By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Funny thing. Just a few days ago, I was e-mailing with Lance Armstrong about a mutual friend, precious to those who know him, who has come down with a sudden case of lung tumors. Lance responded as anyone who has gone to him on cancer matters has come to expect, with the name of an oncologist, a string of swear words at once seething and sympathetic, and a missive about how the "bastard" disease, as he often refers to it, is hard to beat and does not get proper federal attention. Then he added some typical Lance keystrokes. "Having said that, we don't care," he wrote. "Let's get to work."
Not once did he mention that at the time, he was training on the face of a mountain in the Rockies, and planning to drag his iron 36-year-old backside out of retirement for another ride in the Tour De France, in order to "raise awareness of the global cancer burden." That bit of news he released yesterday in a formal statement. As for our friend, we're waiting on the needle biopsy.
My feelings about Lance Armstrong have long been established: I met him shortly after he whipped his own case of cancer and won his first Tour de France, and wrote two books with him, which was both high adventure and financially rewarding. But I'd hang around him for free, which I do whenever he is in the vicinity. In a decade of knowing him, something odd has happened. I've begun to believe he's capable of curing cancer. Not personally, but capable of mobilizing the funds and the science to do it. What's more, I've become convinced that's what he fully intends to do.
Lance's enemies and critics, who are legion, will sneer that his accomplishments were dope-fueled and that his comeback is vanity-driven, and even some of his admirers will question whether it's sensible to try to add to his record of seven Tour de France victories after three years away from the bike. But the fact is that cancer and improbable odds are the keys to his fierce personality, they're what propelled him over 2,300 miles and up mountainsides in the first place. "Watch, I'm gonna win it again," he said, after the first one. "Know why? 'Cause everyone says I can't."
There is no question Lance is an enigma, and his motives aren't always lucid to himself or those around him. Lying around the Caribbean in shorts and flip-flops or hanging around a bar watching the Cowboys and sampling various liquids, both of which he's done his fair share of these past three years, doesn't really suit him. What really gets him going, what turns his eyes the color of a blue gas flame, is work. Projects. He stalks everywhere with a cellphone plugged in his ear, the king of multitasking.
The man's also got big plans: In addition to licking cancer, he may want to run for governor in Texas some day. For the last couple of years he's been engrossed in politics, and cultivated acquaintances in both parties. Republican adviser Mark McKinnon is an old Austin friend of his, yet Armstrong has also grown very close to both of the Clintons, whom he got to know on the foundation barnstorming circuit. In 2007, Armstrong went on a USO tour of Iraq and Afghanistan, and campaigned hard for a Texas state measure, Proposition 15, to appropriate up to $3 billion for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. It's the largest state anti-cancer funding program ever, and when it passed he called it a bigger rush than he ever had winning the Tour.
He bought a Manhattan apartment, in part because he wanted a foothold in New York financial circles, a platform from which to raise really large sums of money for his foundation, which has kicked in more than $265 million to the cancer fight. He's had breakfasts with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and with Sen. Barack Obama. He's gone from a tongue-tied, white-knuckled public speaker into a master of platforms. He's withholding any public statements about his comeback until a big rollout at the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 24. All I could dig out of him was a couple of cryptic e-mails. "Let's rock," the last one said.
We'll have to wait until then for him to enunciate his full motives for the comeback. But Lance is not someone prone to a hasty pell-mell decision because he misses the limelight. His Tour de France efforts, his foundation work, his political efforts have all been characterized by meticulous planning until winning was a near certainty. At his peak, he combed every part of the bike, looking for extra seconds. He studied mountainsides, calculated his heart rate and other physiological values, and decided on the numbers that he believed it would take to win the stage. And then he would hit them. He took immense pride that he reduced winning almost to a math problem, and believed he had "revolutionized" training.
His parting words after his last Tour victory was a shot at his doping accusers, "the cynics and skeptics," but while he was in retirement, the doping accusations continued to dog him, and gnaw at him. According to a Vanity Fair report, the comeback will in part be an answer to the accusations: He will subject himself to comprehensive new drug testing, and publish all the results daily on his Web site. Pat McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union, speculated, "It may be that he has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder because of the accusations and rumors surrounding him, none of which were ever proven."
He was 33 when he walked away, and he was proud of going out in his prime. He had a dread of losing, of winding up gasping on a hillside while other riders passed him. "At some point you turn 34, or you turn 35, the others make a big step up, and when your age catches up, you take a big step down," he said. He didn't want to reach that point. "We are never going to know" if he could win another, he said.
But of course, retiring as an immortal didn't prevent Lance from aging. Nor did it apparently satisfy him -- in fact, it's safe to say that if anything made him feel old and mortal, it was the banquet circuit. He's got millions of dollars, influence, a private jet, his choice of beautiful and interesting companions, adorable children and his health. And yet he's choosing to reembark on an effort to win one of the most physically torturous sports events in the world, a 23-day festival of suffering. Why? Lance will have to explain that for himself, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that, having almost died once, he's determined to exhaust every last capacity in himself. He needs to work -- physically work. It makes him feel healthy.
It's also not the worst thing a man can do with his time.