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Published in Mandarin Oriental Magazine, 2005

In conversation with Lance Armstrong

There is conceivably no fitter human being on the planet than Lance Armstrong. There has perhaps neverbeen. Both his Christian name and surname have the ring of classical heroism, which is fitting because between 1999 and 2005 the World Champion cyclist totally dominated the Tour De France, the world’s toughest athletic competition, winning a record seven times – more than any other rider in the race’s 103-year history. Yet the drama of the 34-year-old Texan’s life before, during and after his retirement from professional racing in 2005 makes his achievements all the more incredible.

His story is biblical, and it is appropriate for a sport that is biblically painful. Cycle racing demands superhuman stamina, an oceanic capacity for agony and a billion volts of raw nerve. Armstron’s diagnosis at the age of 25 with testicular cancer, which spread to his brains and lungs, and his subsequent recovery echo the story of Lazarus. Physicians gave him less than a 40 per cent chance of survival. He then went on to win the Tour seven times, alongside innumerable race victories, a performance suggesting the self-will of David or the endurance of Job. Since his retirement he has experienced a type of mortal ascension through his Livestrong cancer foundation, becoming an almost saintly figure in world where media stars have replaced religious icons.

Strangely, Armstrong’s impact on global consciousness can be measured in a peculiarly mundane way. ‘The Armstrong Effect’ has grown interest in competition cycling far beyond its European heartland, but it remains relatively specialist in comparison with football, F1 or boxing. But it’s down to Lance that 40 million around the world today own and wear distinctive yellow Livestrong wristbands – tokens of inspiration and belief in personal potential that that have been copied by countless other charities and causes. The Livestrong campaign’s successes show that its figurehead is a force of positivity that has touched the lives of millions. Few in the public eye who have worked so hard at success, and then deployed their celebrity so energetically or selflessly.

You can perhaps understand why, from his ranch in Austin, Texas, Armstrong today quips that he is ‘not that quiet for a guy that is supposed to be retired.’ Few people, it has to be said, retire into the kind of world Lance Armstrong lives with day to day.

Life is not only busier than ever, but infinitely more varied than the gruelling professional regimentation of days spent in the saddle (up to seven hours and 250km a day), in the hands of <soigneurs> or in bed in hotel room. He lives in the Hollywood hills with the rock star Sheryl Crow, whom the newly divorced Armstrong met in October 2003 at a children’s charity fundraiser (in true technology-age fashion, they flirted via Blackberry). The couple plan to wed this spring, after he proposed on a boat in the middle of a lake in Sun Valley, Idaho. He says his life is as ‘normal’ as one can possibly be for a couple who’ve sold 25million albums and 40 million wristband between them. ‘We have it pretty good,’ he says. ‘We lay low and out of the celebrity eye most of the time.’

Armstrong also a devoted father to this three children Luke, Isabelle and Elizabeth, from his former marriage to marriage to Kristin Richard.

His Nike-supported Livestrong campaign and the Lance Armstrong Foundation continue to raise money for cancer research worldwide, and act as network hub of information, support and inspiration for sufferers. This – rather than for his sporting achievements – is how he wishes to be remembered. ‘For sure,’ he tells me, ‘I want to be remembered as a cancer survivor more than as a cyclist.’

Even before retirement, Armstrong poured his energy into the cause of broadening knowledge awareness of cancer – particularly the male taboo of testicular cancer. ‘When Nike told us they were going to make 5 million Livestrong bands I thought we would be sitting around shooting them at each other,’ he says. ‘But a funny thing happened along the way. After the Tour and then [2004] Summer Olympics they seemed to be everywhere.’

As did Lance Armstring himself. His commitment has anything but diminished – and the roll-call of A-listers on his speed-dial has similarly expanded. ‘Ben Stiller, Robin William, Sheryl Crow and Will Ferrell have volunteered their time at various LAF fundraisers,’ he says. Williams in particular has become a close friend, and though the comedian has yet to perfect an impersonation of Armstrong’s no-nonsense Texan patter, Lance says Robin ‘does a great impression of the French talking about me’ - a reference to ongoing allegations of doping by a French newspaper (recent publicity photos show Armstrong in a T-shirt logoed with a cowboy boot kicking a frog. The case continues, but the message is clear: you don't mess with the man called Armstrong).

