On top of his game: Armstrong talks about celebrity, hard questions, Greg LeMond and more…
Listening to Lance Armstrong, you get the sense that in a not-so-distant past, when Texas Rangers rode horses, he would have been a gunslinger. Not a raw, do-it-for-kicks Billy the Kid, but a character like Paladin, portrayed by Richard Boone, the black-dressed hero of the mythical TV Western, "Have Gun, Will Travel." Like Paladin, the man called Lance is very intelligent, has a veneer of sophistication -- and shoots from the hip. Only Lance uses words, not bullets. At the ripe young age of 29, Armstrong commands the attention of a worldwide audience largely because the Tour de France has
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By John Wilcockson
Listening to Lance Armstrong, you get the sense that in a not-so-distant past, when Texas Rangers rode horses, he would have been a gunslinger. Not a raw, do-it-for-kicks Billy the Kid, but a character like Paladin, portrayed by Richard Boone, the black-dressed hero of the mythical TV Western, “Have Gun, Will Travel.” Like Paladin, the man called Lance is very intelligent, has a veneer of sophistication — and shoots from the hip. Only Lance uses words, not bullets.
At the ripe young age of 29, Armstrong commands the attention of a worldwide audience largely because the Tour de France has become, as he says, “a global monster.” And very few Tour de France winners have dominated the “monster” as Armstrong did this July. He won the toughest mountain stages with gunslinger-like panache, and flaunted his superiority in both long time trials, something not even Miguel Induráin, Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault or Jacques Anquetil did. In fact, the last rider to “do a Lance” was an explosive Laurent Fignon in 1984, when Hinault was the foe that the winner baited and beat.
Jan Ullrich was the man that Armstrong shot down in 2001, but the stoic German insists that he can still beat the American in a future Tour. Armstrong might not agree with that assessment, as he already has his own plans. When asked the obvious question “Are you going for the record of five victories?” at his press conference in Evry, on the eve of the Tour’s final stage, the Texan gave a very Lance-type answer: “If I’m sitting here next year and I find I no longer have the passion, I will be gone and you’ll never see me again.”
“I’m not chasing a record,” he added. “And I’m definitely not coming back for second place. At the moment, I’m chasing No. 4 … if we get through tomorrow.”
Armstrong got through “tomorrow” — stage 20 into Paris — when he crossed the finish line in 70th place on the Champs-Elysées, and was ready to savor his third consecutive Tour triumph: pulling on the 35th yellow jersey of his career atop the winner’s podium; carrying the lone-star flag of Texas past the Arc de Triomphe on his team’s victory parade; and being the guest of honor at the third annual U.S. Postal Service sponsor banquet in the magnificent Orsay museum.
Then came a short trip to Switzerland to compete in the invitation-only Across Lausanne hill climb (won by Australian mountain biker Cadel Evans) before Armstrong, wife Kristin and son Luke flew to New York on August 1. After arriving in the Big Apple, the appearance schedule was maniacal. That evening, he recorded a TV appearance for “Late Night with David Letterman” and threw the opening pitch at the New York Yankees-Texas Rangers baseball game. The next morning, Armstrong was up early to appear on three breakfast TV programs: “Today,” “The Early Show” and “Live with Regis and Kelly.” Then came a ceremony at the 8th Avenue Post Office for his team sponsor, followed by taped interviews with Fox Sports’ Jim Rome and public television’s Charlie Rose. The next day saw the Tour winner visit the White House and then a flight back to Texas aboard Air Force One with fellow Texan George W. Bush.
Armstrong said he felt a different attitude from the public to his latest success compared with previous years. Talking to VeloNews from his Austin home on August 6, the Tour champion said, “It seems to me that people are understanding the event more and more. I think the Outdoor Life coverage was enormously successful compared to what people thought it would be. Which is good for us, good for the fans … even for people that just have no idea. Everybody knows that live sports are better than tape-delayed sports. I think that was very helpful for people to follow the event.
“Whenever we had dinner [in New York], people were very friendly, complimentary and congratulatory. For us, it’s neither here nor there, but I think for our sport it’s good, very good, that some regular person in a restaurant can put two and two together.”
Of the TV talk shows he did, Armstrong said he most enjoyed his appearance on Charlie Rose. “It was a lot of fun, a different sort of thing,” he said. “The morning shows are four or five minutes. Charlie Rose is a full hour, just a conversation, uninterrupted, no-commercials television … good format to have a real discussion.”
Asked if he had had any hard questions, Armstrong hesitated before replying, “Uhhh … in my opinion there’s no such thing as a hard question. When you’re honest and you’re innocent, there’s no such thing as a hard question. They may appear to be hard … you know, of long delivery and somebody watching my face, that’s a hard question. And if you’re a liar and a cheat, that would be hard to answer, but I have no problem in answering questions honestly.”
Armstrong knew that he would have to answer many “hard” questions raised by recent newspaper articles on both sides of the Atlantic, especially those that included the remarks made by Greg LeMond. After saying he was “devastated” by Armstrong’s use of Italy’s so-called “doping doctor,” Michele Ferrari, as a consultant for high-altitude training and nutrition, LeMond told The Sunday Times of London, “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sport. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”
“I was surprised to see the comments,” said Armstrong, choosing his words carefully. “I consider Greg to be a very good friend, and that made it even more surprising. When you think you have a friend, [who] happens to be a legend in your sport as well, and if you see something like that, it’s obviously a little … a little alarming. I thought the best thing to do was to just call him, and see what’s up. But there’s not much to say. I’m disappointed. I wouldn’t have said those things.”
