Lance Armstrong has returned to competitive cycling after a 3 1/2 year retirement. The seven-time Tour de France titlist, cancer survivor, father of three (soon to be four) children, and global businessman will compete in about a half-dozen races in 2009 for two reasons: to expand his mission of global cancer awareness and to return to the top level of competition, which he said he’s missed since his retirement after the 2005 Tour de France. A few days prior to the Tour of California, I interviewed Armstrong for a cover story for the Sacramento News & Review in February as his team concluded its training camp in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Question: For the last couple of months, you’ve had a Twitter account and you’re very active on it and it’s very popular (more than 70,000 followers. Editor’s note: Lance Armstrong now has more than 154,000 followers). Are you an investor in the company, are you a hyper toe-tapper type or just what’s your interest?
Lance Armstrong: I don’t have a financial stake in Twitter, no. I didn’t even know about it three months ago. But sometimes I feel like I work for them. I get asked about it and it’s unbelievable what gets written in regards to me and Twitter (laughter). But, hell, I wish I had a little piece of the action. But I don’t. But in the end, it’s profitable or beneficial for me and it’s beneficial for the foundation and for the team.
Look, in the last 10 years, primarily 1999 to 2005 I wasn’t the most openly transparent person in the world. And it led people to say, ‘Well, hmm. We don’t know where he is. We don’t know what he’s doing. He won’t talk to us. So, he must be up to no good.’ And even if they didn’t write that you’re up to no good, they would think that you’re up to no good and it would lead to speculation and rumor.
Something like Twitter comes along or accessibility to video blogs, you say, F-it. I’m going to come back and you may not care, but I’m going to tell you what I had for breakfast and I’m going to take a picture of it. I’m going to tell you when I’m on a training ride. I’m going to tell you when I’m at my son’s flag football game. I’m going to tell you when I just cracked a bottle of bad-ass red wine.
You can take my biggest detractor in the press room and if they read that, then after awhile they’ll realize, man, this is really him telling us what he’s doing. And then they realize, ‘You know what? This guy is not secluded in a dark room with a team of mysterious doctors up to no good. This guy is a regular f-ing guy.’ So, I’ve got no stake in Twitter, but Twitter has helped.
Q: Throughout your career, you’ve been a team leader. What do you think of Lance Armstrong as a domestique (team rider)?
L.A.: It’s definitely a possibility. I think it’s healthy for me to remind myself why I came back. And I came back because I wanted to take the Livestrong message around the world and I came back because I wanted to ride my bike again. It’s very simple; it’s not complicated.
It becomes complicated when somebody says, ‘Lance you won the Tour seven times. If you get fourth, you’re going to ruin your legacy. You’re going to ruin a perfect record.’ That’s their impression. That’s the pressure we put on ourselves. We want athletes to be perfect and we want them to hit the game-winning shot, walk away and never come back. Sometimes, they (the athletes) get in the locker room and say ‘F-it. I want to come back. And that happened to me.
Q: From the pictures and video I’ve seen, you look thicker or stronger in your upper body. Has your body changed?
L.A. When I started training last summer before I decided to come back, I was spending a lot of time in the gym. In the last couple of years, I’ve put on some upper-body mass and put on weight. That’s for sure. And I continued to train in the gym all the way until October. So it’s going to take a few months to get that off. It’s already come down considerably. But the pictures and the cameras can be deceiving, too. But really what the scale says and it’s what it says in April that’s a good comparison, not in February. Still. I’m much lighter at this time of the year than I normally would be.
Q: You’re going to be a father again, and your fourth child will be about one month old or so when the Tour de France comes along. Will you bring him or her along to the finish like your other children or do you have a different plan at this point?
L.A.: He or she will be at the Tour, for sure. Quite honestly, my schedule this year pretty much revolves around my kids’ schedule. (Former wife) Kristin (Armstrong) has been the real hero and very helpful to me and understanding on this comeback. It’s not optimal that I fly from here back home for five days before the Tour of California. That’s the schedule Kristin and I have set out and the kids want to see their old man. I will always travel back and forth to have quality time with my kids. That’s what we’ll do this week and so all that will stay the same as it was the first time.
Q: With all the demands on your time, how do you determine how much time you give to cancer patients and how it occurs?
Lance Armstrong: It’s definitely changed. As the momentum of the foundation has grown, the requests have also grown at the same time. Sometimes the stuff is structured. I’m going to go to hospital ABC tomorrow. You have to call the hospital and the hospital knows you’re coming and you’re either going to give a talk or walk around.
Normally, those are very private and low-key visits. They’re designed for the patients and their families. But I get a lot out of them. The patients in their rooms get a lot out of it. But it’s motivating for me to go do that. And when I say motivating, it keeps me in perspective. It keeps reminding me why I do what I do on a daily basis.
Q: The Tour of California will have a few guys coming back to the sport and others with whom you’ve had long relationships like Ivan Basso, Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. Any thoughts on being back in the peloton with some of the guys you came through the ranks with?
