Lance Armstrong in exile is restless, feisty and . . . underappreciated?
A version of this story appeared in the April 6, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Recently the oncologist Larry Einhorn sent a letter to each of the hundreds of patients who had once been in his care. As "a personal favor," he asked, would we be willing to return to Indianapolis for a follow-up exam? In an act that nicely capped his life’s work, he wanted to collect information about the long-term consequences of a brutal but effective chemotherapy regimen he had long ago devised. If you received one of these letters, you had likely once been a young man unaccountably struck with testicular cancer.
I was one of those patients. And Lance Armstrong was another.
Einhorn, 72, had long ago turned the tables on testicular cancer, concocting drugs that turned an insidious disease into one of the most curable; a personal favor was the least he could ask. In late February, Armstrong and I flew up together from Austin to Indianapolis, participants Nos. 198 and 199 in the Platinum Study, named for the key element in the compound Einhorn had seized upon to stymie our cancers.
It had not been a good month for Armstrong: An arbitration panel ruled that he owed at least $10 million to SCA Promotions—a company that he had sued years ago after it had declined to pay him bonuses for winning the Tour de France because of doping suspicions. And he had had to cop a guilty plea to plowing into a couple of parked cars in his SUV after his girlfriend initially told police she did it—a reminder, some commentators said, of his manipulative nature; and even an attempt to redeem his image had backfired, after parts of an interview with the BBC, in which Armstrong sounded an ambivalent note about doping, spread around the Internet, inviting another round of opprobrium.
But on the wall of the waiting room at the Indiana University cancer pavilion, in defiance of the world’s change of heart regarding the former champion, you can still find framed Lance Armstrong paraphernalia: covers from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED during his Tour triumphs and a signed bicycle jersey. This oncology unit, where Armstrong once had been near death, is, curiously, now a sanctuary, one of the last places on earth where the cloud that follows him has failed to cast its shadow.
Armstrong’s famed cheekbone is a little fainter now, a little filled in, the face squarer, the hair grayer. He still looks far fitter than the average person, but his body no longer borders on the gaunt.
We had just been weighed and had our blood pressure and heart rate recorded, and now he and I lingered in the waiting room for a minute before a blood draw—Einhorn, hoping to improve, even now, his treatment drugs, wanted to know if he could discover which of his former patients suffered from long-term side effects, including tingling in the fingers and feet and hearing loss.
"How’d you do on the pulse rate?" Armstrong asked as he slid into the chair next to me. The last time he had been here he was at his bed-ridden sickest, as doctors killed off his cancer through Einhorn’s chemo infusions.
“Forty-nine.” I was pleased—60 is really good.
“Not bad.” He gave a slight nod of the head and a purse of the lips.
"So how’d you do?"
He flashed a grin: "Forty-one."
Before the flight to Indy I had never met Armstrong in person, but he had helped me in my most desperate moment. Days after I was diagnosed back in January 2006, told at the age of 26 by an Emergency Room doctor in Austin that the small, hard protrusion in my left testicle was a tumor—"Exactly what Lance Armstrong had, so, you know, some people get this and live"—I unexpectedly got an email from the man himself. He was still very much a hero back then, still seeing Sheryl Crow, and still the official winner of seven Tours de France. Alerted to my diagnosis by a mutual friend, he sent me a quick pep talk from Johannesburg: "Of course I’m well familiar with what you’re going through and am hoping for the best. I’m confident you’ll be fine!" He encouraged me to "hang tough and keep livin’ strong!" It felt like a Ruthian moment—Ballplayer Visits Sick Kid. Even more critically, he wrote Einhorn's clinic so that they’d squeeze me in.
By means of his chemotherapy regimen, Einhorn had extended our potential, replotting our trajectories from a rapid downward spiral to one where we could determine our own future. On the Tour, Lance, like other riders, had doctored his massive talent, too, extending his natural limits to maintain a competitive edge.
Of course, those victories in France—however they were come by, whatever the broader state of the sport and however fictitious one might call them—helped enable the very real victories in the cancer wards. There were the hundreds of millions of dollars raised through the foundation, the $3 billion Texas cancer research fund referendum he successfully campaigned for, the private emails to lend hope to people like me. And so the rage, the moralizing that followed his confession to Oprah in 2013—"From Hero to Zero" crowed one headline—had always been mysterious to me.
The way his lie had overshadowed his cancer work irked Lance. In the conversation on the flight up to Indianapolis the previous afternoon, he noted that the media now called him "disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong"; keeping score in a rogues’ gallery, he observed that a recent story about how Roger Clemens was tutoring his college-aged son in pitching failed to describe him as a "disgraced baseball player." "And he gave how much back?" asked Armstrong. And then he mouthed the word: "Zero." (According to a 2010 New York Times article the Roger Clemens Foundation has raised more than $1 million to aid children's educational and athletic organizations.)
More than anything, Armstrong struck me as both a little restless and a little aimless: He is a purposeful man without a purpose. He has been deemed radioactive by most charitable organizations—he even stepped away from Livestrong—and organized competition, even local stuff, is largely closed off to him: The Santa Claus 5K, the Burundi Run for Water, the Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot—all out, as a consequence of his doping sanctions. "I can’t even play table tennis or do archery," he told me. (In March the leader of the International Cycling Union publicly discouraged Armstrong from participating in a charity ride along the Tour route.)
The competitive energy it must take to be the first one up one of those mountains in France, and then another, and then another—or to lead a charge against a seemingly invincible disease—the cockiness, the ruthlessness, the charisma it must take: Where does that all go when the massive challenges are suddenly taken away?
