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Don't Expect Heights to Scare Armstrong

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Friday, July 10, 2009

The e-mail that came from Lance Armstrong was cryptic, as always. "It's happening," he wrote.

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By it, he meant everything: the fruition of his un-retirement, the promising liveliness in his legs, his menacing creep up the standings of the Tour de France, from 10th to second by a fraction, and the international frenzy he has caused by contending again at the age of almost 38.

"So what are you going to do next to electrify the world?" I asked. "Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?" He'd probably race the water to the bottom.

"Ha," he replied.

In fact, the next thing Armstrong is likely to do is take the lead in the Tour. One thing I know about Armstrong, my friend and book collaborator of a decade now, is how much he loves a confrontation. Stage 7 of the Tour is shaping up as a major showdown, the first summit finish of the race, a steep climb through the Spanish Pyrenees to Arcalis, a ski resort in Andorra, and a moment of truth that will reveal whether he has the lungs and will to stay with Alberto Contador, his teammate and rival who is 11 years younger.

"I know Alberto wants to assert himself in the race," Armstrong told the press, and then went on to act rather fey, suggesting he doesn't know whether he can stay with him when they hit the climbs. Just watch.

A reflexive need for confrontation is an essential part of Armstrong's psychological equipment. He has always glared straight at any problem or opponent with those eyes like burning glass, the same color blue as a gas flame. It's the first thing I learned about him back in 1999, when we started working on the book, "It's Not About the Bike." His then-wife, Kristin, who remains his close friend and probably understands him better than anyone, gave me a piece of advice that remains the single most truthful thing I've ever heard said about him. "Don't corner him," she warned me. "If you corner him, he'll fight his way out."

With the beginning of the mountain climbs, Armstrong will confront one of his biggest fights, and biggest fears. Getting sick again is his worst fear -- but cracking on a mountainside, while everyone else rides away, is right up there. It's why he used to swear that he was going to retire on top, that he would go out a winner in perpetuity. In every mountain stage, there is always some lonely figure whose body has failed, who struggles up the incline, just trying not to quit, miles behind the rest of the pack. "I don't want to be the guy left behind on the mountainside, who gets passed by," he used to say. "I'm not going to be that guy."

But when something bothers Armstrong, or scares him, he goes right at it. He doesn't like heights, but he used to jump off a cliff into a small lake in Dripping Springs, Tex. If someone makes him angry, he calls them up. I think maybe the only time I've seen him dodge a confrontation came with his kids. His tiny daughter Isabella dumped the entire contents of a toy chest on the floor, thousands of tiny little critters and creatures scattering about. "Aw Izzy," he said, weakly, in a tone I've never heard before or since, "please don't do that."

Sometimes his need for confrontation serves him well, and sometimes badly. It helped him surmount a fatherless childhood in Dallas, and find himself as a competitor. It also made him too combative on occasion. In a small criterion race around a dusty Texas track one afternoon, he crossed the finish line punching at another rider. It was his indispensable ally in beating cancer, the Bastard, as he calls it, and when he came to after brain surgery, with tubes in his chest and a U-shaped incision in his scalp, the size of a horseshoe, he fought to get out of bed. "What are you doing?" the nurse said, pushing him back down.

But it hasn't made him much of a diplomat in dealing with his critics. "Let it go," I'd tell him, whenever another story appeared accusing him of using needles to win. He had money, healthy children, love, an adventurous life. Why did he need to answer every enemy, call them up personally? "Easy for you to say," he'd reply.

It's what his whole comeback is all about, really, coming face to face with things, especially the doubters. "Am I doping now?" his body language seems to say, as he hovers over the pedals, swaggering even as he rides. He didn't like the slackness of retirement. The absence of physical punishment made him feel he was drifting, even when he ran marathons with stress fractures. So he called up his old friend and former team director, Johan Bruyneel, and said he was going to ride again.

"He's drunk, he's at a party," was Bruyneel's first thought.

Armstrong's ability to confront is a quality I've always admired about him, even when it causes him difficulties. It's a quality I wish I had more of, as opposed to ducking, or stalling, or aheming my way out of difficult situations, because it leads to clear answers and definite outcomes. It's a kind of emotional gamble: He puts himself out there for anyone to see, and to judge.

In the climb he faces today in Stage 7, he won't be able to hide, and won't seek to. By the end of the stage we will know whether he's strong enough to race to win, or whether he will spend the rest of the Tour riding in support of the young Contador. The 139-mile ride to Arcalis finishes with a monster climb at 2,240 meters, one of the highest finishes in Tour history, that will leave him gasping. It will take him through the mountains of Andorra, a part of Spain he has ridden through before, when he lived in the ancient Catalonian city of Girona, when he was a younger man who breathed easier. He would walk his bike across the cobblestones until he was outside of the old siege walls, and then ride up into the mountain passes, to look for himself.

"People don't understand that when he attacks the race the way he does, he's exposed," his friend John Korioth once told me. "He could crack, and if he cracks, a competitor can blow right by. When he attacks he's showing all his cards."



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