L.A. Cycling has evolved, but you still have some of the same characters and that list goes deep. Add George Hincapie to that list. There’s a lot of history with juniors to amateur racing to 11 years as a pro. I think for me, the thing to keep in mind at the Tour of California is that Levi (Leipheimer) is super motivated and super, super fit which he confirmed to us here at training camp. So we just have to ride for him and hope that he hammers the time trial as hard as he can like he did last year.”
Q: Speaking of the Tour of California, do you recall the last time you raced in California?
L.A.: Ojai Criterium, 2005. I’ve never raced Redlands or the Sea Otter Classic. But I did do the Race of Champions, which was up there on the same course at Laguna Seca. Back in those amateur Subaru-Montgomery days, we did Visalia, Fresno and we did crits at UCSB (Santa Barbara). There weren’t all in the same area as the Tour of California, like the Tour of the Unknown Coast, I think, in 1990. But some of it was the same. And I did the San Francisco Grand Prix in maybe 2002, 2003. So, there was a lot of California stuff like that, but never the bigger races from around here.
Q: Since you announced your comeback last September and when you began to win to win some of the regional races, has what’s happened on the bike been different than what you thought it might be?
L.A.: No. The improvement has been pretty consistent on what we’ve seen in the tests and in training. All of that feedback is improving and tracking nicely. The question mark is whether it gets to a point and then just stops improving. But I tell you . . . what’s the date day? . . . Feb. 6. Take Feb. 6 versus any Feb. 6 from any of those other years (1999-2005) and there’s absolutely no comparison.
I had a chat today with Benjamin Noval. He was on my team for a bunch of Tours (de France) and he’s on this team. He said there’s absolutely no comparison to those years. He said I’m much more fitter, much leaner, much more race ready in February this year than in any of those years.
Q: One of the theories going around is that Astana will ride for you in the Giro and then you and the rest of the ream will ride for Alberto (Contador) in the Tour. Any thoughts?
L.A.: I haven’t done the Tour of Italy before, so it’s a box I wanted to check. I don’t know if I’ll be at my top condition at the Giro. But my aim is to be at the top of my game on July 4 (the start of the Tour de France). The Giro leads into that. But if my condition this July is the same as it has been in other Julys and I can get to 90 percent of that in May, that’s good enough to win the Giro. There’s a big IF in there.
We don’t know if it will be the same base on age, based on times, based on an old, creaky body. But all the indications are good. I think realistically, if I were top 10 (in the Giro), I’d be happy. If I were in the top 5, I’d be very happy. And if that takes me into a good month of June, rest and recovery, plus some training, and then the good thing of not having the stress to crash diet or really worrying about race weight going into July then I think it’ll go well.
Q: I’ve read some about your art collection. When did you first get interested in it, and do you remember the first piece you bought?
L.A.: I was started buying art when I build my first home in late, ’94. I always thought that will you can have help designing a home and building a home and picking out furniture, lights, etc. But the owner of the home should pick the art on the walls.
You should pick what your canvas is for the interior of the home. Some people just have the designer go pick out the art. But from the very beginning I wanted to have an active role in what actually went on the walls, especially if you have a home that’s a great art space. It started very recreationally back then, but then through the years, I picked up some good pieces, even when I was racing and traveling. Some of it is fairly important pieces of work, some of it is just stuff you see on the streets and you like and you say, ‘That appeals to me. That appeals to me. I’ll take it.’
But in the past three years when I was off the bike or just riding a little, probably the thing I was the most passionate about on a consistent basis was the art world. I traveled to different art fairs around the country in Miami or the Armory in New York, just spending time there, not as a hardcore, education art aficionado. But just as somebody who has an appreciation for it. So you pick a Damien Hirst or Andres Serrano.
Q: During the training camp and at other times, you’re wearing the Livestrong kit but your teammates are in the Astana kit. Could you tell me about that arrangement?
L.A: Those guys are paid to race. I’m not paid to race. I’m racing as a volunteer for Livestrong. Legally, I can’t wear Livestrong in the race or I would, but anytime outside of a race I am going to fulfill my commitment to my organization.
Again, it would different if it were Discover Channel (his former team) and you were getting a big, fat salary. You have to train in that kit. But the fact that I’m not taking a salary from Astana means that I can wear what ever I want to wear, I think?
Q: I read one of your Twitter comments about having a glass of wine but no dessert at a restaurant. Can you tell me more about your fascination with Twitter?
L.A. (Laughing) The record will show three things: A. You’re a normal guy; B. You’re open and accessible and you’re giving regular media interviews; C. You’re the most drug tested athlete in the world. Those three things for me have nothing by upside.
Q: Is there any update on your ranch outside of Austin that you put up for sale awhile back?
L.A. No. Selling the ranch . . . we just weren’t getting out there enough and quite frankly the home we ending up building in Austin is big and it has a big yard and the kids love it and now the weekends are occupied there with sports and activities and birthday parties. We weren’t getting to the ranch.
So in exchange, we built a home in Aspen. It’s great for training. It’s great to escape the Austin hot summers and it’s a great community. And that home, although it doesn’t have big walls per se like my home in Austin does, it’s a good art and art will be integrated in that home, too.