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Lance Armstrong For his courage and commitment--not to mention his fourth straight Tour de France victory--SI salutes the ultimate road warrior

Dec. 16, 2002
Dec. 16, 2002

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Dec. 16, 2002

Lance Armstrong For his courage and commitment--not to mention his fourth straight Tour de France victory--SI salutes the ultimate road warrior

What's the deal with that name, anyway? Lance Armstrong. Is that
a comic-book hero or a bendable action figure? Once somebody
gives you a name like that, how hard can life be? Lance
Armstrong. Wasn't he the star of those 1950s boys' sports books?

This is an article from the Dec. 16, 2002 issue

LANCE ARMSTRONG, ALL-AMERICAN HERO!

So why has this redneck in the six-wheel, gun-rack pickup pulled
over, ready to kick Lance Armstrong's ass?

Armstrong is on his bike on a two-lane stretch of pecan stands
and roadkill east of his hometown, Austin, Texas. But then,
Armstrong is always on his bike. It's not about the bike? It's
all about the bike. Hell, just to tell him he's this year's
Sportsman of the Year, we had to reach him on his bike. Told him
over the cellphone he carries in his jersey pouch.

US: Hey, Lance, congratulations. You're the Sportsman of the
Year.

HIM: Hold on. Gotta pass this semi. [Pause.] O.K., now, what?

This is his third hour on the bike today, and the Tour de France
isn't for seven months. This is not natural. No other racer in
the world is doing this. The other day, in fact, Armstrong was
riding along when the cellphone rang. It was the young British
bike star David Millar, two-time Tour de France stage winner,
calling from London, "drunk on his ass," Armstrong reports.

ARMSTRONG: Hello?

MILLAR: Please tell me you're not on your bike.

ARMSTRONG: I'm on my bike.

MILLAR: Nooooo! You mother! It's December bloody first! How long
have you been on it?

ARMSTRONG: Three and a half hours.

MILLAR: Nooooo!

Armstrong can't help it. "I gotta suffer a little every day, or
I'm not happy," he says. So he stays on his racing bike for six
hours some days. Or he takes his mountain bike through the
gnarliest trails Texas has to offer, swearing at himself because
he's not going harder: "You pussy, Lance!" Apparently some people
are unclear about the term off-season.

He suffers so he won't forget. He suffers to remind himself that
he's still alive. He suffers a little so that maybe the big
suffering won't come back, the suffering that came with 14 tumors
in his testicle, lungs and brain and with moments when he knew he
was going to die.

So he gets his 31-year-old hump out on the bike hour after hour,
followed by the chase car, a trusty Suburban. Problem is, Texans
in trucks would sooner piss on a biker than have to wait to get
by him. That's why the man who won his fourth straight Tour de
France in July has been hit six times by cars; has had Big Gulps,
pop cans and one-finger salutes thrown at him; and has heard
every permutation of the f word known to linguists. One guy got
out of his truck and started swinging a baseball bat at
Armstrong.

Which brings us to Mr. Six Wheel, who is so hacked off that when
he finally gets by, he fires a few $#*&%'s at Armstrong, then
speeds up to a T-junction and parks across it, trying to block
the way. Armstrong zips by him on the gravel on the right, and
the Suburban passes on the left, and something in Armstrong's
bulldog jaw keeps the guy from coming after him.

And you thought the Alps were hairy.

LANCE ARMSTRONG, ROBORIDER!

At a black-tie event one night in Las Vegas, Tiger Woods bounded
over to meet Lance Armstrong, who was seated at the same table.
"C'mon, man, just let me feel 'em," Tiger said, pulling up a
chair.

"Whoa, Tiger, settle down," Armstrong said.

"C'mon! Seriously, can I?" Tiger pleaded.

"Oh, all right."

And Tiger took his hands and put them on Armstrong's concrete
thighs. "Man!" he said, squeezing. "I mean, man!"

