An interview with Lance Armstrong, March 15, 2005
Armstrong totally positive for upcoming Tour challenge despite less than great start at Paris-Nice
On a cold evening in early March, Cyclingnews finds six-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong and his Discovery Channel team at Paris-Nice, in a two star Kyriad motel east of the French industrial burg of Clermont-Ferrand. It had been a stressful day for Armstrong, as the snow-shortened stage had been reduced to an hour of hard all-out racing, after which Armstrong had to go to medical control and arrived back at the motel late, tired and hungry. But after he'd had a bowl of soup and a shower, Lance Armstrong sat down with Cyclingnews European editor Tim Maloney for an exclusive chat.
Digging through my photo archives recently I found this image of Armstrong at the 2000 Tour de France prologue at Futuroscope. I spin my laptop round to show him the pic. It's less than five years ago, but the scene at a Tour de France stage these days would be very different.
Cyclingnews: Does this bring back any memories? Do you remember back in the day, when it wasn't a battle zone outside the team bus
"We're considering breaking into the subway station in Brussels to take Eddy Merckx's bike. How do the purists like that?" - Lance Armstrong on the Hour Record.
Lance Armstrong: Oh I was just gonna say... it looks pretty relaxed there! Yeah, it's gotten more hectic for sure, at the starts and finishes and hotels... just life in general. It's gotten more difficult (for me) to escape. The first reaction I had when I saw the picture was 'God, now I wouldn't be able to just stand there and give an interview, unless if it was three in the morning.'
CN: Here we are at the first-ever ProTour race and I'm curious. Over the course of your career - it's your 13th full year as a pro cyclist - what kind of changes have you seen in cycling?
LA: I tell you, I can remember well the first time I did Paris-Nice in 1993 and cycling has changed dramatically since then. I was a young guy, and we did some decent training camps then. I guess I had already raced quite a bit before Paris-Nice. [We raced] Tour of the Med, Laigueglia [February 17, 1993, where a 21 year old Armstrong won his second career pro race in Europe - Ed] and Paris-Nice was probably my next race. [Armstrong was second on Stage 6, finishing atop the Col du Grand Duc in Mandelieu, where de las Cuevas passed him in the last 100m, and ended up ninth on general classification - Ed].
I think [pro racers] nowadays prepare a lot better and train a lot more in the winter. I mean, they come in hot! Really fit, not just with base miles but also with quality miles and quality preparation; intensity, motorpacing, intervals, etc. Guys are ready to race and you see the speeds now... and part of me wonders if cycling just gets slower throughout the year? Because obviously my curve is the exact opposite of many people; not to name names, but you see guys who are flying in February and March and some guys even January if you consider races around the world. And then they start to taper off, while other guys get stronger. I think another change I've seen is that the group as a whole is much more professional and much more prepared now than they ever were. Year by year, the group has gotten deeper and faster; cycling is a competitive sport, you know. And I think that's what leads to faster races, faster performances. Take the knowledge of training, the knowledge of diet. I mean, diet has become so critical in cycling. There are guys who used to come into the season way overweight and now they're a lot leaner in general. Technology is much better; the bikes are faster and lighter; more efficient.
CN: One of the things that Lance Armstrong has brought to the sport of cycling is very methodical, extremely professional approach to preparing for the Tour de France. And many of your competitors have adopted some of your methodology. Do you think that the competition may be getting closer?
LA: We came in and tried to change our system and to perfect it to the nth degree. And we weren't quiet about it; we shared a lot of our secrets and we talked about what we were doing and people saw what we were doing and obviously, because you see and hear and read and watch, teams and riders are replicating that [approach]. Which is what I would do... but are they catching up? I don't know; it depends on what you use as a barometer. If you use the Tour de France as a barometer, we were pretty strong at last year's Tour.
CN: Regarding your decision to go for a seventh Tour de France victory, can you tell us how your thought process evolved in the last few months? Because when we spoke last October in Austin, it was my feeling that you weren't anxious to go back to France.
LA: For me the Tour is just such a special race; it's the one and only race that makes a difference. I hate to put it up on a bigger pedestal, but it is the greatest bicycle race in the world. And it is the race that everybody in America knows, the race sponsors know; it's the only race that's gonna be on the front page of the New York Times or the LA Times or USA Today, I can assure you of that. It's huge and also, it's the race that I just love the most. It's a natural fit, so why not do it one more time?
Last year when we talked, I didn't know... that wasn't a bluff!
I was considering doing other things; now having planned that way and planned to do some classics, along with that plan came starting my 2005 season at Paris-Nice. So that's why I did start here. Plus my [personal] schedule had filled up through February, so I wouldn't have been able to start racing earlier, like at Vuelta Murcia, a race that's a little more chilled out [than Paris-Nice]. But instead I got busy and got thrown in to this lions' den here at Paris-Nice.
