'Lance Armstrong: The History Man' by Morten Okbo, originally published in two parts in issues 51 and 52 of Rouleur. This is part one.
This is a great story.
When the actor Josh Brolin was asked why he would take on the role as George W. Bush in the Oliver Stone feature W, he explained that the former President, widely regarded as the worst in the history of the country, considered too unintelligent for the job and therefore ridiculed by just about all of the media, and, to top it off, an alcoholic turned Christian, was, Brolin said, a man everybody wanted to have a beer with.
Lance Armstrong is one of the most successful, intelligent men who ever rode a racing bike professionally. He is also considered to be the biggest jerk ever to ride the same two wheels for a living. But when you listen to the latest recorded interview, the Dan Patrick Show of July 7, 2014, Armstrong sounds like a person you’d want to have a beer with. For 30 minutes, he comes across as both thoughtful and reflective. He has, it seems, plenty of insights into his own shortcomings and even shows remorse and regret in how his Former Self used to perform in public on and especially, especially, off the bike. If Armstrong was known for always wanting to control the narrative, and with this New Self being the latest story, it might just be the strangest turnaround of personality we’ve ever witnessed. How do you decide to go from being an – allegedly – complete asshole, to a reflective, supposedly warm and caring person? If this guy models himself after circumstances, well, then he is a class-A sociopath, and I don’t believe he is.
The reason is obvious. Lance Armstrong has five children with two intelligent women. And no intelligent woman will voluntarily marry and carry the babies of that sort of a character. I mean, right?
“So call him up,” says the Editor.
“How do you call up Lance Armstrong without getting sued?”
“Tell him you’re buying.”
“You are a genius.”
“Clinical psychology evening classes. I’m there for two years now,” the Editor says.
“What? Trouble at home?”
“Don’t… I’ll book your tickets. Oh. And Morten. One more thing.”
“What? Bring back tea?”
“Bring back tea.”
(This is a written transcript of the sound of a beer being opened and if you would like a transcript of the transcript of a beer being opened, you should really think about getting a life.)
I’m stalling. Lance is in the garage. He has just completed a two-hour ride with BMC local Tejay van Garderen. The young American then disappeared for another 40-kilometre loop, before scooter training with the older icon in about an hour. There is time for coffee.
Sitting on a kid’s chair, removing his cycling shoes, Lance complains about how he hates riding his road bike for more than 20 minutes: “You goddam dudes are making me do this shit!”
In front of him, spread out on the garage floor between toys in shapes and sizes of all sorts, lies a collection of small patches formed as stars – the Lone Star, you’d assume.
“Yeah.” He picks one up, studying it closely. “I had all this Nike shit, and so when that relationship ended, I didn’t want to throw it all away. So I made these patches to cover up their logo. That way I could keep the stuff!”
Fifteen minutes later, we are in an oversized kitchen where the help has recently been fired. Must have been. Dirty cups, plates and pans are everywhere. Cutlery fills the sink, the trash can looks as if it has been waterboarded with coffee grains, you kick a kid’s toys for every metre on the beautiful (what else?) wooden flooring that continues into the dining area, then into the cozy living room where a perfect fireplace lights up the back of a tremendous room.
Lance has the house to himself. And he is fucking it up. One could argue that he is a man with things on his mind. Or. That he was a millionaire at the age of 20 and as an adult has never dishwashed or picked up anything in his life. Or. That he is lazy by nature. But no. Some hours later he confesses over the phone to Anna, who has returned briefly to Austin with the kids, that the place indeed is a fucking pigsty, but the maids are coming to their rescue on Wednesday.
Maids, not maid.
The mansion is worth $10M. Lance is being sued for more than one hundred million. Or so it reads in reports circulating. It’ll be a long kiss goodnight for this sort of living if the wolves, entitled or not, get their way with our man here. But right now, he shows no sign of trouble. Re-entering the room, he half orders us to make our own coffee, then stands across the kitchen table, arms folded and looks straight into my face.
