porsche 911.
Still, he remained relatively obscure. Texans, after all, loved football, not cycling. That changed in October 1996, when Lance was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which had spread to his lungs. Almost overnight he became a symbol of tenacity and heroism in the face of a deadly disease. A few days after surgery, he held a press conference. “I want you all to know that I intend to beat this disease,” he said, “and further, I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist.” While recuperating, he read up on testicular cancer, which prompted him to seek a second opinion; this led to the discovery that the disease had spread to his brain. His chance of survival dropped to 50 percent. Surgeons removed two lesions on his brain, then arranged for chemo to kill the dozen tumors in his lungs and chest. Lance was characteristically cocky about the chemo: “Whatever you give to other people, give me double,” he told the nurses. Nike, one of Lance’s sponsors, announced that he was “one of the most courageous athletes ever.” The Austin American-Statesman opined, “Armstrong is one of life’s true heroes.” Exactly one year after his diagnosis, doctors declared him cancer-free. His girlfriend, Kristin Richard, threw him a party to celebrate. She and Lance danced while Lyle Lovett played.
The experience changed the trajectory of his career. Shortly after his recovery, Lance assembled a board of directors for a new foundation that would fight cancer. The board included Austin mayor Kirk Watson, also a survivor of testicular cancer. In May 1998 the Lance Armstrong Foundation kicked off its first Ride for the Roses, holding it on a weekend that featured a silent auction, a Rock for the Roses concert, and a 56K criterium in downtown Austin, for which Sprint, the sponsor, donated $100,000. Schoolkids sold lemonade and gave money to the cause. Cancer survivors got their old bikes out of the garage and rode with their hero. They spoke of Lance with awe. He had made it part of his routine to call or write people with cancer. “If somebody comes up to me and says, ‘I have a friend and he needs your help—they just need some encouragement,’ I’ll call. I do that on a daily basis,” he said. That summer, the foundation gave two $50,000 grants to fund research on testicular and prostate cancer.
The powerful symbiotic relationship between Lance and Austin had begun, and it was about to get a whole lot stronger. In 1999 Lance, now married to Kristin and a member of the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling team, began his comeback in earnest with the Tour de France. All over town, people watched the race on tape delay. Six hundred fans crowded into the Copper Tank Brewing Company, which was decorated with yellow balloons and crepe paper. After the tenth stage, when Lance had opened up a massive lead, the Statesman rhapsodized, “His achievement is a triumph of the human spirit.” He was welcomed home with a huge parade down Congress Avenue—five thousand cyclists, including children, amateurs, and cancer survivors, followed by Lance in a white Mercedes convertible. Watson declared August 9 Lance Armstrong Day. The first words out of Lance’s mouth to the adoring crowd were “Vive le Austin, Texas!”
Within a month Lance had signed $6 million worth of endorsement deals and a new $2 million contract with U.S. Postal. He appeared on boxes of Wheaties. He gave $250,000 to the foundation, which went into hyperdrive. Lance’s cancer mission gained even more momentum the following year, when It’s Not About the Bike was released. It became a bible for how to fight the daily battles and humiliations of cancer. There were two options, Lance wrote: “Give up or fight like hell.” His foundation began to change its focus—less on research and more on “survivorship,” or how to help those diagnosed with cancer navigate the frustrating and byzantine world of hospitals, treatments, and insurance companies. How to fight like hell.
Lance won Tour after Tour, and as he morphed into a megabrand, his success helped reinforce the city’s sense of its own growing importance. Austin had always been a hip place to live, but Lance helped take it to a new level. His agent, Bill Stapleton, began branching into concert promotion, teaming up in 2002 with promoter Charlie Jones to put on the first Austin City Limits Music Festival. The following year the event drew 150,000 people. REM was the headliner, and guess who introduced them?
