A pre-season chat with Lance Armstrong

His training clothes sodden, his face flushed from riding in two hours of glacial rain, Lance Armstrong burst into the lobby of Tucson's swank Westin La Paloma hotel, dropped off his Trek with a bellhop and, shivering from the cold, asked for his room key. Welcome to "sunny" southern Arizona, the place chosen for this month’s U.S. Postal Service team get-together and sponsor weekend. "That was as cold as my hands have ever been," the Texan said in response to the first question of an interview he extended to VeloNews. Already, the cold ride was a memory. Now, installed on a comfortable

By John Wilcockson

His training clothes sodden, his face flushed from riding in two hours of glacial rain, Lance Armstrong burst into the lobby of Tucson’s swank Westin La Paloma hotel, dropped off his Trek with a bellhop and, shivering from the cold, asked for his room key. Welcome to “sunny” southern Arizona, the place chosen for this month’s U.S. Postal Service team get-together and sponsor weekend.

“That was as cold as my hands have ever been,” the Texan said in response to the first question of an interview he extended to VeloNews. Already, the cold ride was a memory. Now, installed on a comfortable chair in one of the hotel’s plush upstairs sitting areas, Armstrong was wearing dry sweats and T-shirt. He was relaxed — and ready to talk about his off-season, his team’s new riders, and his racing prospects for 2001.

The interview, shared with VeloNews freelancer Andrew Hood, began with that question about the morning’s frigid training ride….

VeloNews: Was it cold enough for you, today?

Lance Armstrong: That was as cold as my hands have ever been. It wasn’t the coldest I’ve seen, but nobody was prepared. It dropped about 20 degrees and nobody had the clothing. We had like just thin gloves, and some guys didn’t even have raincoats. Some guys didn’t even have gloves. Hypothermia sets in.

VN: You guys are like cursed with the weather at training camps….

LA: Everybody’s saying that, but this isn’t a training camp. This is just taking that Ojai gig [sponsor weekend] we did last year [in California] … and since everybody came from Europe we naturally extended it a couple of days, instead of them flying here for one weekend. The thinking was, [the weather] would be better so we could train….

VN: How are you getting on with Heras [your team’s big off-season acquisition]? Aside from racing against him, your first rides have been with him here and in Austin at your Texas mini-camp in December….

LA: Roberto is a very nice person. He’s a simple guy. I don’t want to say he’s a kid, he’s a young man. For as successful as he’s been, for the situation that he’s in … I think it’s new to him … to be winner of the Tour of Spain, sort of the next great hope in cycling … he has no attitude, no ego, he’s a great, great guy. He’s trying hard to fit in, he’s trying to learn English. Never seen him get angry. Very cool guy.

VN: He said that you were instrumental in getting him on the team … you said he was a guy you would like on the team. Is that so?

LA: Well, we’re always trying to get good riders. And now we’re in a position, since the budget is stronger, that we can get riders. And it all came about because at some point me and Johan [Bruyneel] heard that he was interested in coming here….

VN: That was after the Tour?

LA: Maybe just after, or towards the end, I don’t know. I said to Johan — and we agreed — that, absolutely, if that can happen, then we have to…. Why wouldn’t you take a talent like that? I don’t exactly know how old he is….

VN: He’ll be 27 in February.

LA: So he’s not very old. He’s gonna be around a lot longer than I’m gonna be around. We said immediately: great climber, good kid … seems like he has plenty of room to improve and to grow even from there. Especially for the big tours, with his time trialing, which we’ve already worked on [in Texas]. The wind tunnel will tell you he’s lost already three minutes on one time trial … with equipment, helmets, position. That’s probably a little exaggerated, but I think it’s safe to say two minutes.

VN: What about the other new guys, Rubiera, and Peña?

LA: None of them came together oddly enough [even though Heras and Rubiera were both on Kelme in 2000, and Peña was with another Spanish team, Vitalicio]. Rubiera … we had heard that he was talking to some teams. He speaks English almost perfectly, first of all, which was sort of an attractive thing. He’s a good rider, did a great Giro [winner of a mountain stage and eighth overall], can do a lot of things … can climb well, can time trial well … he’s a team guy. He’s also — which I didn’t know at the time –- a very, very intelligent guy, which is so cool to see on your own team. After cycling’s done … this is just a small part of his life….