Funny how nobody ever asks to feel the two six-inch-long,
quarter-inch-deep horseshoe dents in Armstrong's skull where the
surgeons drilled. Or the scar on his chest from the catheter. Or
the dozens of scars the pavement has left on him. It's hard for
people to understand that Lance Armstrong is not the cartoon that
replaced Jonny Quest. He falls, he aches, he loses.

When Armstrong got whipped at the 2000 Sydney Olympics time-trial
event--he took bronze--it shocked the friends and associates
who'd never seen him do anything but win. That night, at a party
with all of them, he stopped the music, stood up and said, "I
came here to win, and I didn't. I know you expected better. You
went the extra mile for me, to come clear out here, and I lost
and I'm sorry about that."

You mean sometimes the lion gets eaten? "It was a reminder to all
of us that the guy is not Superman," says his agent and longtime
friend, Bill Stapleton. "He's just a guy who happens to work
harder than anybody else alive."

To say Armstrong outworks everyone is like saying RuPaul owns
more lingerie than most men. When Armstrong and his family--wife
Kristin, three-year-old son Luke and twin one-year-old girls
Isabelle and Grace--move to their second home in Gerona, Spain,
in mid-February, he'll get serious. In fact, Armstrong works so
hard that he's dangerous to everybody else. Two years ago, U.S.
Postal Service team director Johan Bruyneel let two of his best
climbers train with Armstrong. "By the time the Tour de France
started, they were injured and worn out," Bruyneel groans. "We
almost lost them." Now Bruyneel lets Armstrong train with the
team only two days out of three. "The other day he's on his own."

University of Texas exercise physiologist Ed Coyle, who has
tested athletes for 20 years, says that Armstrong at 31 produces
6% more power than he did at 21, despite weighing 15 pounds less.
This is what comes from tooling through the Pyrenees on a bike
five, six and seven hours a day, never less than 30 hours a week.
Most people don't sit at their computers 30 hours a week, much
less on a five-inch bike seat.

Coyle also discovered that Armstrong can ride a bike 32 miles per
hour for an hour straight. The average fit college male can last
at that pace about 45 seconds. "For the first 10 seconds they're
great," says Coyle. "After about 20 seconds they think they're
gonna die. After 40 seconds they throw up."

Among professional athletes Armstrong is mythic. New York Rangers
defenseman Dale Purinton heard that Armstrong can ride a Cybex
bike 2,700 rpm for an hour. "So I tried it," says Purinton, 26.
"I kept it up for two minutes; then I had to quit. I was totally
exhausted. My whole body was aching. The man is not human."

That's where people screw up. It's not Armstrong's body that wins
Tours. It's his will. Take, for instance, the sinister Alpe
d'Huez, a 21-hairpin, 6,060-foot bitch that will be the key climb
in next year's Tour. Armstrong knows the first name of every
mountain goat on it. He's climbed it 10 times already and will do
it twice more this spring before the Tour.

Meanwhile, in July, Armstrong's chief rival, Germany's Jan
Ullrich, tested positive for amphetamines, which he says came
from popping the party drug Ecstasy one night, which got him
suspended by his Telekom team, which he subsequently left over a
contract dispute. At press time he was still unsigned.

If somebody on Armstrong's team were to pop Ecstasy, Armstrong
might rip out his heart with a toe clip. Teammates call him
Mellow Johnny--a play on le maillot jaune, French for the yellow
jersey the Tour leader wears (Armstrong even registers in hotels
as Jonathan Mellow)--but he is anything but. He hates losing,
laziness and whining, in that order. Take whining. If the Texan
comes down to the breakfast room during the Tour and hears
teammates complaining about lousy weather, he boils. "Hey!" he
says. "If you don't want to get on your bike today, we'll find
somebody who fing does, O.K.?"

But he knows when to dial back the pressure too. One day, during
a particularly murderous Alpine climb on the Tour, he got on the
nine-way radio and hollered, "Johan! Johan! I need a mechanic,
quick!"