If you lived in Austin during this time, you had a ringside seat to a global phenomenon. In 2004 Nike came out with the Livestrong wristbands. The “Livestrong” idea, which was the brainchild of a local firm, Milkshake Media, was a perfect fit for Lance’s attitude about how to survive and compete. The yellow bracelets were a huge hit, not just locally (Bicycle Sport Shop sold two thousand in one day) but nationally as well (Matt Damon and Serena Williams wore them). By the end of the year Nike had sold 30 million at $1 each. All proceeds went to the foundation, which continued to grow in strength and influence, scoring a notable victory in 2005, when it threw its weight behind a successful bid to ban smoking in Austin clubs and restaurants.
Lance retired in 2005, after winning his seventh Tour, and returned to Austin. He seemed to be everywhere. His image covered almost every inch of wall space at the four local 24 Hour Fitness gyms, which were branded with his name. He walked the sidelines at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium with Matthew McCon-aughey. He helped launch the Street Smarts Task Force with Mayor Will Wynn, which aimed to make Austin a more bike-friendly town, and within a year, the city had created more than twenty miles of new lanes. Lance opened his own bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s, a kind of downtown cycling hub with showers and a locker room for commuters. And he campaigned for the state to pass a massive cancer initiative that would dole out $300 million a year for ten years to research institutions working to find a cure. Those were austere times, but Lance went to the Capitol, shook hands, met legislators one-on-one, called Speaker Tom Craddick when the bill was in danger, and spoke emotionally before the Senate Finance Committee. He did, in short, whatever it took to get the bill passed, and when it went before the voters that fall, he barnstormed the state in a bus called Survivor One. As the 2008 presidential campaign heated up, he held candidate forums for both parties in Iowa. He went on the Charlie Rose show and talked about health care. Many thought Lance was preparing for his own run in politics, for governor or U.S. senator. Given his dramatic life so far, Mr. Armstrong Goes to Washington had an air of inevitability to it.
Of course, the story wasn’t really as rosy as all that. Lance had a win-at-all-costs mentality, and for years he was able to keep the costs mostly out of view. When I reported my 2001 story about him, though, I learned enough to become skeptical about his success. I went to Paris and talked to a couple of French journalists. I spoke with other European cycling fanatics and journalists. Of course he dopes, they said; everybody does. These people didn’t have any evidence, but they knew the culture, and they knew what was possible. “He’s not a machine,” said one journalist. “He’s not a mutant.”
After our ride through Austin, Lance and I went to Hula Hut, a bar and restaurant on the lake where he liked to hang out. I remember how nervous I was when we talked about doping, which he denied, looking me straight in the eye. “Even if they found a foolproof test for everything, which I would love,” he said, “these guys are always going to come up with something. If it’s not EPO then it’s ABC or XYZ or MNO.” He called the widely abused performance-enhancing drug EPO a substance “absolutely undetectable and unbelievably beneficial.” So why, I asked, wouldn’t you use it? “It’s pretty scary,” he replied. “People have died. I’m not lining up for that job.” That was essentially the alibi he gave every time he was asked.
Of course, as we know now, the skeptics were correct. Lance wasn’t just doing EPO, he was also doing testosterone, steroids, and blood transfusions, and he was pushing other riders to do them too. And he was lying about it constantly—dozens of times he was asked if he used performance-enhancing drugs, and dozens of times he looked the questioner in the eye, just as he had with me, and said he didn’t. He routinely intimidated people in the cycling world who hindered his progress or threatened to reveal his secret—non-dopers, journalists, those who worked for him. It could be physical or mental intimidation, name-calling, lawsuits, you name it.
The most charitable explanation for this behavior is that Lance was simply determined to do whatever it took to win. He believed it was impossible to win the Tour de France without doping, so he doped, which meant he had to lie about doping to keep winning. There’s a cold logic to this. Lance had bullied his way through the cancer and the peloton; now he bullied his way past the haters who were trying to bring him down.
And not just the haters. Even as he was emerging as Austin’s biggest star and most prolific philanthropist, Lance was developing a reputation around town as, well, a jerk. The capital is a small town, and stories of his boorish behavior spread fast. There was the time at La Zona Rosa nightclub in 2008, when a doorman tried to stop him from leaving with a drink. According to witnesses, Lance grew incensed and waved his finger in the doorman’s face, shouting, “You’ll never work at this bar again!” After word of the incident began to circulate, Lance called the Statesman and apologized. But this was far from the only story of its kind. In one widely gossiped-about incident, he demanded the forcible reassignment of a woman who refused to allow him access to the VIP area at the music venue the Backyard (“She needs to go,” Lance told club management, according to one witness). Lance denies this story, as he denies most of these stories (such as the one about trying to get a TV cameraman fired after he asked for an autograph), but they persist, passed around Austin with relish—and a little fear.