“So. Is this going to be a shitty piece or..?”
“It’ll be a fantastic piece.”
“Fantastic for you and shitty for me?”
“You’ll be fine. We are here to put Lance Armstrong back on the map. Pass the sugar, please.”
Jakob Kristian moves in from the side: “Yes. We don’t have many haters among our readers.” This makes Armstrong look puzzled or unevenly surprised. “And we’d like some of yours. Anyhow. Would it be interesting for you to do a shitty piece?”
“I guess not,” Lance answers, “but the media also wants a new story now. It has to reinvent itself. Sure, they’ll always be all the haters, but it has been establised a long time ago that I’m the biggest…”
“Jerk?” I offer.
“No. Asshole is the word!”
“Right. You’re an asshole.”
What is zoom? Zoom is the picture you didn’t want. I wonder what it is Lance Armstrong wants as he zooms in and our eyes are momentarily locked. For a second. Two seconds. But his are friendly, even playful. Once they could burn through you, could crush you, we all heard of stories, the intimidation, the built-up rage, anything that would set him off, then it was this guy, then it was that guy, all of which had one purpose only, to see through Europe, meaning the Old World, trying to measure it all out, knowing instinctively that there was a place for him, not as a member of a cycling society, but as its new leader, the owner.
Stay with this.
Because what Greg LeMond, with his rather goofy and happy-go-lucky approach, did before him as an American – as a foreigner in a traditional world – Lance Armstrong would, a decade later, ruthlessly cultivate and perfect to its very limit. But there was no way he would ever get away with it. It was always going to collapse for the American. Because he is an American.
“Today, I can’t do archery. I can’t do badminton. I can’t do table tennis. When all this shit went down, I got banned from every Olympic Sport. For life.”
”Who is respon..?”
“Travis Tygart. He is the man behind it. I suspect he had four main motivations. First: he is a megalomaniac and loves the spotlight. Second: he, and they, wanted to set a legal precedent going forward for any future cases. Third: there is a growing chorus of people who can legitimately argue that testing simply doesn’t work and yet they spend millions a year on it. Folks are beginning to ask if they are really effective. And fourth, and somewhat in line with what I just said, they are constantly in need of new and/or increased funding. This was the case that they could use to say, ‘hey, look how effective we are, and by the way, can you increase our funding?’ Tygart was out to make himself famous, if you ask me. And somehow he forced everyone to accept his findings. Of course, it’s clear it did nothing for the sport today.”
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“How do you mean?”
“Well, the sport is so weak. Just fundamentally weak. From the unity standpoint. From a rider’s standpoint. The teams. They have no authority. No power. So when you have a shit show like we’ve seen with me, someone from the outside can just step in, go back 12 years in time, and royally screw a sport and a new generation that deserves none of this. Cycling and its hypocrisy is off the charts. You hungry?”
“Sure. Maybe some nuts or something. Keep talking.”
”Well, Ullrich took the blame for everything before me. And he vanished. Now he is on his way back. I see him re-emerging, so I’m the guy now. Here. Some nuts. But then you see all these photos of The Great Pantani. I don’t know, man. It just seems random, who is singled out as either good guys or bad guys. Before me, Bjarne, Ullrich and Marco won the Tour. After me it was Floyd, Alberto and Sastre. You see what I’m saying?”
“Last year at the Tour, ASO had rounded up some its champions and there they sat, on the back of a cabriolet: Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond and Miguel Indurain. Where were you?”
“Well, that shows it, doesn’t it? Is your problem doping or is it just one person? Phew. But all these things in cycling… The way some things didn’t happen, and we’ll erase seven years, and blah blah blah. It is so bad for the sport. First of all, if you take the title from a person, you have to give it to someone else. And if you don’t, then you didn’t do anything. Except making us all look like idiots. On Wikipedia, the [seven] years are just blank. You have a blank period during World War One. Then a blank period during World Word Two. And then one during World War Lance!”
Franz Ferdinand. Adolf Hitler. Lance Armstrong. Remember where you read it.
