“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.”