The Armstrong Cycle: From Boom to Bust

A look at prelapsarian Lance Armstrong and his long, hard fall from grace.
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It is, largely, about the bike.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Of all the bars in Austin, Texas, Lance Armstrong had to walk into La Zona Rosa. This was back in February of 2008, when by all official accounts, Armstrong was a seven-time Tour de France winner, and he was usually in bed by 9:00pm—a habit that came at the expense of his penchant for rock concerts. But when  Band of Horses booked a late set downtown in the self-styled “live music capital of the world,” he decided to waive his curfew and check out the sold-out show with a few of his friends. On one hand, it was totally worth it: The Horses gave a spirited performance that drew energy from a crowd of hundreds.

On the other hand, Armstrong might’ve been better off staying home. After the show, he and remora filtered along with the rest of the crowd from the stage area to the bar to dissect the set and kibitz with the band. At around 1:00am, they exited with drinks in hand, throwing caution to the city’s open container law. When a bouncer intercepted Armstrong and his entourage in the street to confiscate their drinks, the cyclist let loose with a profanity-laced, finger-wagging tirade that came within inches of the bouncer’s face and reportedly concluded with that most time-honored of big-shot threats: “You’ll never work at this bar again!” He stomped off to a light shower of catcalls and heckling. One patron cried, “Overrated!”

Armstrong’s tantrum didn’t make the late edition of the next morning’s Austin American-Statesman, but one of the paper’s bloggers did post an enthusiastic account of the incident later that afternoon. The day after that, Armstrong called the newspaper and a local radio station to apologize, saying that he was “totally out of line” and “wasn’t looking for any special treatment.”

But where that mea culpa played like damage control, the version he offered to me in April of 2009, after logging more than 100 miles at a New Mexico tune-up race in preparation for his Tour de France comeback that July, sounded more like the Lance Armstrong his fellow Austinites had come to know and increasingly scorn: tough, terse and utterly unyielding. “There were ten people there, including most of the employees, that said that guy was way out of line and he ought to lose his job,” he told me. “But I don’t talk about that. I mean, it’s like, whatever. That guy was crazy. If you talk to the other people at La Zona Rosa, they’ll tell you who was the dickhead that day. But I’m not gonna ... I mean, whatever man. I called a radio show the next morning, talked to the paper and said, ‘Hey—lost my cool.’ Got in this guy’s face. Said, ‘you’re an asshole.’ Yeah. My bad. Did I say, ‘Do you know who I am? I’ll get you for ...? Hell no, I didn’t say that!”

* * *

Across the US and in nearly every part of the world Armstrong had long been worshipped for his temerity in the saddle and for his tenacious activism against cancer, and both his sport and his cause célèbre were enjoying a markedly higher profile since the then-37-year-old had made the stunning announcement that he would return to cycling after a nearly four-year retirement. The notable territories that refused to genuflect included France—where Armstrong’s alleged evasion of a random drug test on March 17, 2009 (he’d wandered off for a 20-minute shower before submitting to the ministrations of an inspector he deemed suspicious) had kindled a new crusade to have Armstrong, perennially a prime suspect of doping in the cycling world, DQ’d from the race—and Austin, where the attitude toward Armstrong had soured during his cycling break. A significant portion of the populace there opined that when he wasn’t big-footing his way into local politics, or sucking up enough water to smelt iron, or turning public natural springs into private landfills, or getting bounced from local bars, well, he must be out of town, trying to shine off the boorish behavior from his public persona. Sighed Hank Gilbert, Jr., a longtime Austinite and perennial candidate for state office: “We just go from being really proud to really pissed off at him.”