He was unquestionably a hero, but he was increasingly seen in Austin as a self-absorbed one. After a divorce from Kristin, in 2003, followed by a two-year relationship with rock star Sheryl Crow, Lance went on a very public dating binge with the likes of Tory Burch, Ashley Olsen, and Kate Hudson, earning himself a new reputation as a playboy. More and more, Lance seemed to believe he was special, entitled, invincible. Many saw an example of this in the watering controversy of 2008. Like much of Texas, Austin was going through a terrible drought and had instituted water restrictions, and that summer the Statesman ran a story on the city’s biggest water users. Lance, who now owned an eight-thousand-square-foot, three-story Spanish colonial mansion with a pool and rows of cypress trees framing the path to a cabana, was the number one water pig, using 222,900 gallons a month—the equivalent of 26 average local households.
Still, despite it all, he remained one of the most admired figures in town. As Howard Chalmers, a former president for the foundation, said in 2008, “The boy has been cut a lot of slack and will continue to be cut a lot of slack because of the good he does.”
If Lance felt restless under the scrutiny of his love life and his utilities, he didn’t let on. Before his divorce from Kristin, they had had three children, and he devoted his time to building a life with them in the tony world of West Austin. He had started dating Anna, and soon he had two more children, Max and Olivia. “He’s a genuinely good dad,” says the father of one of Luke’s friends. Lance would show up at his kids’ athletic events, sit in the stands, and cheer them on. He’d host sleepovers at his massive home, which other kids loved to attend. He was a regular guy—though one whose upstairs game room had on the wall seven jerseys from the Tour de France.
Lance believes he never would have gotten caught if he hadn’t tried to make another comeback. Had he stayed in retirement, he told Oprah, “We wouldn’t be sitting here.” In September 2008 he decided to try to win another Tour de France, though it was not to be. Racing for Astana, he finished third in 2009; the next year, racing for RadioShack, he finished twenty-third and retired again.
Unfortunately for Lance, Floyd Landis, who had raced with him on the U.S. Postal team, also wanted a comeback. Landis had won the Tour in 2006 but then failed a drug test and was suspended from cycling. In 2009, hoping to return, he asked Lance to put him on the Astana squad. When Landis didn’t make the team, he fired off a series of emails to cycling officials in April 2010, in which he formally confessed to doping and implicated Lance. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency opened an investigation, as did Jeff Novitzky, a special agent with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who had brought about the indictments of Barry Bonds and Marion Jones. The federal investigation, for fraud and drug trafficking, picked up steam that summer as various former teammates of Lance’s were called to testify before a grand jury. Since lying carried jail time, they started talking—and for the first time, investigators got a peek into cycling’s secret world.
In May 2011 Tyler Hamilton, one of Lance’s lieutenants in the glory years, went on 60 Minutes and also confessed to doping, implicating Lance. The show revealed that George Hincapie, one of Lance’s closest and most loyal riders, had testified before the grand jury as well. Though the federal investigation was called off in February 2012, USADA kept on, and in June the agency filed anti-doping charges against Lance. He could have taken the charges to an arbitration panel, but in August—perhaps aware he was in a fight he couldn’t win—he chose not to, saying he was “finished with this nonsense.” He was, in fact, just plain finished. The next day USADA stripped Lance of his titles and banned him from competition for life.
Though the legal battles were over (at least for the time being), Lance’s undoing would play out dramatically over the next several months. In September Hamilton’s long-awaited book about doping, The Secret Race, came out, full of damning details about Lance. One of the people who read the book was Mark McKinnon, a board member for the foundation and one of Lance’s most loyal defenders. McKinnon had served on the board since 2004, after his wife, Annie, had been diagnosed with cancer and given a 15 percent chance of survival. She was still alive, in no small part because of the attitude Lance had brought to survivorship. “Lance’s example was ‘You can do it,’ ” McKinnon told me. “That’s what he was all about, the idea of hope. Hope is life.”