“We all did it. I mean, that’s out now, right? Jesus, I need a shower!”
“That’s an Andres Serrano in the hallway.”
”Oh. You know art? Yes. It’s not Piss Christ, but… Hey, take a look around. There is more stuff in the lower level.” He motions us to follow, then begins to climb the stairs, half-moaning.
“What? You are letting us loose?” I ask.
“Dude,” he shouts from somewhere up on the first floor. “I’ve lived with so much bullshit. You think I’m worried about you two fuckers?”
A door slams.
Here is a thought. Lance Armstrong’s new narrative is to give extended interviews to high profile magazines such as Esquire and, well, Rouleur magazine. On our website it states that we are the leading cycling magazine in the world. Perhaps Camp Lance read this and thought it would be okay to spend some days with us in Aspen. This new narrative is to give as much of the New Lance, because the media now needs, he believes, a new perspective on how we view the era in which he stood as the main character, its main protagonist.
We walk around. Highly expensive funiture. Exquisite, with art everywhere. Sculptures, drawings, lithographs, huge oil canvases. Random pieces. Keith Haring. A Warhol. A couple of framed guns, lesser known stuff. It looks as if they pick out their art by the moment, a flicker of curiosity could be enough – that one! Downstairs, an oversized pool table, a wine cellar. But this is a home where children live. A room with four bunk beds looks like someone dropped a grenade onto a grenade. Back upstairs again, beside the fireplace, a trophy rests on a table. It simply reads “Sportsman of the Century”.
Now we are in a car. Going out for lunch. Hunter S. Thomson’s old joint down at Woody Creek. Lance wants to show us. From the backseat, he calls up Anna: “Hi, baby. Yeah. I’m with the Danes now. They’re dressed like the Blues Brothers, man! Crazy shit. What? No. I just motor-paced Tejay for an hour. My ass is about to fall off.”
After another ten minutes of mostly private stuff. Lance tells her he made 138 bucks on the golf course, and he’ll bring all the money to her, when they hook up again later on in the week. “All right, baby. Love you. Bye.” He sighs. “Right. That’s that out of the way.”
We laugh. All of us travel. All of us have wives at home. “Turn right here. It’s a great little place. Hunter had lunch here every day. Just fucking terrorised the place.”
“Okay, I’m gonna do my Twitter shit now. What?”
“Ha! Was meaning to ask you about that.”
“Well, it goes like this: if I don’t say anything, nothing happens. But if I post, it all begins. All these goofy cycling-hater people. Let’s see. Here. One guy goes on about the watts Contador and Froome do. And how nothing has changed in cycling since me. And then this guy replies: ‘Lance Armstrong. Seven times Tour winner. Fuck you UCI, WADA, USADA, ASO, Tygart’. Haha, this guy goes crazy, haha… Jesus!”
“How does it make you feel, that this is always going on? It’s all over the world. People discuss your every move.”
“I’m immune to it. Of course, if they write about my family, that hurts my feelings. But anything regarding me, I’m totally immune to. The flipside of that is that I’m also immune to compliments.”
“That doesn’t sound healthy.”
“Well, that is unfortunate. Here. Park up here.”
Woody Creek Tavern
The waitress arrives three times at our table to take the order. But Lance can’t stop talking. “In a minute,” he apologises. “Sorry. Where were we?”
“If it was worth it?”
“Take a wild guess.”
“Making the decision to dope? Well, we all made that decision. Once we realised – this was when we arrived in Europe and got our asses kicked – that we had brought knives to a gun-fight, we all went out and got guns. So virtually everybody in the business made that decision. My set of options was to go back to the US and work in a bike shop. Well, I didn’t take that option. So this was the times of the sport. But don’t fucking over-apologise about it. Everyone is now going; ‘oh, I’m so sorry…’ I can’t take that narrative and run with it.”
We order. Food arrives quickly. Lance and the waitress exchange pleasantries. He is a regular. At the table next to us, a father of two can’t stop looking at Lance’s back. I smile at him. He doesn’t return it. People sneak a look. But other than that, we are left alone.