Trash talk doesn’t come naturally to Austinites, citizens of an annually hospitable scene for talents of all stripes from all provinces. But most any time I asked anyone here about Armstrong, the disparagement burbled from their lips like water from their town’s many crystalline springs. Not everyone here hates Lance, to be sure, but everyone has an opinion, and these views divide the citizenry into three loose camps. Lance Lovers existed in Austin, but their numbers were much stronger outside the city limits. They would converge on racecourses from Monterrey to Montmartre to watch him breeze past at 30 miles an hour and greet his (often) yellow blur like the first sunburst in a rain-filled week. They would celebrate his defeat over cancer, donning yellow shirts and bracelets in hopes that their miracle would rub off on them. “No one used to wear yellow,” said Doug Ulman, the 35-year-old CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and himself a three-time cancer survivor, “but it’s sort of been branded as hope.”

More than three million people track Armstrong on Twitter, a medium seemingly tailor-made for a man like friend of Armstrong and self-help author, Jim Collins (Good to Great), might diagnose as “asymmetrically negative” and a “socially adept introvert.” CrackBerry seemingly grafted to palm, Armstrong had become such a player in the Twitterverse that he practically made obsolete the journalists covering him—a dream scenario for a guy with a well-founded reputation for sparing with the press. Twitter afforded him both an outlet through which to break news—the birth of his fourth child was one of the first big announcements he made on his feed, and the scads of outlets that picked up the news played it as if it had been first reported in the New York Times—and a means for shaping coverage as well.

In May of 2009, during the Giro d’Italia (Italy’s version of the Tour de France), Armstrong was singled out for helping organize a rider protest over the course conditions of the race’s ninth stage. (The peloton’s 190 racers rode at a leisurely pace and crossed the finish line en bloc.) As the questions about his role in the demonstration wore on, Armstrong became increasingly chapped by the criticism and, ultimately, stopped talking to the media altogether, preferring to report on his own and his team’s exploits in tweets and multimedia blog posts on his Livestrong.com web site. Two weeks later a race spokesman asked Armstrong if he planned on talking to the press anytime soon. His curt reply— “I don’t need them”—was enough to compel some journalists covering the race to stop quoting his feed in hopest that it would force him to reengage with them. “Good luck with that,” he tweeted in response, “and welcome to 2009.”

Back in Austin, a second group of opportunists, call them Pragmatic-Lancers, was less fervent than calculating. They looked at Armstrong’s personal story and his populist politics and seized on the chance for synergy. Will Wynn, Austin’s former two-term Democratic mayor, was one politician for whom photo ops with the cyclist were mutually beneficial: he would get a picture with a sports star with a palatable agenda and, if the typo gremlins allowed, Armstrong would get a caption that reaffirms his personal mission statement: lance armstrong will wynn.

Armstrong’s political endorsements extended well beyond the 512 area code. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was long smitten with the cyclist, as was French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who, keeping with his Marie Antoinette-like knack for riling his constituents, hailed Armstrong as an inspiration. Bill Clinton was a professed a fan, too. In mid-February of 2009, Hillary’s husband rolled into Austin with the Clinton Global Initiative University, the triple-A division of his peace-building NGO. When, at a press conference, I asked Clinton his thoughts on Armstrong’s controversial cheerleading of Proposition 15, a state constitutional amendment that was expected to pour $3 billion into cancer research and prevention over the next 10 years, he made a familiar disclosure. “He’s a friend of mine,” he said with a breathy chuckle. “I’ve supported what he does; he’s supported what I do.” He then launched into an impassioned defense of Armstrong’s use of a ballot measure to further his fundraising agenda, praising the strategy as gimlet-eyed despite the notable opposition it encountered in Austin in the fall of 2007.

The third group, the Lance Haters, was the largest and most paranoid. Their Armstrong jokes all typically began the same way: with a long pause and a check over both shoulders. Melissa Huebsch, a 16-year Austin resident, tells the story of some friends who were driving through SXSW chaos a few years ago and nearly ran over an inebriated-looking Armstrong. “We still joke that half of Austin would have lauded them, and half would have stormed their house with pitchforks and torches,” she said.