Now, though, he was shocked at what he read in Hamilton’s book. “I’d resisted the truth for years,” he said. “A lot of us in that universe were guilty of confirmation bias—pick out the information you want, ignore the rest.” McKinnon called up other board members—had they read the book?
One who had was Jeff Garvey, one of Lance’s oldest friends and a board member since the foundation’s first days, in 1997. Garvey had also watched the 60 Minutes report. “That was the first time I said to myself, ‘There may be more to this’—mostly because of Hincapie, who had utter credibility,” he told me.
A month later, on October 10, USADA released its one-thousand-page report, with affidavits from eleven former teammates who said that they and Lance had used performance-enhancing drugs. “The evidence shows beyond any doubt that
the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,” said the group’s CEO, Travis Tygart.
Garvey, McKinnon, and their fellow board members held an emergency conference call. “We were struggling not just with what was right for the foundation,” said Mc-Kinnon, “but what was right morally.” They concluded that Lance had become a liability and should step down as head of the board. Reluctantly, Lance agreed. On October 17, he resigned as chairman. That same day, he was dropped by Nike and his other corporate sponsors.
Two nights later, in perhaps the worst case of bad timing in Austin history, the foundation held its most important fund-raising event, the Livestrong Gala, a glitzy affair that had always been one of the big moments in the social season for Austin’s elite. It was an awkward night, as 1,800 sleek, athletic-looking, impeccably dressed men and women gathered at the Austin Convention Center to eat food created by celebrity chefs; gawk at guests like Bo Jackson, Sean Penn, and Matthew McConaughey; and see what Lance would do. They were supposed to be celebrating Livestrong; instead they focused on Armstrong, who briefly acknowledged his troubles (“I’ve been better, but I’ve also been worse”) and gamely ad-libbed his way through some embarrassing AV problems with McConaughey. “The whole night was a train wreck,” one longtime Livestrong supporter told me.
The board knew it had to go further. “A handful of us talked about it, and it was obvious,” remembered McKinnon. Lance couldn’t be on the board at all. He had to leave the foundation. Garvey agreed. “There was not a doubt in my mind—we had to establish separation. He had to voluntarily resign.”
Lance reacted predictably: he fought like hell. This was his foundation, the one he’d created after climbing out of his deathbed and built into one of the best cancer charities in the world. On November 4, calling the board members “cowards,” he gave in and resigned, apologizing the next day for his language. By then the split was complete, and his brainchild had begun taking steps to officially change its name to the Livestrong Foundation, trying desperately to save itself.
Lance’s once-adoring city was also distancing itself. By the end of the month, most people in Austin had changed their minds about their hero, officially a doper, a cheat, and a bully. “Is it okay now to say you don’t like him?” asked a friend of mine. One West Austin dad, whose son plays with Luke, said it wasn’t the doping that bothered him and the other parents. “We didn’t care that he doped,” he told me. “Lance did it because everyone else did. But when it came out that he had been the ringleader and pressured other guys to dope, we reconsidered how we felt about him.”
On November 10, Lance tweeted to his almost four million followers a photo of himself relaxing on a couch under his seven Tour jerseys. The caption read “Back in Austin and just layin’ around.” It was a sign of how tone-deaf he’d become. “He looks like the loneliest man in the world,” my wife said when she saw the picture, which brought to mind the image of Nixon at the end of his presidency, alone in the White House with the world closing in, muttering to portraits of his predecessors. The next morning, readers of the Statesman, which had supported Lance for so long, opened the paper to the headline “Time to Rename the Lance Armstrong Bikeway.” At that same moment, inside the 24 Hour Fitness gyms across Austin, workers were literally scraping Lance’s image off the walls. Exercisers going to their workouts passed pieces of Lance’s face lying on the floor, waiting to be swept up and tossed in the garbage.