I think [Paris-Nice] is a fine, classic race but I would do just about anything to go back and change my program... I don't need to be here. Number one, I need training; simple, hard, focused training right now before I get into some races and if I was going to get into races, something like Murcia or something else would be more appropriate. Here, you're not even training; we did 46km [on Tuesday]; okay, it was fast, but that's not what I need.
CN: You could have motorpaced instead.
LA: Exactly! We raced an hour... fifty minutes.
[Armstrong didn't start Stage 4 of Paris-Nice. Discovery Channel's Johan Bruyneel explained on March 9th that "Lance woke up Wednesday morning with a sore throat and with the cold weather, he began to feel worse throughout the day's stage. By the time we got back to the hotel, he was running a fever and we decided it was best that he not start on Thursday and go home."]
CN: What about a race like Tirreno-Adriatico? Would that have been an option for you or due to the defamation lawsuit by Italian rider Filippo Simeoni, are you avoiding racing in Italy?
LA: I'm not avoiding Italy just because of that; Tirreno is another example of a race that you wouldn't want to start your season in. It's so competitive; these guys are totally gunning for, especially the Italians; they're totally motivated for Milano-Sanremo. Tirreno is hard; it's not as hard as Paris-Nice in terms of attacking from kilometre zero, but when they go hard they go hard.
But if I really wanted to compete in Tirreno, or the Giro or Milano-Sanremo, I certainly would go. I don't know what would happen. Racing in Italy doesn't fit in with my program... simple question: when's the last time I raced in Italy?
CN: Milano-Sanremo 2002... ?
LA: So in the last six years, I've raced in Italy like two days? Our program is not an Italian centred program, versus Spain and France and Belgium.
CN: So the question is still open-ended that you may compete in Italy before the end of your career.
LA: Anything's possible. All I know is I'm riding the Tour. I know what I'm doing up until the Tour and then after that, I'll decide...
CN: So bearing in mind all your experience in the Tour, how do you see this year's Tour de France?
LA: I think it's set up to be a great Tour... you've got sort of the usual suspects when you talk about Armstrong, Ullrich, Beloki back with Heras, so you've got a good team dynamic, team attack from Liberty; you've got a good team thing going from T-Mobile with Ullrich, Vino and Kloden; you've got sort of the young sensations from Basso and Cunego. It'll be fun! Good. More people to share some responsibility.
CN: Looking at your Discovery team roster at Paris-Nice, it looks like you have your core guys for the Tour de France squad. How is the vibe with the new guys fitting with the old hands on Discovery?
LA: It's good. Our team has gotten more and more international. A lot of guys have been on the team so long, Chechu [Rubiera], Eki [Ekimov]; they fit in really well with the new guys, like Savoldelli and Popovych. Everybody on this team is laid back; we don't have a lot of big mouths and a lot of showboats. It's just kind of status quo; we just get on with business of the race and in the bus it's very mellow. No BS.
CN: So you are happy with the way things are synching up so far?
LA: Yeah. It works well because Popovych can relate and communicate well with Eki in Russian and get a feel of how the team works and communicate well with Savoldelli in Italian. They have some camaraderie there. And then Chechu and Azevedo and Triki (Beltran) all know a fair bit of Italian.
It's a good group... you throw in a George (Hincapie) and a few other guys; Pavel (Padrnos), Benoit (Joachim), Benjamin (Noval) and whoever comes around for the Tour, then... it's a badass team.
CN: So despite the fact that your season has started at Paris-Nice in less than an ideal way...
LA: [Sarcastically] Oh you mean 140th in the prologue wasn't ideal? Haha...
CN: And the lousy weather and the short stages...
LA: That I can't control...
CN: You are very positive about your decision to go for an unprecedented seventh straight Tour win.
LA: I don't think I'm... My two biggest problems before (Paris-Nice) are that I didn't hit it really hit it hard enough in the weeks leading up to it and that I came to Europe only two and a half days before the start, so that's not really ideal.
Jet lag is jet lag and I flew from Los Angeles which is a long flight.
CN: So where does your new focus on the Tour de France put your preparations for an attempt at the World Hour Record?
LA: It's interesting; at the Discovery team presentation, we talked about the possibility to build a velodrome and everyone went into a frenzy... 'he's going to buy the Hour Record'. I said it was a possibility; I didn't say we had already built the freakin' track! We were exploring every possibility like we do with everything. So that was, of course when we were not certain I was doing the Tour, so everything else is on the back burner and after that, we'll decide. For all the purists out there, I will say IF there's an hour record and IF one is done at altitude, there WILL be one done at sea level. Just so we keep things even. And we're considering breaking into the subway station in Brussels to take Eddy Merckx's bike. How do the purists like that?
CN: Have you heard anything more about the current investigation into LA Confidentiel?
LA: I don't know.
CN: As I understand it, you have sent letters to the French authorities to inform them that you are available at any time and place to answer their questions?