In the Haters’ view, the prelapsarian Armstrong was not just the worst kind of Austinite, but the ultimate caricature of the privileged Texan—a nouveau-riche plutocrat who thinks his money, athletic achievement and charitable work give him license to treat the town like his personal SimCity, a milieu to be adapted to his tastes and not vice versa. “No disrespect to frat boys,” said Rachel Farris, a 29-year-old Austinite who runs a pet-moving company and blogs about local politics, “but he’s kinda like a frat boy on a bicycle.”

Perhaps the greater shame is that they’d forgive him that sin if he more closely followed in the tradition of the loveable Texas scamp. Fabled run-ins with playboys like Charlie Wilson or Matthew McConaughey or partygirls like the Bush twins were once proudly retold by a community that, when not being invited to share in the fun, was encouraged to embellish it. But run-ins with Lance are soured by his custom for taking everything too seriously—himself most of all. It’s a well-inscribed local reputation that consistently ran counter to his carefully crafted national public image as a laid-back everyman and inspiring survivor—an image that he exploited to worldwide acclaim and was widely regarded as the ideal political foundation for an athlete with aspirations of running for office. “People have this almost divine image of him, but he consistently lets them down—hard,” said Jason Stanford, an Austin-based Democratic Party consultant. “That’s not really what we look for in people, let alone candidates.”

* * *

At one time when people in Austin talked about Lance Armstrong, pride wasn’t the overriding emotion. It was the only emotion. The son of a single teen mom, he grew up in the Dallas exurbs and became a dedicated triathlete in high school, missing so much class due to training and competing that he was denied a diploma. He completed his degree at a Dallas-area private school and moved to Austin, where he was immediately embraced by a community united by its outsiderness (the über-liberal, über-progressive town is regarded as the blue pea in the giant Tomato soup that is Red, Republican Texas), its entrepreneurial spirit (rare is the person who doesn’t have a second gig), and galvanized by the slogan-commandment, “Keep Austin Weird.”

In October 1996, when Armstrong was 25, he announced that he had contracted an advanced form of testicular cancer. Austinites tracked his recovery progress with Twitter-like zeal, exhorting him through an orchiectomy and 11-month recuperation to his Tour de France return in 1999. After he coasted to victory, the city feted him in a downtown parade, and Armstrong repaid their support by throwing the first of many free downtown concerts.

On and on the love affair endured through four more Tour victories. Then somewhere between his sixth and seventh Tour titles, as his personal life grew complicated, public perception toward Armstrong turned. There was no great outrage over his 2003 divorce from Kristen Richards, after five years. But many were taken aback when the bright-eyed blonde—who first took up with Armstrong as he was withered by cancer and chemo, married him and saw him through his recovery to their dream of becoming parents (three times over, thanks to sperm frozen pre-chemo), and flanked him on the top step of the podium in Paris for Tour titles 1 through 6—was replaced by rocker Sheryl Crow for win No. 7—including former Armstrong assistant Mike Anderson. Then, just as Armstrong and Crow were becoming a familiar sight around town, the couple called off their wedding after a five-month buildup. Reflecting on the engagement in a recent autobiography, Lance blamed his breakup with the Grammy winning singer-songwriter, who is 10 years his senior, on her “biological clock.” A month after their split, Crow revealed she had breast cancer; she has since adopted a child.

Armstrong rebounded by burning through a string of boldface-name blondes—fashion designer Tory Burch, actress Kate Hudson, and Ashley Olsen—a tabloid trifecta that violated Austin’s unspoken rule for celebrity residents: Feel free to live here, but don’t give the paparazzi any reason to notice. By and large they don’t. Famous Austinites like McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Andy Roddick and Owen Wilson have quietly settled there and taken pains not to disrupt the town’s studiously cultivated calm.

