The 33-year-old cyclist on surviving, winning, retiring, doping, Sheryl, and his future in politics . . . maybe.
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Evan Smith: Let me ask you, first of all, what may not seem like an obvious question: How’s your health?
Lance Armstrong: In terms of the cancer? As of the latest check, which was a few months ago, everything was perfect. When I give blood, they do a test that’s very specific to the sickness that I have, which is called choriocarcinoma. The test measures human chorionic gonadotropin levels. A perfect result is a reading of less than two. When I was first diagnosed, it was over 100,000. If I had a flare-up, it’s not as if it would go away. It’s very aggressive. So if I ever come in with four…
LA: Four turns to eight, eight turns to sixteen, and on it goes. And everybody would know, because I would quit everything I’m doing and go back into treatment.
ES: Is it ever on your mind?
LA: Eight and a half years later, I’m reminded of it every day. Even something as small as looking at a yellow wristband reminds me of my history. But it’s not a big fear of mine. I didn’t feel great on the bike today, but when I’m pedaling along and I don’t feel that good, I don’t think, “I’m sick.”
ES: Are there any lasting physical effects?
LA: No. The skin marks are gone. And, obviously, you get your hair back, and the body regenerates well.
ES: You mentioned the wristband. Could you have imagined in a million years what a phenomenon it would become?
LA: I thought two things when we first got into it: that Nike was incredibly generous and that they were a little crazy to make five million of them.
ES: Generous in the sense that even if the wristbands didn’t sell, Nike guaranteed $5 million to the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
LA: They started off by giving us $1 million, so the guarantee was a total of $6 million. We could have been just shootin’ them at each other! I was talking to [former Nike CEO] Phil Knight, and he said, “Lance, you know what? I thought the same exact thing. I thought we were crazy.” And, you know, we’ve now sold more than 47 million.
ES: Why do you think they caught on?
LA: Have you read The Tipping Point? Something happened along the way to tip it. I don’t know what it was, although I will say that Sheryl [Crow, his rock star girlfriend] wore it and talked about it on the Today show last year. And then came the Tour. I suppose the Olympics could have been the tipping point: You had Justin Gatlin wearing one during the 100-meter dash, but you also had [Hicham] El Guerrouj in the 1,500 meters. He’s arguably the greatest Muslim runner of all time, and he’d never won an Olympic gold. He crosses the finish line, and he kneels down to pray, and all you see is the yellow band on the guy. He was wearing two! It’s unbelievable.
ES: I’m thinking less about celebrities or athletes than average people who didn’t have publicists buying them wristbands, who didn’t appear in InStyle wearing one because it’s cool.
LA: Obviously, it doesn’t get to more than 47 million without the power of the people. Along the way it’s been people wanting them and buying them. I think we still sell 100,000 a day.
ES: Were you involved in the creation of the wristband beyond blessing it?
LA: I can’t take any credit. Nike had made the bands before, for basketball players, and they called them “ballers.” Before shooting a free throw, they’d snap them on the back of their wrists. So there was a meeting [at Nike] in which people were looking for ways to get involved with the foundation, and somebody in the room said, “Why don’t we take a baller”—which is ironic, if you think about it—“and make it yellow and put ‘LiveStrong’ on it?” And they did. I think the first big order was a million or a million and a half, and I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s a big commitment.” Then it just took off.
ES: How many have you personally gone through?
LA: The one I’m wearing is probably my third. My original one, the one I wore at the Tour and for a very long time after that, had a swoosh on it. I’m not cool enough now to have a swoosh on mine.
ES: Let’s address the elephant in the room: No regrets about your decision to retire? You’re certain this is what you want to do?
LA: One hundred percent.
ES: It’s really about wanting to spend more time with your kids? That’s all it is? Not that it isn’t enough.
LA: Well, it is enough. I’m sick of missing their lives. My kids split their time between me and their mother, so there will be times when I’m not with them, when I’ll work. I’m looking forward to that. And I’m going to be 34 years old this year, which is old for cycling. If I win the Tour this summer, I’ll be the oldest cyclist to do it in nearly sixty years.
ES: Do you feel 34 in cycling years?
LA: No, I still feel like I’m at the highest level. And I still feel like I could be for a couple of years.
ES: Any chance you’ll pull a Manny Mota and come out of retirement for one more race?
LA: That’s not going to happen. Forget it. I started doing this stuff when I was fifteen. It’s time to stop. Not that I will ever stop being an athlete. I will always be an athlete.
ES: Has it gotten harder to train? Would the ride you took today have been any easier a year or two years ago?
LA: I still hit it so hard that if I wasn’t interested or didn’t have the motivation or morale, I wouldn’t have done what I did today. I did six hours, 120 miles, in the mountains. I was seven thousand feet up in the Angeles National Forest [outside Los Angeles]. That’s hard, hard training. I’m committed to doing this. I’m going to suffer through it. I’m sure going to feel better next week. And I want to win. I really want to win.
LA: Because I had a dream of winning and stopping, of going out on top. That’s the ultimate goal for an athlete.
