Lance Armstrong Interview: Still Out Front

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It's been said that all athletes die twice. Add to that: unless you're Lance Armstrong. In his first year away from cycling, the seven-time Tour de France winner has raised millions to fight cancer, hosted the ESPYs, become part owner of a cycling team, and trained—somewhat—for his first marathon. (All while becoming a party-guy fixture in the tabloids.) Christopher Keyes sat down with the world's busiest retiree to talk about fundraising, politics, and his advice for Floyd Landis.

KEYES: The tenth anniversary of your diagnosis— is a couple days away. Does that feel like forever ago?
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, it feels like a long, long time ago. But I'm reminded about it every day because of the work I do. I'm reminded because LiveStrong is everywhere I look. But I have no plans for the day this year. I guess I'll be at home. I'll take the kids to school in the morning. Plus I'll go for a run or a bike ride. That's a pretty good day.


You seem to be taking retirement pretty well.
Yeah, but I think there's always that adjustment. It's hard to go from being extremely fit to gaining 10 to 15 pounds and to get on a bike and not feel the same. The buddies you used to clobber—now you're there with them.


Any regrets about not racing just one more Tour?
No. If cyclists went to 45, it might be a different story, but I knew I was playing with history. I'm an old guy: I'm 35. That's when [Miguel] Indurain lost it, you know. All those guys lost it.


You make a lot of references to being 35. Do you think about that a lot?
Thirty-five is pretty old!


That'll piss a few people off.
[Laughs] It's interesting, because from 15 to 35 I lived a monk's lifestyle, completely focused on sports. And now I can let myself go a little more and be with friends at a party. Most people have that in high school and college. I never had any of that.


A wild night for you used to be a Shiner Bock and a couple of tortilla chips.
I've made up for some of that.


I know. I see pictures of you everywhere. Is that a surprise? I suppose that, these days, anyone with a cell phone can be paparazzi, but—
It's unbelievable. I don't know how far we are from live streaming video of people. You've really got to think about it, if you're going out with your buddies to have a couple of beers. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is private.


How hard is it for you to see tabloid rumors about you and not respond to them?
Rumors like . . .


Well, like that you're hanging out a lot with Matthew McConaughey, and there's the notion that you two are a lot more than good friends.
That's so ridiculous that . . . I mean, I know what I'm into, and I know what McConaughey's into, and it's not that. [Laughs]


Settle another rumor: Who's going to play you in the movie about your life—McConaughey or Jake Gyllenhaal?
There was a whole thing because I was hanging with those guys all the time. But the movie has gotten way ahead of itself, because the script is technically not even done. I haven't seen it. And if the actors interested have half an ounce of integrity, then they have to like the script. Even Jake has said to me, “Listen, I love to ride, you're my bud, but I have to see the script.”


Do you have any say in it?
A little bit. But at some point you just turn it over to the writer you trust and you say, “OK, go for it.” I've done some dickhead things in my day, and if that makes the movie better, they'll probably put it in there. At the premiere I'll just be like [places hands over eyes], Ohhh, did I do that? What I'm really sensitive to is the cycling part. You can't have a dude with his knees out here, head going back and forth . . . That's something I'll say about Jake: When he's riding, you think he's a bike rider, which is cool.


How has your role with the Lance Armstrong Foundation helped you handle retirement?
I obviously have this need for competition, and I've channeled my energy into that. Or tried to channel it. It's totally different. There's not that defining moment you have in sport, like “I did it.” But I feel like I can take away small victories.


What victories excite you?
Every time a potential presidential candidate calls us and they make the trip to Austin to sit down with us. We will win because of that. When one does it, the other has to match the effort or equal it or better it. That will ultimately add up to a big victory. And what is victory? Victory is the disease going away. That's not a reality in a year or two—it may not be a reality in 20—but we can make progress.


Talk more about that, because people see these impressive numbers—50, 60, 70 million raised—but they might not know where the money goes.
We've raised $140 million so far. And through that we give out a lot of grants. They're not all million-dollar grants. These can be $5,000 grants for patient outreach, $100,000 research grants, but you definitely start to see progress. Our stuff is more community-based. It's not as if we're funding someone's project to map the cancer genome. That takes tens of millions. The government needs to fund that.