Armstrong, on the other hand, evinces a vainglory that only a Trump could love. His myriad activities range from the noble (the Lance Armstrong Foundation, his 15-year-old cancer-fighting nonprofit) to the tacky (Six, the upscale bro-bar whose better-known sister establishment in Scottsdale, Ariz., served as the setting for the VH1 reality show The Pickup Artist). There are his personal halls of fame: a chain of 24-Hour Fitness gyms, whose towering Lance effigies and aphorisms patronize more than they inspire. And there’s his screaming-yellow bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s, which shares space with his café, Juan Pelota, likely one of the few eateries in the western hemisphere intentionally named for a man’s private parts. (It’s mock Spanglish for “one ball.”) What’s more, it shares a parking lot with La Zona Rosa, but you’d have found few employees there on their coffee breaks after Armstrong’s celebutirade; a number of them had boycotted the café out of solidarity with their Lance-defying bouncer.

Equally irksome to many, and far more serious, had been Armstrong’s run-ins with the town’s green police. Lovers, Pragmatists and Hatersalike had taken issue with his contradictory environmental record. He owns a Prius, but leadfoots around town in a BMW M5. He goes on frequent bike rides, but is often trailed by an armada of support SUVs. In August of 2008, Armstrong was outed as the town’s biggest water hog, using 222,900 gallons in one month—a binge that came amid mandatory water restrictions to deal with drought-like conditions in the area. Lance publicly apologized at the time and later told me, “I strongly suspect because the water bills are about a fifth of what they were then that there was probably a leak somewhere in there that’s been fixed.” Then, he hissed: “Look, dude, I’m no creep that sits there and waters his yard all day long just so every twig is green.” (As recently as 2011, Armstrong still ranked among Austin’s top guzzlers.)

The incident marked the second time an Armstrong residence grabbed local headlines for effluence. Three years earlier he was building a dam on his 448-acre ranch a half-hour southwest of town when construction sent a heap of sediment rushing into an adjoining natural spring called Deadman’s Hole. Armstrong, who failed to obtain permits for the project, spent $850,000 to clean the pool, which was turned a swampy green by the sediment. The public’s reaction was tartly crystallized by a neighbor named John Davis, who told the Houston Chronicle, “If you’re going to be downstream from somebody, don’t be downstream from somebody famous.”

Armstrong was just as much a force of, or rather, against, nature in the downtown social scene, where tales of his bad behavior abound. One young female Austinite who requested anonymity recalls being at a bar with friends one night a few years ago when Armstrong and McConaughey breezed in and began mingling with her group. She and Lance hit it off. “He was so kind and so mannerly,” she said. “I thought he had gotten a bad rap.” But when she excused herself to go the ladies’ room, he cornered her outside the bathroom door on the way out, she said, and then invited her to repair with him to a back room where they could “get to know each other a little better.” When she declined, “He was like, ‘Oh, come on. Don’t be a bitch about it,’” she said. “It was just really disappointing. An hour and fifteen minutes [before], I was totally back on Team Lance. But after that happened, it just completely sold me on the fact that he’s not so nice of a person.”

Her then-28-year-old boyfriend, a bouncer, arrived at much the same conclusion about two weeks after the La Zona Rosa incident; he was about to throw Armstrong out of another bar until a manager stopped him. Charged with policing an area of the bar that was under renovation, he says he had cautioned the cyclist and a few friends against wandering into the off-limits section. When Armstrong did anyway and the bouncer moved to rein him in, he said, Armstrong reprised his vulgar one-man show. The bouncer said he had to fight hard to hold back his temper and resist the urge to shut Armstrong up with a passing mention of his own cancer survivor story. (He was four-years clear from malignant melanoma.) “That’s what made it even more ironic,” he said. “I’m the guy that should have his yellow bracelet on.”

* * *

Lance’s antics had become so tiresome that they’d already begun to chip away at the only potentially unimpeachable part of his legacy: his quest for a cure. In an age where athletes rarely lend more than nominal support to causes beyond themselves and their sponsors, Armstrong has been a jock apart. He has raised tens of millions of dollars for research—most of the proceeds coming from the sale of more than 70 million yellow livestrong wristbands—and held forth on the issue ad nausem in the press in an effort to heighten public awareness.