Panicked, Bruyneel yelled, "What's wrong, Lance?"

Armstrong said, "I don't think there's a chain on my bike! They
forgot the chain!"

In 1999 Abraham Olano of Spain switched to a lighter bike at the
bottom of the Alpe d'Huez, and Bruyneel radioed from ahead,
"Lance! Olano's switching bikes!"

Armstrong barked back, "I could beat Olano on a f---ing mountain
bike--with knobby tires!"

He stuck with the bike he was on and beat Olano, by a minute and
39 seconds.

LANCE ARMSTRONG, WORLD-FAMOUS CELEBRITY!

We're in Chuy's, the Austin Tex-Mex joint that the Bush twins
made famous by trying to drink there on a borrowed ID. One of its
quirks is sparkly blue 1950s chairs with the names of celebrities
who've dined at Chuy's plastered on the backrests. Armstrong is
inhaling his favorite dinner--smothered smoked chicken
burrito--when a guy in a UT hat comes up and says, "Hey, are
you...using this chair?"

Armstrong looks right at him and goes, "No." And the guy takes it
and never notices that the chair he's borrowing is the Lance
Armstrong chair or that he's borrowing it from Lance Armstrong
himself.

This makes Armstrong's night. "Fame and autographs and all that
s---aren't healthy, you know," he says. "It's not good for you."

Just then the cellphone shivers again. Armstrong answers and
says, "Dude, you in the States? Cool! Can I call you in an hour?"

Who was it?

"Bono."

Turns out Bono is a huge fan. Also, Jerry Seinfeld schmoozed
Armstrong for a couple of hours one night in New York City. And
Robin Williams is a devotee. "I'm his comic domestique," says
Williams, an avid biker. Armstrong likes for Williams to get on
the team bus before the Tour and pump everybody up. Williams's
general theme is often that Armstrong has only one testicle
left--thus one of his nicknames, the UniBaller. "'C'mon, boys,
you've got to win this one for the Zipper!" Williams will shout.
"If Lance here can do it with one nad, you can do it with two!"

When you're an American who specializes in breaking French
hearts, you bring all the friends you can. It's got to gnaw at
the French that a Texan is favored to win his fifth Tour when no
Frenchman has won even one since 1985. Or that Armstrong may do
what no Frenchman ever did, tie the unthinkable five straight of
his hero, Spain's Miguel Indurain. Or that Armstrong could be
riding today for the French team Cofidis if it hadn't dropped him
cold in 1997, after he began treatment for cancer, refusing to
even pay the rest of his salary. Or that the Texas state flag
will fly from one of the finest hotels in France, Hotel de
Crillon, when Armstrong passes by on his next coronation ride
through Paris as the Tour winner.

The French have tried to stop him. Mon dieu, have they tried. For
two years the French government dragged out a weak drug
investigation into Armstrong's team. Meanwhile the U.S.
Anti-Doping Agency has made Armstrong pee in front of more people
than a zoo panda. (Armstrong figures he was tested 35 to 40 times
this year, all over the world.) Agents knocked on his Austin door
at dawn. Once they arrived when he was about to take Kristin to
the hospital, five centimeters dilated, about to give birth to
the twins. What could he do? If you refuse, it's a two-year ban.
Wait a second. Whose water just broke?

"They held one of his urine specimens for a full year!" protests
Williams. "What is it, a Chardonnay? And tonight, monsieur, we
have a bit of the Armstrong '99."

Of all those specimens, how many tested positive for drugs? Zero.
O.K., he does admit to having used one banned substance: EPO. But
it was part of the cocktail of medications that kept him from
dying of cancer. Even after the doping investigation closed this
year for lack of a single Qtip of evidence, French fans still
stood at the top of Mont Ventoux in July as Armstrong passed,
hollering, "Dope! Dope!" To the French, doping and chemotherapy:
la meme chose.