ES: You have no doubt in your mind that you can do it?
LA: I always have doubt. I’ve had doubt every year.
ES: Talk about that. People don’t necessarily associate you with doubt.
LA: It’s what gets me up and out the door. I think all the great champions in sport are insecure that they’re losing their lead. The only way to keep it is to work hard. The day you wake up and say, “Man, I’m going to phone it in,” you lose. So it’s great to read about my rivals and to see how they’re doing and how strong they are. I get worried about that. It’s what makes me hungry.
ES: Are there cyclists today who pose a greater threat to your winning this time than in previous years?
LA: No. Same characters. Of course, I’ll say that and then somebody else will come along.
ES:What’s your relationship with the other cyclists? Is it friendly?
LA: It’s fairly friendly, but nobody has close relations.
ES: Why’s that?
LA: It would be like asking Tony Stewart if he has a good relationship with Jeff Gordon.
ES: There are some sports, like baseball, in which great competitors are friends. I’m thinking of all those years that Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez played for different teams.
LA: Our sport is more global. You only see those guys in a race. It’s like asking if I’m a friend of Jan Ullrich’s. I can’t say yes, because I don’t even have his phone number.
ES: Has the way you’re viewed in Europe gotten to you at all?
LA: It’s an aggressive press world there. There are some places where it wouldn’t matter if Pope Benedict XVI was winning the Tour. They would kill him. They would say he cheats, he steals, he has sex with little boys. They would say whatever they had to say to criticize him and the sport.
ES: But what motivates the ones who criticize you specifically?
LA: I came along at a bad time, and cycling was ripe for the picking. In 1998 we had, arguably, the biggest doping crisis in the history of sports. The very next year, I won the Tour after having lived through a life-threatening illness, and I didn’t just win it by a minute. I won it by seven minutes. So naturally the questions started then. And I haven’t gone out of my way to kiss the asses of the media. Well, I’ve kissed some ass.
ES: What about the fans over there as opposed to the press?
LA: The people on the side of the road are by and large good. If you could ride through the French villages with the peloton, you’d know I’m not tooting my own horn. You hear one name 90 percent of the time, and it’s positive. It’s “Allez, Lance.” “Allez, Armstrong.” That’s what I take away.
ES: What about in England? I’m thinking of your ongoing war with David Walsh, the British journalist.
LA: David turned on cycling a long time ago. He honestly doesn’t like it. As it relates to me, he hasn’t proved anything, though he’s worked a long time to. You have to keep in mind that this is an author who speculated in a book that I was never sick. I made David mad at an early stage because I called him out on something. I got in his face and said, “Don’t f— with me.” That was a mistake—not to catch him but to get in his face.
ES: So it’s not about doping—it’s about you.
LA: It’s personal, absolutely personal. “Hors category,” we call it, as in the hardest climbs in the Tour. You have category 3, which is sort of hard; category 2, which is hard; category 1, very hard; and hors category, which means “beyond category.” “HC,” we would say. He takes the prize.
ES: What about the rest of the media?
LA: The media today and going forward will be even worse than five, ten, thirty years ago. It’s an issue for our global society. What do we want? What’s interesting? What’s going to make us pick up the paper? Is it Brad and Jen? Is it Lance and drugs? The biggest-selling edition of L’Equipe of all time was the day after the Festina affair [a scandal involving doping by cyclists on a team sponsored by Festina, the watch manufacturer]. They had never sold so many papers.
ES: How do you feel these days about the American press?
LA: ESPN has gotten to be a little sensational, but it’s the times we live in. Look at baseball.
ES: Steroids, I suppose, is baseball’s version of doping.
LA: Right. Only they don’t have testing.
ES: Should they have testing?
LA: Of course they should have testing. They should have had testing twenty years ago.
ES: You don’t side with Don Fehr, the head of the players’ union, who opposes more testing and harsher penalties?
LA: The press and the public should crucify him. Why doesn’t Derek Jeter have to declare where he is 365 days a year, like I do?
ES: Are you the most closely scrutinized cyclist?
LA: I would suspect so. They [the United States Anti-Doping Agency] came to the house four times last year. Surprise!
ES: What did they say when you opened the door?
LA: They said, “We need your pee.”
ES: Is it any wonder that you want to retire?
LA: I think Americans want a clean sport, but they would have a hard time getting their arms around this idea of Big Brother if they fully knew about it. If Sheryl and I go to Catalina for the week and don’t tell them, and they come here [to her house in L.A.] because this is where they think we are, it’s trouble.
ES: The press has a bit of a Big Brother streak itself.
LA: I think that part of the media is also changing. The other day I picked up a People. It’s a different magazine than it was before. It’s more sensational, slimier. Obviously, they’re doing it to keep up with Star, to keep up with Us Weekly, with whoever else. The National Enquirer just switched from three-headed aliens to Brad and Jen. That’s what people want to see.
ES: Has your relationship with Sheryl materially changed your public profile? Clearly you’re more of a celebrity in the conventional sense now that you’re her plus-one. Or maybe she’s your plus-one.
