Lance Armstrong greeted me at the front door, barefoot, holding a glass of Cabernet. Though we’re neighbors among the rolling hills of Austin, Texas, we’re not especially close. Occasionally we bump into each other around town and talk about politics. We are, in other words, acquaintances. So when he invited me to dinner in mid-August—at my instigation—my plan was to discuss the Olympics and his future in Texas politics. Armstrong insisted he had something important he wanted to tell me in confidence.
Since I know Armstrong’s disdain for small talk, I was somewhat taken aback when the world’s top anti-cancer advocate (and seven-time winner of cycling’s premier race, the Tour de France) immediately launched into a diatribe about recent charges in the press—first printed in our local paper, the Austin American-Statesman—that he was the single largest consumer of water in town, with most of his habit (222,900 gallons in June alone) going to maintain the greenery around his three-acre estate. He complained that the paper had invaded his privacy zone by splashing across its front page an aerial photo of his Spanish colonial mansion, all 8,000 square feet of it.
“That bothered me, ’cause it’s my home,” he said, offering up tuna-tartare hors d’oeuvres and pouring generously from an uncorked wine bottle. (In collaboration with a friend, Armstrong has his own boutique label.) In Austin, the eco-capital of Texas, residents tend to favor native plants and wildflowers to the sculpted lawns of the Palm Springs variety. So even though I knew Armstrong to be a fierce competitor, I realized that he’d be riled by winning the “water hog” title. Especially when the item was picked up by the newswires and the blogs.
“It’s where my kids roll around in the grass,” he told me, “and swim in their pools and throw their footballs and kick their soccer balls.” (His ex-wife, Kristin Armstrong, with whom he has remained quite close since their 2003 divorce, lives only a few miles away, so he spends a lot of time with their children, eight-year-old Luke, and Grace and Bella, their six-year-old twins. Armstrong’s actually one of the best hands-on fathers I’ve ever met.) He told me he considered the photo and the article “an invasion. It bothers you when it runs in The New York Times and every paper across the United States. I was in Santa Barbara for the summer, and it ran in that local paper. I was thinking, Oh my God. But it gets back to politics. I mean, I think from the mind of Texas media they’re already thinking, This guy’s planning something political. And so they’ll look at your voting record, they’ll look at your water bill. If you get into a fight at a bar with a bouncer, they’ll write it.”
But surely he hadn’t asked me to dinner to talk about his plumbing. I began to wonder if, instead, he’d wanted to confide in me—as a historian and a journalist—about his purported plans to run for governor. Word had it that he’d been making the public-appearance rounds and setting his sights on 2010. He has Dallas roots and a ranch in Dripping Springs. While many in Texas have pegged Armstrong as a Republican (one of his advisers is Austin’s Mark McKinnon, who has helped burnish the images of both George W. Bush and John McCain), he nonetheless seeks the counsel of John Kerry and has decidedly Democratic leanings.
“What about the rumors,” I asked him, “that you’ll run for governor?”
He answered slyly, “Down the road, something like that might be possible. Probably in 2014.”
My host, who has an interior designer’s eye, gave me a quick tour. He’s created a home that is immense and fluid, with beautiful dark woods and shades of maroon. The spread, while spectacular, has something of a playground feel: wheeled toys are scattered about as if in Legoland. Here and there, the walls are dominated by museum-quality canvases by Ed Ruscha, colorful minimalist pieces bearing concise slogans—pure and direct and in your face, like Armstrong himself. A few years ago, he said, he’d had a chance encounter with the painter whose work he’d been collecting.
While dining at Chef Melba’s in Hermosa Beach, California, Armstrong heard an obnoxious voice, with a thick New Jersey accent, coming from the table behind him: “Hey, kid, what are you gonna do for work this summa?!” Armstrong worried that he had a kook on his hands. “I’m talkin’ to you, kid. What are you gonna do?” Armstrong got pissed, he recalled. “I was like … I think this motherfucker’s talkin’ to me. So I wheeled around in my chair. It was fucking Don Rickles. And I started laughing. Anyway, he’s like, ‘Meet my friend Ed.’
“And I go, ‘Hey, Ed. I’m Lance Armstrong.’ And he goes, ‘I’m Ed Ruscha.’ And I’m like, ‘Ed Ruscha?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ It was fucking crazy. My main guy was having dinner with Rickles. I told him about how much [his paintings] Speed Racer and Safe and Effective Medication have meant to me.”
We moved out to the back terrace, overlooking the surrounding grounds, the gardens, a designer pool nearby. Like a couple of back-fence neighbors, we pulled up lawn chairs to chew over the local news. Armstrong read aloud a retaliatory letter to the editor—a screed, in fact—that he’d drafted but never sent to the Statesman. I considered this a wise choice. He’d need the support of his hometown newspaper if he’d ever make a run for the statehouse. Furthermore, the editors had consistently promoted his Austin-based anti-cancer efforts, in glowing fashion, for more than a decade; it was best to cut them slack.
And the talk, as it always must with Lance Armstrong, turned to cancer.
Back in October 1996, after winning two Tour stages, he’d been diagnosed with an aggressive strain of testicular cancer. He had had two surgeries: one to remove a cancerous testicle, another to remove two cancerous lesions on the brain. An additional 8 to 10 golf-ball-size tumors were found in his lungs. He’d been a dead man walking. Seeking the best specialists, some of whom happened to be at Indiana University Medical Center, he underwent a round of B.E.P. chemotherapy (Bleomycin, Etoposide, and Platinol), followed by three rounds of V.I.P. chemotherapy (Ifosfamide, Etoposide, and Platinol). He was only 25 years old and had been given less than a 40 percent chance of survival. Victim Armstrong, however, fought the odds and won, going on to take an unprecedented seven straight cycling crowns. Once a year, now, he does blood tests, his levels normal, though the fears of remission always persist. It’s the same test that women use for pregnancy. “Back in ’96,” Armstrong likes to joke, “I was really, really pregnant!”
As I listened to him, my chief worry was that Armstrong’s cancer had returned. Could that be what this dinner was all about? Perhaps he wanted me to be his Boswell, to document his fight going forward. Though he’s among the most focused and tightly wound people I’ve ever encountered (and, paradoxically, one of the most unflaggingly upbeat), he seemed particularly intense that night. His lapis eyes seemed to smolder. He fidgeted with his BlackBerry, a skull emblazoned on its back. His restless hands bespoke surplus energy. (Lance and Kristin often text-message each other XXOO notes.)
My heart sank as I considered what he’d gone through: lost testicle, chemo, baldness; the struggles, the titles, then his choice to return to Austin and retire from racing for good.
I knew a bit of his history as an advocate for others who shared the disease. He’d started the Lance Armstrong Foundation (L.A.F.) in Austin in 1997, a little mom-and-pop organization. Over time, he understood that survivors were sometimes too afraid, psychologically, to talk about cancer, let alone spread the word. So, in 2003, he created LiveStrong, in effect an anti-cancer brand, designed to raise public awareness, largely through a Web site that could act as a gathering place for fellow survivors. Within a decade Armstrong had helped raise $265 million, his organization hosting bike-race fund-raisers across the country, creating survivorship programs, posting medical resource guides online. Like his friend Bono, Armstrong had redefined celebrity leveraging, becoming a regular 365-days-a-year walking-talking Jerry Lewis Telethon. (In Armstrong’s last appearance on the Forbes Celebrity 100, in 2005, his estimated annual income was $28 million, largely accrued through endorsements and support from companies such as Nike, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Trek Bicycles.)
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