"Those people don't get it," Armstrong growls. "Every time I see
some fat French guy with his bottle of red wine screaming at me,
it's the absolute best incentive for me. It only makes me want to
go out and just kill."

Now the French are trying to fry him a new way: taxes. They want
proof that he didn't keep his first-place Tour prize money
instead of giving it away to his teammates. "Basically, they're
accusing me of breaking a 50-year tradition at the Tour de
France," Armstrong says. (Last summer, not only did Armstrong
divvy up the $373,000 winner's check among his team and staff
members, but he also handed each of them another $40,000.) The
French also want to tax the bonuses Armstrong gets for winning
the Tour from Nike, Trek, Giro and other companies he endorses.
That can add up to $2 million. (Last year Armstrong made about
$15 million.) "I just gotta hire more lawyers is all," Armstrong
sighs.

He has tried to make the French like him. He moved to Europe. He
conducts interviews in French. "Nothing works," he says. "They
told me to speak French. Told me to smile, sign autographs.
Didn't work. It's just not gonna happen."

There may be only one thing left to do: put on the T-shirt
somebody gave him the other day. It says, texas: BIGGER 'N
FRANCE.

LANCE ARMSTRONG, ACTION BOY!

The man doesn't sit still. His wife knows why, too.

She met him when he was a pale-yellow version of himself, half
gone from chemo and scared to die. "I got to know Lance when he
was standing on the edge between life and death," Kristin says.
"It was awesome to be part of. I felt like he showed me the view
from that cliff. That bonds two people. And if you get to come
back down from that edge, it changes your life. You never want to
miss out on anything fun or beautiful or scary again."

So he does his Texas Tornado thing. He motocrosses Baja with Lyle
Lovett. He drives like he's racing Steve McQueen. He wakes the
kids up to play. He puts Luke in one of those little trailers
behind his bike. (O.K., Luke, we're going to take this downhill
at about 70 miles per hour! Hang on!) He pounds out a
hand-cramping number of letters to cancer patients and learns to
surf in Hawaii. Anything to prove he'll never waste that second
chance.

But mostly, he's on the bike. In fact, if you want to interview
him, you'd better be able to ride and write at the same time. I'd
never ridden a Tour bike, but what are you gonna do? It's either
that or try to lean out of a convertible. Next thing I knew, he'd
fastened me into toe clips and shoved me off without a clue as to
how to get out of them. "Don't stop pedaling!" he yelled,
grinning.

"Why not?"

"'Cause then you die!"

He literally pushed me up a few hills with his right hand as he
pedaled his own bike. "You should ride a tandem with him," says
Kristin. "If you're about to go up a big hill he stands up, and
next thing you know, it's like you're hitched to a passing FedEx
truck."

As he pushed I plied him with crucial journalistic questions:
"When you're on one of these (pant!) for seven hours (huff!), how
do you (wheeze!) pee?"

"You just do!" he said. He showed how he turns to the side on the
bike, pulls down his shorts and lets fly.

"What if (gasp!) there are people (hack, spit!)?"

"You try to wait to find a place where they're not, but sometimes
you just have to. If they get hit, you feel bad."

"Unless they're French, of course."

"I didn't say that!"

Interesting thing about bike racing. It's loaded with old-world
sportsmanship. For instance, if the leader has to pee, the whole
peloton slows down to let him. If you're stopped by a train,
everyone waits for you to catch up. If you don't show
sportsmanship, you might suddenly find yourself "flicked" into a
ditch.

During an important Tour stage in the Pyrenees in 2001,
Armstrong's rival, Ullrich, lost control on a downhill and flew
nose over spokes into a ditch. When Armstrong realized what had
happened, he sat up on his seat and pedaled easily until Ullrich
caught up. The German press gave Armstrong a "good sport" award
for it. But would Ullrich have done the same for him? "Ahh...
I'm not too sure about that," says Armstrong.