“But within all this, there are really two issues. Because if you take a look around this restaurant, these people are all thinking more of the denials than the actual doping. They think about the treatment of people – you know, my press conferences, the raving-mad asshole thing.”
“I’m glad you said that.”
“Right. So first with the doping. We all jumped in. And with that, the sport, the whole industry, the media, all went like this. Up! My foundation raised half a billion dollars, serving three million people. And then, as we all know, a handful of people got rolled. By me. Because I was so aggressive. Not good. I’m admitting that. But let’s talk about the three million who got our help. The billions of dollars that the industry saw coming into their accounts. Increased participation around the world. So you are asking me, if we all want to go back and make a different decision?”
“That’s my question.”
“Well. If you say yes, you’re a liar. Nobody wants to walk away from that. And part two, which is the most significant part. That I was so aggressive. And all the denials. For that I have tremendous regrets. First time it came up, I should just have said, well… I don’t know what. I couldn’t have said ‘no comment’, because that would have answered their questions. But that fight, that contest, it became bigger than the races.”
“Why didn’t Johan [Bruyneel] tell you to shut up?”
“Yeah. He probably should have. Like ‘woah, woah! Easy on the answers there, Lance!’ But that wasn’t my personality. I was a fighter. Okay. Take Tiger Woods. Or Clinton. Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan. You think these people are the dictionary definition of ‘nice?’ No. Great champions are winners, man. But the one key fundamental difference between some of them – or any other public figure you can think of – and me, is that they were allowed to go back and rewrite their story. If Clinton, after the affair at the White House, was told he could never speak in public again, never go around the world helping people, do all the things that he does now, then he’d go down as the guy who did, you know, the blah blah blah with the intern. He’d still be considered an asshole. Tiger, too. Ultimately they’re forgiven, because they got a chance to come back and tell a different story.”
“And you don’t?”
“Right. With me they completely robbed me of… well, there may be some kind of rehabilitation at some point, but if I had served, say, six months like the other guys, and then went back and did the triathlons and the Ironman, we’d be having a totally different conversation right now. But I can’t change that narrative. I’m forever the asshole.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“How the fuck do you think it makes me feel? But I’ll tell you something; as I have seen in the numerous legal proceedings I have been involved with, they are throwing everything I’ve ever said publicly right in my face. And I’m sitting there thinking; did I say all that? I mean. Did I fucking say all that? Was I that convinced that they couldn’t touch me? Well, the answer to that is yes. But you know what? It is almost… refreshing to hear. Because I now know that, for the rest of my life, I will have both of my feet right on the fucking ground.”
Now. Isn’t that a man you’d want to have a beer with?
“As a retired man?” I ask.
“Hmm. Norman Mailer followed Ali around Kinshasa once. For the fight against Foreman. What he saw was almost a political figure. When you were at your peak, a lot of the talk was that you were also political material. You think you could ever come back like that?”
“Pff! Have you ever trusted a politician?”
“Never in my life.”
“Right. I have a tough time with politicians. They all seem fake. So why would I want to become one of those guys? Also, they actually have a job. They do work. And I don’t wanna do that!”
“But you don’t seem like a man ready for retirement. Are you playing golf for the next 50 years?”
“Told you, I’m retired.”
America is the original version of the Modern. Europe is a dubbed or post-synchronised version. A version with subtitles. America ducks the question of origins. It cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity: it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present. Having seen no slow, centuries-long accumulation of a principle of truth, it lives in perpetual simulation, in a perpetual present of signs. It has no ancestral territory. The Native Americans’ territory is today marked off in reservations, the equivalent of the galleries in which America stocks its Rembrandts and Renoirs. But this is of no importance – America has no identity problem. In the future, power will belong to those people with no origins and no authenticity who know how to exploit that situation to the full.
Clearly, this is something I read.