Meaning the president, right? Everyone knows you asked President Bush for—
Yeah, for a billion. We were at lunch one day after riding and he said, “How's it going?” He didn't say, “How's it going with the foundation?” It was more like, “Take any trips lately?” I went into the cancer thing, thinking I could find a welcome audience because his sister died of cancer. And I dropped the billion idea. He was like, “Yeah, I'll have some people look into that.” He didn't just say, “Are you crazy?” He didn't just blow me off.


But it didn't go any further?
A little bit. But we were pretty far behind on their budget schedule. We didn't get the billion. We won't see a change there, I think, until we have a new president and a new administration.


I was reading this morning that the war in Iraq is costing $2 billion a week.
Yeah, those two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, will be trillion-dollar things when it's done. The facts are what they are. In Iraq and Afghanistan, six or seven months are equal to 35 years of cancer funding.


A year ago you were talking about being governor of Texas. Still interested?
Governor of Texas. [Pause] It sounds pretty cool, but the reality is that it probably wouldn't be that cool. You put yourself out there, your family, your friends, your community. I still believe I'm more effective out of office. I try to be as apolitical as possible.


Is that hard for you?
Yeah. Harder and harder. Because I think that people's perception of me is that I am one thing. But I'm not.


What's that perception?
[Laughs] What did I just say? I'm apolitical. Readers can try to figure that out.


Let's talk about the Tour. In 2005, you were on the podium, and you had sharp words for your critics about the doping issue. I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like “To the cynics and skeptics out there, I feel sorry for you. You don't believe in miracles. You should believe in these athletes.” After what happened at the 2006 race, why should Americans not be cynics and skeptics?
Yeah, that faith would be tested. You've got Puerto and Floyd.


Well, let's start with Operation Puerto, the scandal involving a Spanish doctor who allegedly supplied drugs to dozens of pro riders, including Tour favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, who were subsequently barred from the 2006 Tour. Puerto really took me by surprise. As long as I've been cycling, I did not expect to see that. To take out the second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-place riders from the previous year is devastating. But with Puerto, I'm still waiting. What's coming out of that? What are they waiting for? With Floyd [Landis], I'm even less certain, because that whole thing was fishy. One day his test is not positive. The next day, positive. The next day, not . . . all this from the French lab, which, obviously, I have no trust in.


What did you say when you talked to Floyd after the allegation came out that he used testosterone prior to Stage 17?
He's mad, you know? But he was doing this press conference and he had his hat on backwards. I said, “Floyd, come on, let's take the hat off.” It's about credibility. The way you look and talk and conduct yourself, fortunately or unfortunately, is important.


What did you say to him about the specific charge?
I'm like, “Did you do it?” “No.” I said, “Then get up there and look and act like you didn't do it. Because right now that's all you've got. The other process will take forever to play out.” Listen, I hope the guy starts in yellow next year with number one on his back. I'm saying that right up front.


So you believe he's innocent?
Yeah, I do. The sequence of the way it played out. The lab. I don't know why someone would take testosterone that one day. I don't know how that would work.


I just wonder what you think about all the scandals, because you have this unbelievable legacy of seven straight Tour victories. But that legacy gets damaged if the sport is always under a cloud.
I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that. I look around and I see my seven cups—and no one is coming to take them, because they represent hundreds of controls, federal investigations, lawsuits, all the stuff that I've lived through. They are not going anywhere, these seven. My focus outside of cycling is not affected either. When I walk into a hospital, do you think patients care what happened in Operation Puerto? No. It has no effect. I do care, because I'm a fan. I'm a team owner. But more of the day will be invested in thinking about the stuff I'm doing now.


Speaking of now, are you starting to regret the fact that you decided to run the New York City Marathon?
[Laughs] When is this out?


About five days after the race. What do you think we'll be reading in the headlines?
We'll see how it goes. I miss being on the bike.


Do you train like you did on the bike?
No. I just run. I check my pace now and then, but am I on the 20-week plan, the 16-week plan? No, I'm on the I-drink-beer-and-I'm-doing-a-marathon plan. I hope I don't crawl.


You'll be content to be just an average runner?


So the fact that French cyclist Laurent Jalabert once ran the New York City Marathon in 2:55 means nothing?
I don't care. I don't care. [Pause] I'd still beat him up Alpe d'Huez.