Intimating that LeMond’s comments might have sprung from sour grapes, Armstrong went on: “People will always ride faster. Regardless of what I do in cycling, there’s gonna be another American that comes along and does something better, something faster — marks or standards or records or speeds. That’s evolution in sport, that’s evolution in society, and that’s normal … and I’m perfectly willing to accept that. So, I don’t know. I was surprised. I’m still surprised.”
Did he think that LeMond understood his use of Ferrari a little better after their conversation?” “I dunno,” Armstrong replied hurriedly. “I dunno … I still respect Greg a lot. You cannot take away what he’s done for our sport, and what he’s done for me as a person, as an athlete…. He was the first cyclist in America to have the great story. He did a lot. He put the sport on the map, and I owe him a lot in that, so … I’ll end my comments with that, and whatever he says or thinks, is his business. But we owe him a lot.”
Then, after a long pause, the second American cyclist with a great story stated, “I prefer not to take the low road.”
Armstrong went on to talk about other publications’ responses to The Sunday Times articles, like the Newsweek, item that said, “Lance Armstrong’s challengers insist he’s on drugs.”
The Tour winner commented, “I understand that based on articles like that [in The Sunday Times], people might say, ‘Hmm, you have to ask the question.’ And that’s why I don’t blame most people for writing the articles because it’s newsworthy.”
“But,” he continued, sighing and pausing, “it’s our sport. It’s absolutely our sport. And that’s the unfortunate thing. But look at cycling, man. Nobody else can say that they’ve done what cycling’s done. Look at an event like the Tour, three weeks long. And you look at the controls that are in place, and the amount of controls that the UCI did, and Société du Tour de France did, and random controls … 10 athletes a day. Say for example somebody wanted to take a risk and use EPO, there’s no way … because anyone who did would have to be incredibly stupid.”
Armstrong said he wished journalists who so willingly write about doping in cycling would also give publicity to the good things that are happening in the sport, such as the UCI’s report from this year’s Tour de France that the peloton’s average hematocrit level was 43.2 percent — well below the 50-percent level where EPO use is suspected.
Maintaining a steady hematocrit level is one of the keys to recovery during a race as long and hard as the Tour. And it’s acknowledged that, despite its potentially deadly side-effects, EPO was the drug widely used by athletes in the 1990s to maintain a high hematocrit level. That’s why there was so much EPO in the Festina team car busted by French police on its way to the start of the 1998 Tour.
Times have changed. Many of today’s top athletes use altitude tents, which can simulate sleeping at an elevation of 14,000 feet, and naturally replace red blood cells in the blood. Armstrong is one cyclist who has become a convert to altitude tents. Asked if he used one during the Tour, the Texan said, “Sporadically in the beginning.”
He then went on to say there were drawbacks to using one, as it precludes the use of air conditioning. “First of all, it’s hot,” he explained, saying he used one in the run-up to the Tour. “It’s hard to do in a race because you sleep well, but you don’t recover as well. And it’s hot. [I used it for] all of the Tour of Switzerland, the entire Tour of Switzerland. And at the other times I was in St. Moritz, before and after the Tour of Switzerland.”
No doubt, an altitude tent will one day play a part in Armstrong’s plan to attack the world hour record. Asked when he would do such a ride, he replied, “Definitely not this year. Don’t know the plans … there are no definitive dates.”
But when would he like to do it? “Good question. I don’t think it’s opportune to do it right after the Tour. And the Tour falls in the middle of everything. It’s a difficult, difficult question. Don’t know.
“I know that it’s appealing and that at one point it will be done … I mean, will be attempted. I shouldn’t even say….
“Before that, what will definitely be done, there will definitely be testing to find out if I can ride the track fast enough. I’m unfortunate that I have no track experience. I’ve probably ridden 20 kilometers in my entire life on the track, so I could be worthless.
“Soon, we have to scout the locations where we do it, build the track [he’s thinking of an indoor track at altitude], and see if people are interested in funding something like that. It’s a big…. If you build it, it’s not something you can do overnight.”
So no world hour record attempt this year, and no world’s either, right? “Nope.” But when asked if he ever intended doing the world’s again, Armstrong asked, rhetorically, “Isn’t it in Canada in a couple of years?”
Yes, in 2003, the road world’s will be held in Hamilton, Ontario, and the road race is on a tough course that local Steve Bauer has helped design. It has two climbs up the Niagara Escarpment every lap, a course that would suit Armstrong.
By October 2003, the Texan may have won the Tour five times, and his participation in a world championship in North America would attract massive publicity. So, would he race the Hamilton world’s? “I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it….” he said, thoughtfully.
If he does think about it, Armstrong will realize that winning a second world championship, 10 years after his first rainbow jersey, would put him on a par with LeMond — something that might give him a big incentive. And it would be another coup for a rugged champion, a gunslinger who’s proud of his conquests.
Lance Armstrong’s also very proud of his family, as he revealed when he brought this interview to an abrupt end. “Okay, Kristin just pulled in,” he said with an excited lift to his voice. “The Boss, Luke the Boss is here. I gotta go….”