In the aftermath of cycling’s most dazzling career of last decade, plaudits and honours have hardly been thin on the ground. In 2005 Armstrong was nominated as Time Magazine’s Person Of The Year. He was in luminous company. ‘To be in the company of people who I admire like Bono was pretty wild to see,’ Armstrong says. ‘He and Bill & Melinda Gates are great choices because of what they do with their respective charities.’ There are rumours Armstrong may soon run for office. Being a close friend of George Bush, he is also familiar with the insides of the White House, and his Texan independence of mind, resolve, instinct for leadership and magnanimous grasp of communication would seem to perfectly qualify him. Perhaps in a former life Armstrong was sheriff.

But what is most striking today about Armstrong is that at an age when most are still consolidating careers, he has applied his notoriety into dedication to the lives of others: his children, his fiancée and a worldwide community of cancer sufferers. His relationship with fame is ambiguous. ‘When when I'm done with cycling,’ he recently said, ‘when nobody wants to photograph me any more, or interview me, or get my autograph, they'll still be my kids and I'll be their Dad and that means a whole lot more than anything. I've never gone big on the fame thing, because that means a whole lot more. I'll always be their Dad. I'll always be a cancer fighter. I won't always be a cyclist.’

His own upbringing was the opposite of auspicious, and it bred in him a both a ferocious single-mindedness and a desire to lead and nurture. His mother Linda conceived him when she was 17, and Armstrong grew up in downtown Dallas in a $200-month one-bed apartment. Mom worked in KFC. His father, Eddie, walked out when Lance was two. Armstrong has said he has no desire to meet him, referring to the man only as his ‘DNA donor’. ‘I’ve always been a competitive person and one that never gives up. I get that from my mom.’

His is a classically American yarn of triumph over adversity, and one that is all the more powerful for being true. Just about everything in Lance Armstrong’s life is a salutary lesson that focus will get you everywhere.

There is a complexity of character that may be invisible to casual observers of cycling. Since the late-Nineties Armstrong has gathered a fearsomely hardnosed reputation as a cyclist. Completing a Tour De France is thought to reduce a rider’s life expectancy by a year; entering, let alone winning, the ‘rolling chess’ game of cycling demand excellence in a range of disciplines, all exhausting. Some riders specialise in time-trials, others in the lung-busting climbs to the roof of Europe on mountain stages. The majority are <domestiques> who concentrate on stage wins.

Armstrong proved prodigiously talented in all three areas. Over the course of his Tour career he also emerged as a master tactician, inspirational team leader (firstly for the US Postal team, and then for Discovery Channel) and brilliant technician who evolved himself deeply in the sciences of training, diet and mechanics to become the greatest <rouleur> of his generation -  a legend to rank alongside greats of postwar cycling including Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, Spain’s Miguel Indurain and Italy’s Fausto Coppi. Added to all of which is the capabality of riding up to a mere 250km for as many as seven hours a day, continuously for three weeks with just couple of days off, through rain, wind, beating sun, hail, demented chasing spectators, and over cobblestones, alongside speeding cars and in one memorable instance, through a ploughed field when he veered off track.

Yet Armstrong’s drive, impatience and disregard for the peculiarities of cycling etiquette initially alienated rather than endeared him to sections of the continental media and fans. Many viewed his appliance-of-science approach as antithetical to the eccentric, hairy and often insular world of European cycling.

His public persona developed with a grimly combative edge – the kind of angry focus that suggests a person who rarely appeared to laugh, smile or enjoy the view through the window of his express-train life. ‘Cycling is a full-time job, at least it was for me,’ he says today. ‘There is really no off season if you want to be at the top in this sport.’

A commentator once asked what Armstrong thought about as he cranked through thousands of miles of French countryside, mountains and picture-book panoramas. ‘I think about cycling,’ he replied. Other observers invoked his ‘Dead Elvis’ face: the mask of total athletic aggression he would wear when grinding his way up the Col du Telegraph or any other vertiginous French incline. From 1999 to 2005, Armstrong grew in the public imagination as a relentlessly competitive, trash-talking and grudge-fuelled cycle hothead hell-bent on success at any cost. Even as he coasted into Paris at the end of the 2005 Tour, he wasn’t confident of winning: ‘The funny thing about the race is that you never know up until the last day,’ he says. ‘A couple of my team-mates crashed as we got into Paris, that easily could have been me. I was never sure until we did the last lap in Paris.’

For all his self-will, the cycling superhero is as prone to doubt an anyone. ‘I always felt good on the bike and my team was always there for me during the three weeks,’ Armstrong tells me. ‘I was confident that we would be the best team out there but also aware that anything can happen.

