By Ryan Newill, in Silver Spring, Maryland
Lance Armstrong was confident he had found a sponsor his son Luke could endorse when he took the stage to announce that Discovery Communications would assume the title sponsorship of his U.S. Postal team in 2004.
“My son would be very proud of me for standing up here with a T-Rex,giving a press conference,” Armstrong said, gazing at the skeletal tailof the life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex reproduction that dominates the lobbyof Discovery’s world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Perhaps more important to cycling fans than Luke’s approval, Armstrongconfirmed that, unlike the T-Rex and the miniature wooly mammoth standing rigid in the marble lobby, he would not disappear from the scene after this year’s Tour de France. Prior to the signing of the Discovery deal,the 33-year-old had stated that if a sponsor could not be found to keepthe team’s structure intact, he would retire at the end of the season ratherthan ride for another team.
“There are a lot of people in cycling who thought that this would perhapsbe a magical summer, and history would be made and a sixth Tour would bewon, and I would go away forever. And that is an idea,” laughed Armstrong.“But as I sat around [thinking] … I just didn’t want to go away. I stilllove what I do, and I still love the bike.”
With that, Armstrong committed to continuing his career beyond thisyear’s Tour de France, win or lose. “I just didn’t want to retire. So I’mglad I’ll be back for at least a year, maybe two.”
At the post-announcement press conference, Armstrong fielded severalquestions regarding the doping allegations set forth in DavidWalsh and Pierre Ballester’s book, “L.A. Confidential,” but preferredto discuss his thoughts on this year’s Tour and the years ahead.
With the team’s future guaranteed by what Discovery U.S. Network’s PresidentWilliam Campbell would only describe as a “multiyear, multimillion-dollardeal,” Armstrong felt that it would be easier for the Tour riders to concentrateon the task at hand in July, rather than finding a job for next year.
“[The Tour] is a place where the riders showcase their best skills, andit’s where they talk to the other teams about their future,” said Armstrong. “If we did nothave Discovery, then I would have had guys at the Tour who might possiblybe thinking that they’re not going to be my teammates any longer, thatit would be the final Tour. Then you start to wonderif that ever leaks into their mind – how hard they work for the team, anddo they start looking out for themselves.
“I have full faith in the guyswe have. I don’t think that would be a problem, but it’s not somethingyou want to have to think about. So for us to be able to take this newsback to them – these great guys that I’ve raced with for years and yearsand years – and say, ‘Look, we’re all safe here guys, the program’s goingto stay intact, and we’re going to be able to do what we’re all doing andlove to do,’ it’s a big relief.”
Often criticized for his singular focus on the Tour, Armstrong alsohinted that, by choosing to ride for at least one more year, he might shifthis focus and potentially broaden his palmares in the final years of hiscareer.
“I’m torn because the Tour is so big and it is truly the event thatmeans the most to cycling and to me,” said the five-time champion, “butthere are days when I think about the classics in the springtime in Belgium,and I think about the world championships, and I think about the hour record,and I think about the Giro or the Vuelta. I really want to not necessarilywin those events, but I want to do them. The Giro I’ve never even done.To do 12 or 13 or 14 years professionally and have to say you never didthe Giro, I think, would be a shame.”
But for now, as has been the case in June since 1999, the sole focusis on the Tour. Asked by a Boston Globe reporter who his chief competitionwould be, Armstrong had all the right answers.
“I know you’re from Boston, so do I have to say Tyler? Tyler is thebiggest rival. You can put that on the front page of tomorrow’s Globe,”Armstrong joked, before giving a more detailed analysis of the competitionbased on his recent Dauphiné Libéré. “I think lastweek – frankly, I know last week – I saw a very good Tyler Hamilton, avery good Iban Mayo. Most specifically with Tyler, I saw that his teamwas very good – Phonak was incredible, very strong, very deep.”
Armstrong also did not discount his archrival Jan Ullrich, currentlyleading the Tour of Switzerland.
“I think Ullrich is going to be super,” he said of the German, who henow must consider as part of a potential 1-2 punch. “Ullrich got a littlebad news two or three days ago when he lost Vinokourov at the Tour of Switzerland, crashed out with a broken collarbone. We don’t know yet if he’s going to do the Tour, but if they both show up it’s a double headache for us.”
With Postal bowing out in 2005 and Discovery taking over, Armstrongwas also quick to recognize the faith that the team had placed in him duringhis comeback from cancer.
“My manager made many, many phone calls, and nobody took the calls,” he said. “Nobodywanted the sick kid from Texas on their team. And one little team thatwas okay then, not great, took the call and took the guy on the team andgave him an opportunity in 1998 and stood by him, and stood by the team. Inever would have won the Tour if it wasn’t for the Postal Service. I’meternally grateful, and I’ve got a ton of great friends there.”
Despite Armstrong’s deep attachment to the Postal years, he was all smiles when Campbell presented him with a Discovery jersey, telling Armstrong,“We wanted to show everyone how great you will look when you get your seventhwin in 2005.” Over the applause of the assembled Discovery Channel workers,Armstrong, fingers crossed, responded only, “Let’s get through number sixfirst, Billy.”
According to Discovery Communications, Armstrong will be featured inprogramming on a number of the company’s nine channels, which include theDiscovery Channel, the Travel Channel, FitTV, and the Health Channel. Andwhile Armstrong was enthusiastic about continuing is budding televisioncareer, he reiterated what he calls “his policy.” “When I race, I race,and I can’t really think about too much of what goes on in the future.”
For now, Armstrong’s future is still atop a bicycle. And with a newsponsor in the bag, he can put off one particular thought for just a littlelonger.
“If this were to be my final year,” said Armstrong, “I would have tosit here and imagine and think to myself that I would be retired in fiveand a half weeks, and I can’t imagine that.”