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War correspondent: An interview with Dan Coyle

Dan Coyle is a contributing editor for Outside magazine, a two-time National Magazine Award finalist, and the author of “Hardball: A Season in the Projects.” Most recently, Coyle spent the 2004 season following Lance Armstrong and has offered his insights in his book "LanceArmstrong's War," which reached bookstores last week. VeloNews contributor Sebastian Moll recently had a chance to sit down with Coyle and discuss the impressions a year spent with "Lance Inc." made on the author from Homer, Alaska. VeloNews: So, after nearly a year trying to figure it out, maybe we should start

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By Sebastian Moll, Special to VeloNews

Photo: Harper Collins

Dan Coyle is a contributing editor for Outside magazine, a two-time National Magazine Award finalist, and the author of “Hardball: A Season in the Projects.” Most recently, Coyle spent the 2004 season following Lance Armstrong and has offered his insights in his book “LanceArmstrong’s War,” which reached bookstores last week.

VeloNews contributor Sebastian Moll recently had a chance to sit down with Coyle and discuss the impressions a year spent with “Lance Inc.” made on the author from Homer, Alaska.

VeloNews: So, after nearly a year trying to figure it out, maybe we should start with the central question in your book: What is it that drives Lance Armstrong?

Dan Coyle: It’s the fight. He loves to fight and he loves to win. And he doesn’t want to win by a small margin, he wants to dominate. It’s a drive that motivates him in every aspect of his life.

VN: Where does that come from?

DC: Armstrong hates to psychoanalyze himself, but the big picture’s pretty clear. He grew up as the son of a single mom in a rough part of Dallas. He loves to have power and control and perhaps that is because he had so little of it growing up. In my book there is a chapter about his mother called “The Source.” I believe that everything about Armstrong comes from his mother one-to-one. He continues her fight, her struggle.

VN: Why do you think he is reluctant to, as you say, “psychoanalyze himself?”

DC: That is a very American character trait about him. He always pushes forward, never looks back and ignores the negatives. There’s a story in the book from the 2003 Tour. It’s just before the presentation, and Armstrong’s hip pops out of joint and he can’t walk. He can’t climb a single stair. Jeff Spencer, Armstrong’s chiropractor, gets called in for an emergency adjustment. Spencer pulls on the leg and they hear and feel this loud “POP!” like a dry tree snapping, which scares the hell out of Spencer, who thinks he’s damaged Lance’s leg. Armstrong stands up, walks around. He’s fine, says thanks and never mentions it again. For most athletes, that would have been traumatic, but Armstrong totally blocked it out.

VN: Six Tour victories… do you think that his drive to fight and to win has been satisfied? Will it ever be?

DC: That’s a good question. It will be very interesting to see what he does with his post-cycling career. There was a recent story about him driving past the governor’s mansion in Austin with Sheryl Crow and said to her that it looked “like a pretty nice house.” Maybe he’s kidding, but I think politics would suit his personality pretty well. He could continue fighting infinitely, and for high stakes. And he would fit contemporary American politics perfectly. He would be Arnold Schwarzenegger … only popular.

VN: I think it’s fair to say that Armstrong’s public persona has been largely directed by the picture he himself painted in his autobiographies. Is it part of his obsession with control that he needs to control his public image?

DC: Like anybody in his position ($28 million income last year, according to Forbes), he prefers to control his image, particularly when that image is so crucial to his sponsorships. But it’s also his personality. His relationship with the media is not unlike his relationship with the rest of the peloton: a kind of a fight.

VN: The story is a heroic saga, a fable worthy of Hollywood. Not many people beside yourself have offered alternatives to that story. Does America prefer myth to reality?

DC: At this point, America and the world have heard and seen the same story over and over for six years: a simple, mythical story about a guy from Nowheresville who beat death and goes on to win the planet’s toughest race through sheer force of will. It’s immensely appealing. It’s almost magical. At the same time Americans understand the sport of cycling better each year, and I think most people share a gut sense that Armstrong isn’t that simple, that vanilla-flavored. It’s hard to do what he does. He’s a complicated man, living a gigantically complex life.

VN: Is there something deeper, culturally, in the fact that Americans readily buy into the Armstrong fable, while Europeans don’t?

DC: Maybe it’s a different attitude towards fate. For Armstrong, as for most Americans, fate is a challenge to be overcome, destiny to be forged. Europeans, on the other hand, seem to take a longer view, seeing nobility in the graceful acceptance of fate.

When Ullrich comes in second or fourth he says, “Oh well, I tried everything and lost. That’s life.” Armstrong would never accept that. A typical gesture of Europeans is the shrug – a gesture signifying that things are what they are and there is nothing to be done about it. Americans don’t shrug. Lance definitely does not shrug.

VN: What is your personal take on Lance Armstrong?

DC: As his teammate Jonathan Vaughters once told me, there’s a pattern with Lance: he gets close to people, and inevitably something goes haywire. I must admit, the closer I got to him, the less I found myself admiring him. Now that I have distance again, I find myself admiring him more. Let me put it this way – he is a good hero for my 10-year old son, but I wouldn’t necessarily want him to date my daughter.

VN: One former teammate once described him as “one of the unhappiest men I’ve met.” Do you think Lance Armstrong is happy?

DC: He is more driven than happy. As Floyd Landis puts it in the book, “Lance doesn’t want to be hugged, he wants to kick everybody’s ass.”

In my book, there is an episode from the 2004 Tour, when Ullrich and Armstrong ran into each other in the medical tent. Ullrich hugged Armstrong and that completely freaked Armstrong out. On some level, Ullrich understood that the only way to beat Armstrong is not to fight him but to love him. Maybe love is his Kryptonite. Maybe it’s the one thing he can’t handle.

VN: You have described in more detail than anyone before the extent of the cooperation between Armstrong and Dr. Michele Ferrari. Do you believe Ferrari is the architect of Armstrong’s success?

DC: I think above all Lance Armstrong is the architect of Armstrong’s success, but clearly Ferrari is very important, or rather was, since they’ve officially cut ties after Ferrari’s doping conviction.

I witnessed once when Armstrong talked about a fitness test and said even Ferrari was happy with the results. Ferrari’s opinion was the most important to him, not Carmichael’s and not Bruyneel’s.

VN: Do you believe the rumors that he still works with Ferrari, despite officially having cut ties?

DC: I really don’t know. A Spanish friend of mine saw Ferrari in Girona this March. Perhaps he likes vacationing there.

VN: Do you believe that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs?

DC: I’d like to believe that he hasn’t. There is strong evidence against it and there is some circumstantial evidence for it. The bottom line is, I don’t know. I spell out everything in my book and leave it to the reader to judge. And, since Armstrong is involved in eight or so legal actions about doping allegations, a lot of this stuff might come out in the courts, too. We’ll see.