In some ways, the head of what was once known as Lance Inc. seems, a little prosaically, like any other retired CEO. He occupies his time now with one-hour runs (he has not boarded a bicycle since last fall, chiefly because he has to spend three hours atop one to get the same workout), several-hour long golf games, and the voracious consumption of magazines, newspapers and TV and movies. (“Brah, Birdman is my life,” he told me.) He writes letters of support for cancer patients, but he’s asked to write far fewer than he once was. He posts his workout times on Strava, a website community for runners, and on the flight he closely reviewed the comments that had been uploaded. That morning he had run 10 miles at an average of pace of 6:47 a mile (“Ten heavy,” he called it, adding, “Throw ‘em down and pick ‘em up.”) Most of them were supportive, but he came across one, posted by a guy in Switzerland, that said "Your [sic] not yet done accounting for the past." He smiled and flicked his middle finger at the screen.
After we landed in Indianapolis, we dialed up an Uber car—Lance Armstrong is very into Uber—and in the backseat he caught up on the phone with his girlfriend, Anna, and explained to their five year-old son, Max, that he had to chill out about demanding the iPod. We were headed downtown to meet Dr. Einhorn and his wife, Claudette.
Einhorn—"Call me Larry," he said—was as warm as I remembered. He is a modest man, a thin bit of white hair barely swept over his head, a lightly pilled sweater. He resembles a bespectacled Alan Alda—he has that natural menschiness—if Alda were a little shorter and a little paler. He was wearing a Livestrong bracelet, an increasingly rare sight nowadays, and one that spoke to his deep attachment and gratitude to Armstrong. Claudette was vivacious, with funky glasses and big earrings. They were born-and-raised Midwesterners, and there was something pleasingly straightforward in those flattened accents. Their relationship with Lance, whom they’ve seen now and then over the years, is loving and joshing.
I felt like we were two grown men returning to have dinner with our parents, Lance the especially beloved, but complicated, son. The prodigal son returned.
As we were finishing our appetizers, a middle-aged woman wearing a chic, white-and-black checkered dress danced over from a table in the restaurant’s corner to our party. "I thought that was you!" she cheerily pointed a finger at Lance, who gave an amused half-nod.
But as pleased as she was to see Armstrong, she had really come over to greet Einhorn—he had successfully treated her 17-year-old son for testicular cancer. And I suddenly had the feeling that in our very seats, the ones occupied by Lance and me, one could imagine other men, or their mothers, fathers and children, two at a time in dinners stretching out over many years, all waiting to thank Einhorn.
At the end of our meal, the mother screwed up her courage to come back again to our table, to invite Lance to join the board of her cancer-related nonprofit. It’s the sort of request he gets a lot less of nowadays, and in my mind the evening—the bracelet, the lady’s genuine Midwestern enthusiasm—emphasized that Indianapolis, a city mysteriously, disorientingly on East Coast time—was something of a time capsule, a place that still saw the Lance of circa 2006.
"Those of us in the cancer community remember the good he has done,” Einhorn said the next morning as he stood behind me and ran his cold, soft hands over my shoulders and neck, giving small, expert squeezes: He was feeling for any odd lumps in my lymph system. Besides, he seemed to suggest, given the pervasiveness of doping in the sport, the means justified the ends.
“You don’t do all this good finishing 26 or 27th,” Einhorn said, referring to the massive amounts of money Armstrong had steered toward cancer research. It occurred to me that in his own way Einhorn, for all his modest manner, was just as competitive as his most famous patient, and wanted to win just as much in a contest with the highest stakes. (Einhorn himself remains the Lance Armstrong Professor of Medicine, the holder of the chair Armstrong had endowed at IU during his salad days.) It seemed like the considered judgment of a practiced doctor, one who trades every day in risks and rewards as he decides how much treatment his patients require. "And all this attention: It wasn’t like he punched his girlfriend."
The way Armstrong had fallen in the public eye reminded Einhorn of the song "Dirty Laundry," by Don Henley. I looked up the lyrics that night:
“I make my living off the evening news/ Just give me something/ Something I can use/ People love it when you lose/ They love dirty laundry.”
Our tests done, we hurried to the Indianapolis airport to try and grab an earlier flight back to Austin. Only a couple of years ago, Armstrong would have had his Gulfstream IV—Mellow Johnnys Aviation—waiting for him on the tarmac. But the plane, and the fancy Austin lakeside mansion, had been sold off. “I’m trying to cut the burn rate,” he told me.
As he tries to figure out his future, he has one last big case looming against him: A federal whistleblower suit, based on the claims of his former teammate Floyd Landis that the U.S. Postal Service team defrauded the government. The Justice Department is reportedly seeking $100 million from Armstrong and other team leaders.
Now, at the Indianapolis airport, Armstrong snagged the last standby seat on an American Airlines flight back home: 16E, a middle seat in coach. I teased him about making friends with his rowmates, but he ended up putting on headphones and watching Whiplash, the Oscar-winning movie about the young drummer whose dreams of success are fired up by a ruthless instructor determined to help his prodigy realize his greatness. I pictured Lance, once arguably the most famous person on the planet, squeezed in between two strangers, his “Mellow” baseball cap pulled low, watching the building intensity of the drummer’s training.
He texted me once more after he landed: "How much did you weigh on that scale? I thought that s--- was way off."
Asher Price is a reporter with the Austin American-Statesman and the author of the forthcoming Year of the Dunk: A Modest Defiance of Gravity.