Two seasons ago Armstrong asked to switch roles with teammate
Tyler Hamilton at Le Dauphine Libere, a race in the Rhone Alps.
Hamilton became the star and Armstrong his grunt. Armstrong
blocked wind, went back for water, set tempo, chased down breaks,
everything. Hamilton won, but it nearly killed him. "Lance
setting the tempo was not such a good idea," says Bruyneel.
"Usually, the lead rider must say to his tempo man, 'Faster!
Faster!' but Tyler kept having to say, 'Slower! Slower!'"

Hard to believe the man has a resting pulse rate of 32.

LANCE ARMSTRONG, MIRACLE MAN!

A man comes up to Armstrong with a big open hand and says,
"Lance, I want to talk to you about your belief in God."

"Well," Armstrong answers, "it's not gonna be a long talk."

True, doctors told Armstrong there was a 60% chance he was going
to die, and now he's more alive than ever. True, the chemo made
him sterile, yet now, thanks to frozen sperm, he's the father of
three. And true, a man who wasn't supposed to race again has now
won an event he never came close to winning before the cancer.

But that doesn't mean God did it. "Even when I was looking at
death, I never thought there was something waiting at the other
end," he says. "I just think, Whoosh. You're gone. And that's
it."

This is where he and Kristin, a devout Catholic, don't bond. "If
he doesn't want to credit the source, that's up to him," she
says.

"When I was a boy, I'd see people who talked about God at church
and then went home and beat their kids," Lance says. You wonder
if he's talking about his former stepfather, Terry Armstrong, a
devout Christian who, Lance says, beat him often with a paddle.

Lance's religion is living for today. "Before cancer I was always
worrying about what I was going to be doing five or six years
down the road. That's bulls---. It's a terrible way to live. When
I was the sickest, I just decided, I'm never going to waste
another today thinking about tomorrow. This is it. Today is all I
have."

And so when he visits cancer patients and writes to cancer
patients and e-mails cancer patients, which he does nearly every
day, his message is blunt. In early November he visited a man
with cancer in a Chicago hospital. The man was slipping away. His
wife was in the room, and his twin daughters were outside it.

"What am I going to do," the man wheezed, "about my wife and my
kids?"

Armstrong said, "Hey, man, you got to think about yourself right
now. You have to. Look at your wife. She's standing right over
there. See her? She's healthy. You let your wife worry about
herself and the kids, and you pour every ounce of strength you
have into yourself. 'Cause if you don't, you won't be around to
worry about your wife and kids again."

His letters go like that too. If you expect a note from Lance
Armstrong, Spiritual Healer, you'll be disappointed. "Time to
kick ass," he'll write. Or "Time to give it your all." Or "Never
give up."

Lance Armstrong is more than a bicyclist now, more than an
athlete. He's become a kind of hope machine. About 300 pieces of
mail find their way to him each week. They come from people who
are suddenly pale-yellow versions of themselves, half gone from
chemo, scared to die. They see a man who once sat around the same
chemo rooms as theirs, but now he's winning stages on the tops of
Alps. They read his book, plug into his story, let him block the
wind. He welcomes it. He wants to lead them. He calls it "the
obligation of the cured." And every time he rides, he feels like
they ride with him.

LANCE ARMSTRONG, IMMORTAL!

We're practically flying now, skidding around corners, blowing
through red lights. This is nuts even for Mellow Johnny: 110 mph.
Of course, we're in his Mercedes 500 SL on our way to the private
plane he's hired for the day ($15,000) to fly to Lincoln, Neb.,
to help Bono raise awareness of the AIDS that's devouring Africa.

"We want Lance," Bono says when we get there, "because Lance
awakens in America the idea of the impossible made possible." The
U2 star called on Friday, and now it's Sunday, and somehow the
Texas Tornado squeezed this appearance into his schedule. "Lance
doesn't have a to-do list," says Craig Nichols, the oncologist
who saved his life. "Things just get done, right now."