Finally, two months later, Lance decided to grant an interview to Oprah. I went to Nelo’s Cycles, in North Austin, to watch the interview with sixty or seventy cyclists (some in their racing uniforms) and cycling fans. These were people who had ridden with Lance, who had admired him, who had become fans because of him. They had loved Lance.
Not anymore. For the first few minutes, the crowd—sitting before the TV, standing behind the counter and along the walls and next to the expensive bikes—watched in stunned silence as Lance admitted to doping. It was one thing to suspect it, as everyone there did. It was another to hear it from his lips, the lips that had denied it so forcefully for so many years. It didn’t take long for the mockery to begin. When Lance insisted that the U.S. Postal doping system wasn’t the most sophisticated but that it was smart, a woman called out, “He’s totally proud of it.” She leaned back in her chair, a look of disgust on her face. When Lance claimed to have been clean in 2009 and 2010, everyone laughed. “But this time I’m telling the truth!” a man called out. When Lance acknowledged that he had been a bully, again everyone laughed—this time derisively.
I was surprised at the depth of the anger. “I’m angry because I got fooled,” said cyclist Ira Kaplan, during a commercial. “I wanted to believe, like everyone else, that he could do it clean. Now he’s just saving his ass.” For most watchers it wasn’t about the drugs; it was about how he’d compelled others to do the same and gone after those who objected. “We can understand the doping,” said Gary Obernolte, another cyclist. “But the bullying—an athlete shouldn’t do that. A human being shouldn’t do that.”
Ultimately, no one seemed ready to forgive. All over the country, people watched the show and had similar reactions. He hadn’t shown enough remorse. He hadn’t said enough of the right things. He showed the same face he had in all those other interviews when he’d denied doing anything wrong. It was the face of a man who was still trying to game the system, the face of a man who was still trying to win.
Not everyone in Austin is angry. There are people around town who have known Lance for ten or fifteen or twenty years, who saw him through the worst days of his life and then saw him do the most amazing things a human being could do, who are heartbroken and dumbfounded. “I can’t sort him out,” said a man who was close with Lance but hasn’t talked with him since October. “I don’t want to call him because I’m worried about being untruthful. I don’t want to find myself saying to him, ‘It’s okay.’ Because I don’t think it’s okay. I’m disgusted and upset. But for some reason I still love him.”
Lance sundered relationships with many who were connected to the foundation or inspired by the work he did. “So many of us wanted to believe in the myth because it provided inspiration to so many,” said Mc-Kinnon. “Absent the myth, we want to believe there is a human redemption story. We feel conflicted, even a bit guilty—we don’t want to abandon him. But he abandoned us.”
Who is Lance Armstrong? He’s an arrogant bastard who would do anything to win, including lie, cheat, and make others miserable. He’s also an inspirational survivor who has saved people, literally. Laurey Masterton just fought her third bout with cancer; this one was particularly hard, and she wound up depending on Livestrong’s counseling services. One counselor in particular helped her. “I got back on my feet, started believing I could get through this. Lance inspired this incredible organization. He saved my life because he started Livestrong, and he has helped a lot of other people all over the world. I don’t know what he could do to lose my support.”
Asher Price, who writes about energy and the environment for the Statesman, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2006. After surgery, he got an email: “Hi, it’s Lance Armstrong here.” Lance recommended a trip to Indiana to see his doctor, Larry Einhorn, but when Price—who had learned that the cancer had spread to his lymphatic system—tried to get an appointment, the nurse said he’d have to wait six weeks. Price asked Lance for advice; Lance emailed Einhorn. One week later, Price was being examined by the doctor. Now Price is cancer-free. Like everyone in Austin, he has wrestled with his relationship with Lance. “My feeling is, the good things he did, whether it was helping me or inspiring someone else in their struggle, or nudging people to get a checkup or donate money—all of that was real. It really happened, and it helped people,” he told me. “Yes, there’s a stained quality to his victories. But people think that makes everything false. It doesn’t.”