So he just came about, and then we contacted — Rominger’s his agent — so we contacted Tony and it kinda happened. And Peña came through (when) Vitalicio fell apart, Johan heard about it, he’d also just had a great Giro, won the time trial there. Johan contact him … he was the easiest one to acquire.

VN: How do you see everything fitting together at the Tour with these guys?

LA: Um … we still have to have a balance, because we have a team time trial, we have the anticipation of trying to lead the race. You don’t want to just go with a bunch of climbers. The good thing about Chechu — Rubiera they call Chechu — and Peña — or Vic, that’s his new name — is that they can both really time trial and climb. Rubiera’s the better climber, but Vic can climb. I think with the base of me, Roberto, Chechu, Vic and Tyler, [that] is a pretty good start. Then you add four sort-of rollers in there…. And to get from the other 16 guys [on the team] to four, with guys like Eki and George, and Benoit and Steffen, and Vasseur….

VN: Matt White….

LA: In my opinion, Matt White is done, because I’ve seen what he can do. And he’s sooo committed to the Tour de France. That’s why he came here. I think — and I don’t want to name the team now, because that’s not fair, things happen. Well, anyways, you’ve got the guys like Eki, George, Matt White, Cédric, Steffen, Benoit, Christian — I don’t want to be the guy that’s gotta decide. Lot better than it was last year…. Oh, the team has always gotten better, tried to get better.

VN: Are you happy with the new races in your program?

LA: Well, they’re more or less the same….

VN: Well, you’re not doing Route du Sud, Dauphiné, you’re doing the Tour de Suisse….

LA: I didn’t do Route du Sud last year….

VN: You were programmed to, but didn’t….

LA: Right.

VN: Is that one reason why you’re doing the Tour de Suisse, because you came out of Dauphiné really strong … and it’s too long before the Tour?

LA: Um … for me the biggest reason in doing the Tour of Switzerland is the uphill time trial. Because I’ve only done…. Well I did one … two years ago in Dauphiné, I did one seems like a decade ago in the Tour of Switzerland. I just have no experience with that. The Dauphiné doesn’t have it, Catalunya I don’t think has it. There’s a lot of reasons. It’s the uphill time trial, it’s something new, it’s a big, big race — the fourth biggest race in the world probably — we can go to and try to win the race with one of our guys. Rominger now runs the event or is part of the management, he’s a very good friend of mine, it’s a way to support him.

So many people want to make something out of, well, there’s no French races, or they’re skipping France, [and] that’s not the case. I had scheduled Paris-Nice last year and got sick, and didn’t do it. But it’s not a statement. If you really wanted to avoid it then you would just try and avoid the Tour de France, which is obviously not an option.

VN: So, are you going to stay [living] in Nice? Or are you seriously looking at Spain?

LA: We’re keeping our house in Nice. (Chuckles.)

VN: It’s a nice house….

LA: It’s a beautiful house. My wife loves it. And, I’ll tell yah, I love that home … I mean, that home, and that community, and that city has done a lot for my career. It really has. Me and Kristin, we have such a history of going there, and leaving, and then kind-of going back and finding that home. When we bought that home, we didn’t have anything. That was, to us, that was like trying to buy a [Boeing] 747 right now. I mean, it was just … ridiculous … we thought, “Oh, God, how are we gonna do this?” It was a beautiful home and we fixed it up a lot, and tried to make it more our style. So to sell it and move away completely would not be … it’s not an option really. So….

VN: Are you spending more time in Spain?

LA: (Laughs) C’mon, now. I said I’m not selling our home….

VN: Not training with Johan?

LA: (Pause) Keeping our home. Keeping that home in Nice.

VN: But you’ve got a training camp in Spain, and you’re racing a lot there….

LA: There’s a lot of guys in Spain; this team is very, sort-of Spanish-centric. All the staff … well a lot of the staff, a lot of the riders, even the American guys, all live there.

VN: What are your thoughts about [Kevin] Livingston riding for Telekom? You guys have been side by side for several years, and now he’s gonna be with your No. 1 rival.