LA: Yeah, yeah.
CN: And you've heard nothing back.
LA: No; I don't know; I've heard nothing. It makes big news when it comes out and then you don't hear anything. Of course, we didn't hear anything before it came out, and you know, I wouldn't be surprised if two things happened: one, that we hear about another [investigation] tomorrow in Bordeaux or somewhere else - why not? Any [French] prosecutor can open any investigation; and number two, I wouldn't be surprised if they walked in the door right now and said 'Okay here we go' and no problem.
CN: But the ironic thing is that you have a great relationship with the French people. You seem to have more fans than ever here...
LA: I gotta tell you, this is... I was talking about this the other night on the radio show. The people, contrary to what has always been said, the people, even in the Tour, the vast majority of the people are great. Yeah, you get some taunts and some jeers and boos. You've got to consider that the Tour isn't just a French race, it's a global race. You've got millions of Germans, millions of Italians, millions of Basques. Those people are cheering for their guy; they don't want the same result. But a race like [Paris-Nice], the [French] people who come out are just fantastic. You don't hear anything and these are all French people. Overwhelming support.
CN: On the home front, I hear you have a new dog; a yellow lab named Rex?
LA: Yeah! He's a really cool guy... unfortunately he is not healthy. He's got a bad heart, basically. So one of the best animal hospitals and veterinary schools in the US is in College Station (Texas A&M University), where the wind tunnel is. They can do some surgery for him to work on the valve, but they want to wait -he's only four and a half months - until he stops growing a little bit before they determine how much the heart is going to grow and move and change. And we're not stopping there; we're getting second and third opinions.
Rex is probably going to take a trip to Ft. Collins, Colorado to see a Dr. Chris Orton... a 'small world' story; when we were in Santa Barbara during training camp, we were staying at a friend's house and the neighbours passed by with two labs and we started talking about their labs, just out of the blue, for no reason. And the lady said 'this one is a little miracle dog' and told the story about him, and at the time I didn't even have a dog. Then we found out about Rex and I remembered that the neighbour lady said that they flew their dog all around the country and had found this great doctor for their lab.
Sure enough, it turned out to be the same doctor in Ft. Collins, so Rex is going there for a checkup. But the doctors think they can help. They replace the heart valves with tissue from a cow. He's a cutie, he's a good puppy.
CN: You have been in the media a lot recently at the Grammys and Oscars. Has that impacted your season preparation? I saw you briefly on TV at the Vanity Fair after party when NBC's Katie Couric caught you on her purse cam.
LA: Well she came up to Sheryl and I and she's got this purse in her hand (holds his had up to shoulder level) and I thought 'what's going on' and she said 'I have a camera in my purse' so I went 'bullshit! Lemme see.' That world is really different. Obviously those [show biz] things are not ideal for preparing the season, but Sheryl supports me all season long; she comes to the Tour, goes to training camp and that's my world. But that's her world; the Grammys, the Oscars, Billboard Music Awards, all those things. We're close and we're happy and we both believe we support each other so if you've gotta go to those things. I'm not saying that they're not any fun, because they are fun. I feel a little guilty because they get to go late and they're just before the season starts, but I can manage that. For me the most important thing is to reciprocate and be there for Sheryl.
CN: So you're still out on the bike every day?
LA: Absolutely; a lot of these event we leave early because I've got to get up and train. Like at the Vanity Fair thing, I left and Sheryl stayed but the image that gets broadcast around the world is that I'm at all the parties but that's actually at 7:30. The hardest thing is dressing up, wearing a black tie.
CN: But you usually don't wear a tie.
LA: Black tie, man... only for her!
At that point, always-gracious Discovery media guy Jogi Muller calls time as Armstrong has dinner waiting on the table. The day after our interview, Armstrong decided to drop out of Paris-Nice. Discovery Channel director Johan Bruyneel told Cyclingnews, "Lance woke up (Wednesday) morning with a sore throat and with the cold weather, he began to feel worse throughout the day. By the time we got back to the hotel after the stage, he was running a fever and we thought it best that he should withdraw from Paris-Nice go home to Spain to get better. What Lance needed Paris-Nice was to quietly chalk up the kilometres in good weather conditions. But now, with these short stages, which are fast and hectic, and the persistent cold weather, it was anything but ideal for Lance."
Armstrong was due to race Paris-Camembert and the Flèche Brabançonne/Brabantse Pijl in late March in preparation for the Tour of Flanders, but his schedule is now unsure. He could return to competition in the upcoming Setmana Catalana, two days after Milano-Sanremo. But Bruyneel and Armstrong will decide what's next depending on how Lance feels. "I know Lance," explained Bruyneel. "With two or three weeks training he can reach acceptable form again, so this is a small setback. Ullrich, Basso, Mayo and Heras have also barely raced yet. He's at their level, so what?"