Many in Austin are less concerned about Lance than about Livestrong, hoping that the tragedy of the man will not be the tragedy of the foundation. Indeed, the charity seems to be in a no-win situation: Lance was unparalleled as a passionate, charismatic leader and fund-raiser, yet he is also damaged goods. Livestrong needs Lance—yet Livestrong needs Lance like a hole in the head. What may save the organization is the fact that it actually began the process of separating from Lance in 2004, back when the Livestrong wristbands came out. “It established an independent identity early on,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University. “It also established a broad funding base and set up strong alliances with other groups, like the American Cancer Society and the YMCA.” Ken Berger, the president and CEO of Charity Navigator, agreed: “It has been able to do what other charities haven’t—change the brand. Also, it has a tremendously large reserve, more than $90 million.” Neither man thinks it will be easy, but Livestrong will survive—even if, as Berger adds, “It won’t be as large or able to do as much.”
Meanwhile, over in West Austin, Lance thinks about redemption. Kind of. “I think about it because I get asked about it all the time,” he told me. “It’s ‘the road to redemption,’ ‘the path to redemption.’ It’s ‘Act 3.’ It’s all these things that people think about in Shakespearean terms.”
For most people, redemption involves atonement and remorse for doing wrong. But Lance is not like most people. And the truth is, Lance doesn’t feel like he did much wrong: in his mind, the doping leveled the playing field. He also says now that the way he treated people wasn’t so bad. “I prefer the word ‘defiance’ to ‘bullying,’ ” he told me, “but I’m sure there was some. I used that word a lot in the interview. That might be something I’d say less now. I don’t think those situations have been accurately portrayed. The facts are out there. People can decide.”
Most have already decided. “I want to see contrition,” said McKinnon, “the sense that he has gone to a place where he knows he has to sacrifice, knows he has to serve a cause greater than himself. I don’t think that’s happened yet. But I think Lance can get there. I’ve seen flashes of deep humanity and humility when he visits with cancer patients. It’s powerful. It’s within him.” Another former friend told me, “He needs to change his point of view. He’s not showing remorse, and I think it’s horseshit. Life is a son of a bitch, and he has been given so many gifts.”
Lance bides his time, chauffeuring his kids and training for races he can’t run because he’s still banned for life. “Now is the time to do nothing,” he said. “Stop the bleeding. Let things settle down, plot a course, write a book.” What would this one be about, I asked. “That’s what I gotta figure out. I know I’m gonna do it, but I don’t know what I’m gonna say.”
He’s also waiting for various shoes to drop. Although one federal investigation ended with no charges, two more potential ones wait in the wings: the Department of Justice may still join a whistle-blower suit brought by Landis, and on February 5 ABC News reported that federal agents were “actively investigating Armstrong for obstruction, witness tampering, and intimidation.” SCA Promotions, a Dallas-based company that paid Lance bonuses for winning the Tour, is suing for $12 million. The Sunday Times is suing for $1.5 million over a libel settlement.
Elizabeth Christian, of the Austin firm Elizabeth Christian and Associates Public Relations, thinks Lance’s best option at the moment is to pull out his wallet (he has a reported $125 million in the bank). “Honestly,” she said, “the only thing he could do at this point to save himself is call a press conference and sit there with a PowerPoint presentation. On the first slide, show all his money, and on the second slide, show all the people he hurt. Then start writing checks.”
Lance believes his road back will come with good works and the passage of time. “Ultimately,” he told me, “people forgive and forget and remember the good stuff you did.” He looks to Bill Clinton as his model. “Is it hard to do?” he asked. “Yeah. But Clinton did it—he loves to work, he loves people, he loves to hustle. He’s a hero of mine. He’s a tough guy, he’s smart, surrounded himself with good people. And ten years later, he’s president of the world. It can be done.”
Our interview was over, and he opened the door. “All right, girls, you ready?” We headed for the kitchen, where his daughters and their friend picked up their backpacks and moved toward the front door. As they walked, Lance’s three-year-old son, Max, wearing a diaper and T-shirt, followed. He looked up at Lance. “Wait, Daddy. Can I go too?” he asked.
“Sure, come on,” Lance replied. The five headed out the door and got into a black Denali SUV. Lance eased down the driveway, out the gate, and onto the streets of Austin. I watched him drive away. Father and chauffeur. Survivor and doper. Hero and bully. Champion and cheat.