LA: It was a…. I mean, I can only kind-of tell you what I know, and I don’t know very much. That’s the odd thing, because we were always so close, and I always tried to do everything for Kevin … when it involved Kevin — for him as a person, as a man, as a rider, as a young guy — to do good … to be something. So I invested a lot of time and love — is really the best word — in that relationship. I don’t know exactly what happened, but he wanted to leave the team … I think the reasons for going to Linda McCartney were.… Financially, it was a very good offer. I know it was a very good offer. And then the opportunities were to leave the team, ride for yourself, spread your wings, try something new … everybody can understand that. And everybody, when they see that, they say, “Good on you, man.”

And then I sort-of heard rumblings — and through all of this stuff, I didn’t hear much from him for whatever reason. I wasn’t kept in the loop on that. And then heard rumors it was falling apart, and then he signed for Telekom. Which is…. I don’t even know how to draw a comparison there.

VN: Like the Broncos going to the Raiders….

LA: I think it’s like Colin Powell going to Communist China, or Schwarzkopf going to China. It was very hard to believe. It wasn’t devastating, ’cause I think that the team, from a team standpoint, we are obviously going to be very good, we’re gonna be fine. But from a friendship standpoint, I was disappointed. I still care for Kevin a lot … I don’t talk to him very much, but I don’t understand those actions. I think everybody understood the first part. I don’t think anybody can understand the second part. What he left behind here was a winning team, great friends -– not just me, Tyler and George, everybody here … that’s odd.

VN: I think it was partly accidental, because when he got talking with McCartney I think the financial state of the team wasn’t as strong as he expected …

LA: Right….

VN: … and then he got this offer from Telekom. I don’t think he went seeking it.

LA: But you know, before you do…. I could…. Somebody could call me, some new kind-of fringe team, and say we want to give you $20 million a year. And I could go and run after it. But you kind-of have to say, “You know what? Maybe this is too good to be true.” That should be part of the decision making. Along the way. You can’t make decisions based on just money, or just certain things. You need to base it also on tradition and history, due diligence, and make sure this is legit.

VN: Would you have taken him back if he had asked?

LA: In a heartbeat. In a heartbeat. I was … well, there’s more details here than I need to get into. You know, it’s gonna come down to “he said, she said.” But, absolutely. You know, I got a phone call that said “What about Kevin, will you take him back?” And I said, “Hell, yeah. Immediately.” But….

VN: What’s your views on Operation Yellow Jersey of [Jan] Ullrich?

LA: Well, I mean, he’s….

VN: He’s obsessed with it … beating you.

LA: (Long pause) I have nothing bad to say about Jan Ullrich. I mean, he can call it whatever he wants, or he can make what any predictions he wants, or any projections, but I still like him as a person, I respect him as a rider, and … he’s scary. And if he does it just right, he’ll be hard to beat. But I know that I don’t have to ride any faster than I’ve already ridden — to climb at my speed, and to time trial at my speed will always be enough. That’s not to say that I won’t crash, I won’t get sick, I won’t have whatever problems….

I think by Ullrich getting back to his best form, whenever that was — I personally think his best form was in 1996 — and getting back to that form is not good enough. Even to ’97 form is not good enough … ’98 form. So, you call it whatever you want, it’s an operation … it’s a big operation. But I read it, too, I read that stuff…

VN: He’s only 10 pounds overweight as opposed to 25….

LA: I just read that before I came over here…. I mean, they say that every year. They say that every year…

VN: Does that motivate you?

LA: Us? No, because we don’t need to call it anything, we don’t need to make … um … sort-of let our ambitions be…. Everybody knows our ambitions. We don’t need to talk about it. It is what it is, and we want to win the Tour for the third time, and so, whatever….

VN: How do you keep motivated? Is that an easy thing for you?

LA: Oh, this year I have a lot of motivation.

VN: Oh yeah?

LA: Oh, yeah. I’ll always find something.

VN: What have you got this year?

LA: Plenty. It’s plenty … plenty. It’s always something.

VN: Because last year, was it Bartoli who said….