But this is how we get to Lance Armstrong. When he re-entered the scene post-cancer, without knowing it, it already belonged to him. As it belonged to Greg LeMond, when he made the move from America to Europe. Back then Cyrille Guimard, Bernard Hinault and, later, Bernard Tapie, knew where the future was found, and it wasn’t in Old Europe. Johan Bruyneel must have felt the same with Lance Armstrong – a hollow body to be stuffed, filled and exploited to its utmost.
We can’t judge America’s crisis as we would judge our own, the crises of the old European countries. Ours is a crisis of historical ideals facing up to the impossibility of their realisation. Theirs is the crisis of an achieved Utopia, confronted with the problem of its duration and permanence. The Americans are not wrong in their idyllic conviction that they are at the centre of the world, the supreme power, the absolute model for everyone. And this conviction is not so much founded on natural resources, technologies, and arms, as on the miraculous premise of a Utopia made reality, of a society which, with a directness we might judge unbearable, is built on the idea that it is the realisation of everything the others have dreamt of.
More of what I read.
Put Lance Armstrong into all this, and he plays out as a very fine American. Effortlessly applying his very self to the occasion. Seven occasions. Fierce. Ruthless. No centuries-long accumulation of a principle of truth. No identity problem. Just an idyllic conviction. Nike. Just do it.
The following day we meet at his table at Prospect, the restaurant inside Aspen’s famous hotel. Lance has been mountain biking, and we couldn’t follow him around in the car. Instead we slept late. Or had, maybe, one drink. When we arrive, Lance is scanning the room. The owner comes over. Lance asks him who that guy over there is. “He’s from CNN, ain’t he?” “Who?” “That guy over there?” “What guy?” “That guy! The guy in the chair. Right there.” “No. He is an author.” “You sure he ain’t from CNN?” “Yes.” “Well, I’ve seen him. He’s on TV.” “Yes. But he is an author.” “Hmm. You sure?” “Lance. I’m sure.”
It’s a harmless scene but it tells you a great deal about the man Lance Armstrong. Because he seems to be curiously entertained constantly. And quick to judge. Most people are dismissed as assholes or real assholes, but friends are sweet, super-nice, very smart or just fucking cool. Nothing lingers too long. Here is a man who get things done. Out of the way, move on.
Aggressive or defensive, his eyes flicker constantly. During lunch he looks at the sky outside again and again. Worried about his day’s golf-session. Rain? No rain. Sun. Sun is good. Oh, more clouds? What. Rain! No. Sun again.
“I crashed three times today.”
“Wait a minute. Lance Armstrong never crashes,” says Jakob Kristian.
“I’ve heard that,” Lance says.
“Or have flats. Have you heard that too?” Jakob Kristian asks.
“One flat. I had one back in the day.”
“Back in the day, yes,” I say. “What do you think about the world of cycling today?”
“Don’t give me that shit.”
Lance looks at me: “Oh, you are a tense motherfucker today, huh? Well. In my opinion there are a couple of things you need to do in order for this sport to work. First. No. First, how the hell do we eat our sandwiches?”
“Cut it in half. Otherwise it’ll end up in your lap,” I say.
“But there is no room, man. With the fries an’ all.”
“Do like me. I do this. And then like… this. There.”
“See. But tell me more.”
“In my opinion, there are a couple of things you need to do in order for this sport to work. First. The riders have to have to have a voice. They have to unify. And they have to have a cut! They get to say, we’ll do that. But not that. For example; you get the usual 200-plus kilometre stage over a mountain. Then a three-hour transit to a shitty hotel and some half-crappy French food. The riders should be able to say ‘we are not doing that.’
“Now. There are a lot of organisations around the riders. The UCI, RCS, ASO, there is Bugno and the CPA, you have the AIGCP, all the blah blah blahs. But it’s smoke and mirrors, in my opinion.”
“This is good eating. Go on.”
“I’m talking about a real deal. For the riders. They should pay to be a part of it. And it should protect their interests. Their health. Safety. If you are a serious sport, you have to have that. Tennis has that. Formula One. American football.”
