July 19, 2006 – Lynne Bermel was on a recent conference call with cycling legend and seven-time Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong arrived at the Tour yesterday and instead of crushing his opponents up L’Alpe d’Huez, he watched from the Discovery pace car as Floyd Landis (Phonak) finished fourth on the famed ascent and reclaimed the yellow jersey.
No doubt Armstrong’s Discovery Team hopes his presence in the team car will provide the motivation it needs to regain its dominate form at the Tour. It’s not just Discovery that has felt the loss of Armstrong. It seems the world’s greatest cycling race just hasn’t got the same buzz without him.
The seven-time champion wasn’t originally planning to return to France. Armstrong said he changed his mind after a doping scandal prevented his likely successors, Jan Ulrich and Ivan Basso, from starting. He says that the Tour needs the support of its fans more than ever.
No one has dominated the Tour like Armstrong. His 2005 win was so convincing that many believe he could have easily won his 8th title had he chosen to race this year.
Yet he seems content watching from the sidelines. “It’s fascinating to watch.” “The interesting thing is that the American presence is huge. I think we have a great opportunity.”
Of course Armstrong hasn’t exactly been standing still since he pedalled into Tour history twelve months ago. He’s been busy with speaking engagements, work with the Lance Armstrong foundation and advocacy work on Bush’s cancer commission, as well as training for the New York marathon. He also made headlines with his engagement to rock star Sheryl Crow, which ended in February.
He says his three children are a top priority. “Right now that’s my No. 1 consideration – what kind of a father am I, and how am I doing at that.”
On July 12, Armstrong became the first athlete to host the ESPY awards. There, he picked up his fourth Athlete of the Year award. The following day, he lead an A-list of celebrities, including Michael Jordan and Donald Trump, at the American Century Golf Championships in Lake Tahoe.
“I’m still trying to figure out this retirement thing,” he said. “The life of an athlete is simple. You practice, you eat, you rest, and then you play the game. I don’t have that any more.” “Now my life is full of travel, commitments, and responsibilities. And that’s just a part of it. It is an adjustment. It’s still surprising to me.”
What probably doesn’t surprise him is that he continues to endure a love-hate relationship with the French, especially after he took a shot at France’s football team at the ESPY awards. His jab that “they all tested positive – for being assholes” has made front-page news in France this week.
Nonetheless, he remains an iconic figure. Picture the movie. Stricken with testicular cancer, young Texan comes back from death’s door to become the greatest cyclist of all time. In fact, word is that Columbia Pictures is planning to bring story to the big screen and rumours are circulating that Matt Damon will play Armstrong. It looks like his star won’t fall anytime soon.
He has a roster of endorsement contracts. He can command $200,000 as a speaking engagement fee and he’ll do at least five this year. It’s been estimated that he will make between US$15-20 million this year, which is what he earned at the height of his career. According to branchannel.com, he is the fifth most recognized brand in the U.S., behind Apple, Google, Starbucks and Target.
It seems the only threat to his advertising appeal is the doping allegations that have shadowed his storied career.
Yet he’s tired of fighting the courts and media to preserve his legacy. He recently dropped another lawsuit against the author of “LA Confidential: The secrets to Lance Armstrong.”
“I think we’re 10-0 in lawsuits. Right now, my life is not about that anymore. I’ve answered all the questions. I’ve stood up to all the interrogations and investigations,” said Armstrong.
Asked if he thinks it’s over by dropping the lawsuits, he said: “Probably not, but that’s okay. I don’t need to go out and win another lawsuit. What I need to do is try to effect change with regard to cancer.”
So he’s unleashing that incredible passion and focus he used to win seven Tours to finding a cure for cancer. Oh yes, and his latest athletic pursuit – the New York Marathon.
“I just hope to be within an hour of the winner. That puts me right about three hours. Actually, I would be happy if I broke three hours. But I found running to be more challenging than I had expected.”
So it will no longer be the Tour de Lance. Yet Armstrong’s presence in France this week only adds to our fascination with the race. It also reminds us how different it is without him.
Lynne Bermel is a freelance writer and former pro triathlete living in Ottawa.