LA: No, last year there were a lot of guys…. It was Bartoli, and Vandenbroucke … there were a lot of guys that sort-of discredited my victory…. The first year was normal enough: I mean, I was hungry to come back, and hungry to prove that I could do it [win the Tour]. The next year, everybody said, “Well, it’s not really a victory because we … I wasn’t there.” Pantani said that, Ullrich said that, Bartoli … all those people said that. So that’s plenty of motivation, But that’s not really deep, deep motivation, that will only … that doesn’t get you through January, February, March, April … that’s just sort-of French … stuff.

VN: The sort of motivation that comes from court proceedings in France?

LA: I mean, we, um…. I think it’s actually for us, the best thing we could do to relieve the pressure, is to lose the Tour de France. The more we win…. If we win again, then…. You saw it happen in ’99, I see it happening now. It will always happen .. to us, to cycling, to sport…. This is the era that we live in. Everything is questioned. Like Cedric (Vasseur) told me yesterday…. I said, “What is this … what’s the deal here?” He says, “Lance, you don’t understand. People in France don’t like the winner. They like the guy who’s second.”

VN: It’s true. Even when Anquetil was winning (in the 1960s), they loved Poulidor….

LA: Yeah, And so, uhm … it’s tough. I mean, we have…. The only thing I’ll say about that affaire, is that we have nothing to hide, and we are very excited they are testing the samples. End of story. And when the results come back, I think it will truly be the end of story. But — end of this story, end of this chapter — but it will always be something, always. And that’s unfortunate….

VN: Does it bug you … deep down, or is it just something you’re getting used to?

LA: Er .. sort-of getting…. I mean, the more it happens — you know, ’99 it really bothered me, when this stuff first hit, it bothered me, just ’cause there’s been a lot of inaccurate things written and reported. It’s been…. This stuff has been absurd. And the tactics used were cheap. I mean, come on. But … it’s been stressful. It’s been a very stressful winter. And there’s been things that this issue…. I mean, issues like that, issues like Kevin, they were stressful issues. Whatever. Obviously, that’s why I’m lucky, because I’ve had to deal with winters that were a helluva lot more stressful.

VN: Let me ask you, have you been entirely out of the loop in terms of informing you or the organization what’s going on?

LA: This team has not been notified of anything. Nothin’. Contacted? Nothing. Nobody. So, the only thing that we know is what we read. It’s unbelievable. And, I mean, the reason that we’re … if they test the samples … which they’re gonna test the samples, hallelujah. I wanted them to test the samples after the Tour de France.

VN: For EPO….

LA: Yeah.

VN: Because it’s been tested for everything else.

LA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that they need to do…. The only disclaimer I’ll say is that they need to do a credible and professional job. They need to have credible, professional scientists, and they need to administer the tests with all the ethics and all the procedures that are professional. If not, then it’s… You know, they’re going to say something, and we will make sure that it’s done correctly. However, I’m confident they’ll do it right, because … the French developed the test, and they want the test to prove…. If the test was not done properly then the test has no credibility. So, that’s why I am just so elated that they’re gonna do it. I mean, what are we waiting for? I’m a little concerned that this is taking … it doesn’t take long to test it. Are they now saying the end of January or something?

VN: That’s right.

LA: They actually started testing them, I think, in November … but, all right, I’ve gotta go talk to the Germans, probably about Operation Yellow Jersey.

VN: Thanks, Lance.

LA: Thanks, guys.

With that, Lance Armstrong strode down the corridor toward another interview, this time with German TV. He would then be dressing for dinner with representatives of his Postal team’s two dozen sponsors: major companies like Thomas Weisel Partners, Visa, Bridge Financial Services, Interwoven Software. Yahoo!, Trek, Nike…. That’s the sort of backing that helps make it possible for the U.S. Postal Service squad to strengthen itself with riders like Heras, Peña, Rubiera and White.

They will all be getting together again this week for a full-scale, two-week training camp in Spain. By the time the team starts its 2001 racing season in Portugal (Tour of the Algarve) and Spain (Ruta del Sol), they will have ridden thousands of kilometers together. None of their rides, though, will be as cold as that character-building one in the freezing rain of Tucson.

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