In 2007 he made his case for the first time directly to the Texas state government, with Prop 15, the lucrative cancer research bill that was put to a statewide vote that November. Though a bipartisan collaboration, the bill met resistance in the legislature from free-marketers—who preferred to leave medical research to the federal government and the private sector—and fiscal conservatives, who were decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of taking on an additional $1.6 billion in debt over the next decade to fund a non-infrastructure-producing project.

Riding herd among the detractors in the legislature was Steve Ogden, a southeast Texas Republican and chairman of the state senate finance committee, who is the state’s lead budget writer. “Traditionally,” he said then, “we borrow to build a building, a highway or a school. Until this time we hadn’t been in the business of borrowing money to fund research.”

Meanwhile, voters, as well as some Lance Armstrong Foundation donors, were troubled by the foundation’s new push to essentially fundraise through the tax system. Don Zimmerman, a 52-year-old software engineer and Libertarian activist leader of the opposition group Prop 15 Families Against Cancer Tax, blasted the bill as a violation of civil liberty. “It’s not charity anymore,” he says. “Now I have to pay or I go to jail. Me and millions of others, we lose our choice.”

But Armstrong would not adjust his Prop 15 campaign for these gripes. He testified before the legislature, schmoozed with lawmakers, and sank more than $100,000 into a statewide TV ads and a bus tour that seemed to serve more as a vehicle for him to stage photo ops with local pols than for barnstorming from town to town to connect with the common folk.

The PR stunt worked to great effect. Prop 15 captured a whopping 61 percent of the vote that fall, and established the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas as a funding clearing house. Still, the bill only garnered a state-low 50.29 percent support in Travis County, which comprises Austin. That was enough to qualify as a victory for Zimmerman. Spending just $3,500 to fight Prop 15 exclusively in Austin, he didn’t just get more bang for his buck, but blissful affirmation that a lot of Lance’s neighbors disagreed with the cyclist’s stance, too. “Those folks are naïve about the ultimate impact,” said Ulman of the Prop 15 opponents and the handful of donors who’d left the foundation in protest of its government involvement. (Since 2009, the CPRIT has awarded more than $700 million in grants, a purse second only to the National Institutes of Health.) Armstrong, as is his habit, went a step further. “We could have bike rides and bake sales all day long,” he said, “but if you don’t advocate, you never get to the billions. I think [the LAF’s advocacy] is totally appropriate.”

Bill Clinton agreed: “The public interest in the future will be advanced by a combination of even more non-governmental groups with an even greater investment in government,” he said at the CGIU press conference in Austin. His prophecy was not long in manifesting. Days later, the federal government followed Texas’s lead, setting aside $6.5 billion in the economic stimulus for cancer research. In his maiden address to Congress, President Obama was unequivocal in his commitment to seek “a cure for cancer in our time.”

“He’s engaged,” Armstrong said of Obama. “When we met with him before, he said, ‘Listen, I got it. I’m in. I’ll do whatever I can.’ So far, he’s batting a thousand.”

Armstrong undeniably deserves a lot of the credit for changing the tone of the cancer conversation from plaintive to assertive. He’s also to be admired for how shrewdly he’d used the issue to further his own political ambitions. He’d made little secret of his desire to someday run for office, at one point toying with the idea of running for Texas governor in 2010. That plan hit a speed bump in December, when popular US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison announced her intention to challenge two-term incumbent Rick Perry in the Republican gubernatorial primary—a bid that failed spectacularly. Had she stepped down as senator, her seat initially would have been filled by a gubernatorial appointment, then by a special election—both gift opportunities for someone like Armstrong, whose name-recognition, telegenic profile, inspirational story and access to money would have made him a shoo-in.