“Right. But a difficult task.”
“However, it is very difficult to organise, because you have so many nationalities, languages, cultures and interests. But I’m going to go back to that in a second. Because in the end, I want to talk about some sort of shared investment for all the riders. Which could also address the doping issue. Control it. The unity of the riders should protect each other from each other, so to speak. Because riders will say to one doper, ten dopers or even a team, listen: you are really fucking with our equity! And that creates a financial upside for the guys. So that’s that.
“Secondly. The teams. I mean. What a joke, right? The notion that this… this lunatic Tinkoff can actually buy and own a team. That anybody with money, or maybe one guy, you know, some moron in the business, who is lucky to have a rich guy who’ll support him, and then they can just roll into the sport and be a major player. But once those sponsors go away, or if that particular friendship is lost, you are done. You don’t own Manchester United. Not the Dallas Cowboys or the Yankees. You actually own nothing! You’ve got a bunch of old bikes. You might have a bus and a couple of trucks. Some old jerseys. That’s your equity. Now. From a financial aspect; who would ever invest in that?
“And number three. And most importantly. ASO have got to give up some of their share. They have to. Because they now own the Tour. The Vuelta. There is talk that they are buying the Giro. If that happens, everybody can just bend over and drop their pants.
“So the business has to have a percentage or else go, well, then we are not coming to race. I don’t know the numbers – they are privately held companies – but there is all this global sponsorship, there is all the merchandise, and we should be involved in this. Because, first of all, it wouldn’t take $20M a year to run a team. Okay? They wouldn’t need that kind of money, if you have a guaranteed percentage of the share.”
“All teams seem to be on the verge of folding each year,” I say.
“Listen, man. It’s just like in any other sport. Say, the Premier League. If you buy a team you get 200 million a year just in TV rights. Right in the pocket. And that’s not necessarily the best teams. So with that, whatever we all share, whatever we all take from ASO, without the actors, the damn movie doesn’t start.
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“Then there is the doping, so let’s talk about that. There are the official rules, and then the unoffical or unspoken rules, of what you are supposed to do. But if tomorrow you have the new drug XYP that is undetectable, we all know what will happen, right? Everybody would be on that. You’d just know. But all in the sport would also know that we’d jeopardise our business model. So you’d have to police yourself. You’d have to police it from a cultural standpoint within the sport. And you could create some sort of code of honour. For example, if a rider is drastically improving in a month, all the signs of doping are there, you could say, listen, I know what you are doing, and now you are fucking with my livelihood. Our livelihood.
“It’s not perfect, but it would be a start. And if the business could police itself like that, you’d never have a third party, like in my case, come in and try and control it. Because a union would take care of it.
“So that’s an idea. Only problem is to get one thousand uneducated riders to agree, as one entity. But ASO would understand that the riders are not their little pawns. They are their partners.”
“And, by the way. It’s just like in any other business deal. All deals are about giving up something. You may not want to, but ASO has to realise this in order to move forward on a bigger scale. They manage a relatively small company, in terms of others global sports, but the riders could say, why don’t we grow this? And together manage a huge fucking company!”
Someone call Brian Cookson. Is Lance Armstrong the savior of modern cycling? We raise our glasses. “Jesus. You guys are wimps when it comes to drinking wine,” Lance snaps.
Wimps? Jakob Kristian and I exchange glances. Here is our moment and Jakob Kristian leans into the table. “Lance. Did you ever do drugs. I mean real drugs,” he asks.
“Party drugs? No. Never.”
Jakob Kristian then smiles his devil’s smile, and I say to him, “Go on then, Jakob. You can say it now.”
“Say what?” asks Lance curiously.
“Lance,” says Jakob Kristian.
“You know, Morten is a former rock’n’roll musician. And I’m a chef for 15 years.”
“Yeah, you guys told me.”
“And we think you are a real wimp when it comes to taking drugs.”
“Oh, Jesus! You motherfuckers are the Blues Brothers!”
End of Part One.