What is easy to forget is that Armstrong’s true grudge was with himself, with the body that succumbed to cancer in 1996. His greatest asset is also his greatest liability. His heart is thought to be a third bigger than average, his pain-tolerance threshold and lung capacity far greater than the norm. Yet he was just 25 and at peak fitness when he noticed the painfully swollen testicle. Withjing days he was under the surgeon’s knife, and into the shadows of a cancer battle. It forced a total reappraisal of his world.

But today, as he glides into a heightened public role outside of the sport’s narrow confines, he does so with an more modest, sunnier and altogether more human warmth to his celebrity halo. It is illuminating to look at photos of pre-cancer Armstrong – far bulkier, heavier and jockish than the ravaged knot of bones, muscle and determination packed into Discovery Channel lycra and barking orders to his <domestiques> we see on TDF coverage. In his memoir ‘It’s Not About The Bike’, Armstrong is brutally honest on his cancer experience, and in his appriasal of his former self. A triathlete and distance runner before he took to cycling, Armstrong was a brash and belligerent young competitor. He says that cancer improved him, transformed him from boy to man, reminded him of his own humanity. It is also telling that, in the book, Armstrong cites the following definition of what it is to be human: ‘characteristic of people as opposed to God or animals or machines, especially susceptible to weakness, and therefore showing the qualities of man.’

Cancer paradoxically provided him with a unique spur to success - he has said the would have won ‘zero’ Tours De France were it not for his illness – but also humanised him. This is the true key to the power of his public persona today – how he is able to reach beyond the saddle of sporting fame to a far wider world.

His connection to cancer sufferers is deep and sincere becaue it is hard-lived. 'Get involved in your treatment,’ he says. ‘I took in all the information I could when I was diagnosed. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about your treatment.’

Perhaps Lance Armstrong’s demons, just like his heart, are bigger then other people’s. He termed his approach to cycling - as to his illness – as  ‘go hard or go home’. And it is no secret that like many overachievers, he is haunted by failure. Even today he views his career as over, but unfinished. ‘I am done, so it will not be finished so to speak. Would have been nice to get a Gold Medal but I think I did alright.’ He admits that he bitterly regrets not being able to make his former marriage work. ‘Dying and losing- it's the same thing,’ he has said.

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect to his personality is an absurdist  sense of humour that emerges from the darkest conditions - he once owned a cat called Chemo, but lost the moggy in his divorce. He regularly rides in the US with Wolfgang, manager of the Los Angeles Mandarin Oriental, a cyclist Armstrong wryly considers ‘quite fit’ and would ‘put him up against anyone else who runs hotels…’

In a decade Armstrong has undertaken a journey who magnitude many would struggle to fit into a lifetime. Put it this way - he says he felt most fulfilled after the final stage of last year’s Tour De France: ‘standing on the podium in Paris with my kids, retired and going out a winner - my most fulfilling day for sure.’ But just a decade ago this year he was coughing blood in a bathroom sink and facing the bleakest of futures.  

Living today a life that is of an entirely different order, Armstrong is slowly – perhaps even reluctantly – beginning to enjoy the comforts his efforts won him, beginning with Mandarin Oriental Hotels. ‘Total first class, from the service to the acommodation to the overall stay,’ he says. ‘I always enjoy my time in any of their hotels. It is always nice to have a little luxury but it is not totally necessary.’ It is an understandable perspective for a cyclist – they live for pain father than pleasure, and the discomfort of the sport traditionally extend to accommodation. ‘There are some bad Hotels and the Tour dictates where the teams have to stay. But usually you are so tired from the race you just want to eat and go to bed.’

He’s recently been enjoying the thrills of a restored Pontiac GTO Sheryl bought him for his birthday. The wiry ex-ironman with a fondess for beer, Tex-Mex and Margaritas has put on weight – and certified signifier of contentedness. And though you suspect the racing demon inside Lance Armstrong will never be fully exorcised, he has even stopped shaving his leg. ‘My days of shaving are over with,’ he smiles. This may of may not be a relief to the future Mrs Armstrong. ‘I have never really asked her,’ he says.

It's a safe bet she sees Armstrong the way the rest of the world is beginning to: as cancer survivor, retired race champ, devoted dad, Texan Lone-Star maverick, husband-to-be and everyday superhero from a broken home. In the end, Lance Armstrong shows how we can all be much more than we suspect – even with hairy legs.

© Kevin Braddock, 2005


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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