Or so it would seem. To hear political wonks in Texas tell it, Armstrong’s political bona fides were suspect at best. Much as he gave off the scent of a party agnostic—one who speaks admiringly of President Obama but retains the counsel of Mark McKinnon, the Republican strategist who famously bailed on John McCain’s rival White House bid because he liked Obama too much to tangle with him—Armstrong’s public stances against the Iraq war and in favor of stem-cell research all but scream liberal Democrat. “And he would have to be a good one, by the way, to carry Austin,” mused Dean Rindy, another Austin-based Democratic Party consultant. “But if he were, he wouldn’t win the rest of the state! He would have a tough time against a good, strong Hispanic candidate—that’s a third of the electorate right there—or a well-known regular politician.”

Even his bona fides as an athlete weren’t as good as they could’ve been. While many were awestruck by what he’d been able to accomplish on the bike, in Texas, that admiration reaction paled in comparison to what he might’ve inspired had he, say, started at center for the Houston Rockets or under center for the Dallas Cowboys. “The Tour de France is carried in the early morning hours on OLN,” Rindy noted. “The Dallas Cowboys are on every Sunday on network TV to the biggest audience in the state.”

And then there’s Lance’s Lycra-thin skin for criticism. Though certainly no stranger to a good vetting, having spent the duration of his then-officially untainted career being dogged by allegations of steroid use, Armstrong never exactly handled the scrutiny into his personal life with aplomb. “If you get in, that’s fair game,” Bill Miller, a Republican consultant, admonished. “Politicians love to go after your lifestyle. Always. If you can attack a lifestyle, it’s going to resonate a lot more than a position on transportation.”

While Rindy is quick to point out Texas’s rich history of electing scoundrels to public office—“former governor Ann Richards was a divorced, reformed drunk whom everybody assumed did cocaine at some point in her life, and her lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, was a self-confessed manic-depressive who was on lithium,” he noted—behind the scenes, Armstrong has comported himself with little of the stateliness one expects of a man seeking higher office, let alone one approaching middle age. “Maybe 15 or 20 years down the road Lance would be in a different part of his life than he is now,” said Ted Delisi, a Republican strategist. But even that, argued Jason Stanford, the Democratic consultant, assumes Armstrong would be on his best behavior throughout. “If you can push youthful indiscretion close to social security collection,” he reflected, “then you’ve really pulled off one of the great move in American politics.”

And therein lies the rub. Armstrong’s chest thumping, the tomcatting, the loutishness—increasingly, all of that was eroding even the noblest parts of his life’s work, well before he was officially stripped of his medals. The more Armstrong scraped, and then tried to buff away the damage with his cancer-fighting sport hero cape, the more his neighbors see him as less than benign—even though, he said then, “I’ve always accepted my responsibility” and “admitted when I made a mistake.”

A community that at first hoped Armstrong would stay among them forever had long and increasingly anticipated the day when he would secede from their union, or at least make like Perry and threaten to every once in a while. A triple-whammy of headlines in late 2008 had them thinking the day might be nigh. That September, Armstrong put his ranch on the market. Then, shortly before Christmas came the announcement that he and his then-28-year-old girlfriend, Anna Hansen, were expecting—which noted, for posterity, that they had conceived the old-fashioned way—and that he was buying a place in Aspen. And then, of course, came Lance’s long fall from grace—official, and final.

The world’s top anti-doping agencies have branded him “a serial cheat,” stripped of his seven Tour de France victories and banned from cycling. His sponsors have deserted him. The Livestrong Foundation, three years after settling into new digs on the east side of town—digs, Armstrong strained to point out, were rated one of the city’s most environmentally friendly structures—cut all official ties with their namesake. Prop 15 has become a massive boondoggle for Texas. Eight scientists resigned from CPRIT in protest. Its chief scientific officer, Dr. Alfred G. Gilman, led the exodus last May after the agency approved a $20 million project without scientific review, noting in his farewell letter that CPRIT’s funding decisions carried a “suspicion of favoritism.”

But Armstrong’s presence endures in Austin. The man might be scarce—earlier this week, he broke a 12-day Twitter silence to declare himself “Alive and well in Hawaii”—but his specter looms as large as ever. While that might not make a lot of Austinites happy, it’s bound to keep things weird—very weird—for the foreseeable future.


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