LA: I have to say yes, although it matters where you spend your time. In Austin it’s not a problem. You don’t have paparazzi in Austin. You don’t have stalkers in Austin. If you choose to live in L.A. and you go to the Ivy, you’re sure to walk out showered in flashes. That’s just part of it.
ES: Do you mind it?
LA: I don’t mind it. You just keep walking. You don’t have to stop and talk.
ES: A lot of times when athletes retire, they leave the spotlight. But this relationship guarantees that you’re going to continue to be in the spotlight. You’re not going to get a break from it.
LA: It depends what I have to say, what I have to do. My time will come. Ex-athletes are forgotten. Ex-athletes wait in lines. Ex-athletes don’t sign autographs. A new guy, a new face, a new phenomenon comes along. I’ve always known that, and I respect that. I’m ready for it. In fact, I welcome it. It makes life simpler.
ES: Let’s come back to the foundation. How’s it doing? What’s it doing?
LA: The answer to the first part is, it’s doing well. Because of the sale of the wristbands, it will be funded for years. Forty-seven million dollars probably represents 75 percent of our total fund-raising to date.
ES: It’s an astounding number.
LA: As for what we do, people ask all the time. If they give $1, if they give $10, that’s their first question. And the thing they want to know is, Are you going to cure cancer? We can’t give them that answer. We can tell them that we’re working as a community to cure cancer, but “cure” is a tricky word. You have the lady down the street who gets stage-three breast cancer and lives three months and then dies. And you look at me and say, “Lance, are you cured?” And I say, “Yes.” And then people say, “Well, why is he cured?” They don’t necessarily understand that our situations, mine and the lady’s, are very different.
ES: Then there are the people in the middle, the ones who don’t die in three months. They die in five years. They think they’re okay, but it comes back.
LA: You asked me before if I’m afraid of it. I said no. That’s true, but the thing I failed to say is that I really respect it and I watch it. It’s a real enemy. So what do we do? We believe that a lot of people are going to survive and that they could and will have issues going forward: physical, mental, emotional, work related, everything. This is our focus.
ES: To get the survival rate up.
LA: To get the survival rate up but also to make sure people have a high quality of life post-treatment.
ES: And that means a support system.
LA: It means giving them a place to go, a resource center, people to talk to.
ES: So if I’m diagnosed with something now and I come to the foundation, you’ll direct me to medical, psychological, financial resources?
LA: And encourage you to have a great attitude. Encourage you to get second, third, fourth opinions. Encourage you to travel if you have to travel. I was living in Austin, one of the greatest cities in the world, and I had to leave to get treated. We can’t all be blessed to be in New York City and be down the street from Sloan-Kettering or to be in Houston and be down the street from M. D. Anderson.
ES: What’s your role with the foundation going to be after your retirement?
LA: I don’t know if they are serious, but they call me the chief attitude officer.
ES: What does that mean?
LA: I’m the guy who sets the tone. I was aggressive in dealing with the illness; I was committed and really focused. My life completely changed. That’s when I learned how to build a team and build a winning program and look at every aspect of a situation. We want people to think the same way.
ES: Whether as chief attitude officer or a more conventional position, you imagine yourself doing what kinds of things?
LA: I’ll be around a lot more.
ES: A public face.
LA: Not just a public face but also a private face for the staff. When they walk in, they see the name on the door. To have that person in the office once, twice, five, ten times a week means something, and I want to give that to them.
ES: You expect that after you retire you’ll spend how much time in Austin?
LA: A lot. I’m looking forward to being in one place.
ES: Sheryl’s going to be in Austin too?
LA: We’re working that out. When the kids are with me, I’ll be in Austin. When the kids are with their mom, I’m free to go off to work or out to Los Angeles to hang out with Sheryl, or she’ll be on tour and I’ll catch up with her. If we were to get married and have children and the kids were to be in school, obviously they’d have to be in one place. That place would be Austin.
ES: You’re not saying you are going to get married—
LA: I’m not saying we’re engaged right now.
ES: So what else are you going to do with yourself? You’ve earned the right to do nothing, but I don’t get the sense that you’re the sort of person who’s particularly comfortable doing nothing.
LA: You’re right. I can’t just sit around and be a retired person at the age of 34. There are a lot of things with the foundation, and I’m very involved with the team: developing riders, recruiting riders, helping them maintain the winning program that we have now. And there’s programming with the Discovery Channel and all its networks.
ES: You would be on the air?
LA: On the air hosting on the Travel Channel, the Health Channel, anything. That’s exciting.
ES: What about public life? Have you ever thought about running for office?
LA: I don’t know.
ES: So you might run for something.
LA: I would want to relax for a while and be out of the public eye, but I’m a competitor. I care about people and causes. It’s certainly a possibility.
ES: That’s one of the great non-answers of all time.
LA: Well, I don’t want to say yes, because then you’re going to say, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”
ES: I wouldn’t necessarily have asked that, but of course now I’ll have to.
LS: I won’t answer. If I ever decide to run, then we’ll all know.