But it makes you worry about Action Boy. What will he do when
it's over? He says, cryptically, that he'll ride "a couple few"
more Tours de France, which means two or three more, max. If he
could win the next two, he would be the only man ever to have won
six. But Indurain lost going for his sixth at age 32--the same
age Armstrong would be if he went for his sixth--and never rode
one again.

"Six?" he says. "I don't talk about six. That's bad juju, man.
It's just math. You can't get to six without going through five.
All I care about is five."

Already, in the most Mr. Millimeter of ways, he is letting his
buzz-cut hair down. These days if he has a lead of "one minute or
more" with three stages left, he says, he'll allow himself a beer
and a dish of ice cream at night. Party! He talks about the day
when he can spend the three weeks of the Tour de France "with my
family on the beach." He shows more and more people his new land
at Dripping Springs, Texas, where he likes to stand at the top of
a 50-foot cliff and jump into a lake known as Dead Man's Hole.
Yeah, you get addicted to that edge, don't you?

"A little fear is good for you," he says. And his life will never
be without it.

"There have been times when he's feeling lousy," says his agent,
Stapleton, "and he runs off and gets it checked out. I think he
still worries about it."

Discussing it qualifies as bad juju too, except to say, "I will
never show my back to choriocarcinoma. It's the most evil, most
disgusting kind of cancer there is. I know its track record. It's
a bastard."

Still, what will Mellow Johnny do when there's no mountain range
to dance up or Frenchmen to stare down? Keep pedaling or you die,
right? But where do you pedal when there's nowhere new to go?

"Space," he says with that schoolboy grin. "I'd love to go into
space. I don't know if they'd let me, but that would be a real
adventure. The preparation would be cool. There'd be some fun
suffering in that, don't you think?"

Lance Armstrong. Very good name for an astronaut.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JONAS KARLSSON [COVER] SPORTSMAN of the YEAR Lance Armstrong BY RICK REILLYCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS KARLSSON LONE STAR Armstrong, at home in Texas, braves semis and other highway hazards to stay in shape for the real roadwork that begins when he moves to Spain in February.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS KARLSSON FOREIGN POLICY Solitary training rides outside Austin ensure that Armstrong will draw huge crowds across France.COLOR PHOTO: REUTERS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES BIKER DAD Lance is never far from Kristin and Luke (top, in 2000) and Isabelle (holding his hand) and Grace.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS KARLSSON [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: LINDA ARMSTRONG PICTURE OF HEALTH Armstrong beat back a vicious type of cancer and, ironically, benefited as a cyclist from the weight loss.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS KARLSSON [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS AMERICAN IDOL He may be vilified in France, but Armstrong (in his chase vehicle) is a mighty big deal back home in Texas.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS KARLSSON [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: REUTERS (WILLIAMS) STAR POWER Armstrong's famous friends include Williams (above, left), a bike nut, and Bono, whom he's joined to fight AIDS.COLOR PHOTO: SUSAN RANTA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PETER DEJONG/AP THUMB UP? Come next July, Mellow Johnny plans to make his fifth straight triumphal ride down the Champs-Elysees.
It's not about the bike? It's all about the bike. This is his
third hour on the bike today, and the Tour isn't for seven
months.
Kristin met Lance when he was a pale-yellow version of himself,
half gone from chemo and scared to die.
He's become a kind of hope machine for cancer patients. He
welcomes it. He calls it "the obligation of the
cured."
"Every time I see some fat French guy with his bottle of red wine
screaming at me, it's the absolute best
incentive."
"C'mon, just let me feel 'em," Tiger Woods said, and he put his
hands on Armstrong's concrete thighs. "Man! I mean,
man!"
"I just decided, I'm never going to waste another day thinking
about tomorrow. This is it. Today is all I have."