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Burning Questions

The author, on all things Lance

Booknoise: What’s our biggest misconception about Armstrong?

Daniel Coyle: That he’s a nice guy.  Lance is smart, charismatic, incredibly hardworking, and he does a lot of good works, especially within the cancer community. All that has led most of us to the misimpression that he’s saintlike or even cuddly. He’s not, by a long shot. Like DiMaggio, like Sinatra, like Babe Ruth, Armstrong is one of those who lives life all the way up. When it comes to his sport, and especially winning the Tour, niceness is just not part of his decision-making.

So what’s he really like? Let’s put it like this: He’s the kid from nowhere who became best in the world at a sport that is very difficult, painful, and dangerous. He’s the proof that Darwinism works. As his best friend, John Korioth, says, Lance is animalistic, the ultimate alpha wolf. On the bike, and often off the bike, he’s a competitive beast. It’s what makes him a fearsome competitor—it also makes him a complicated human being to deal with.

Booknoise: You moved to Spain to follow Armstrong and write about his season. What surprised you most about him? 

Coyle: How much control he liked to have, over everything. He called every shot—not just with the bike, but with what backroad-route the training ride was going to follow, what brand coffee was on the team bus. You name it, he controlled it.

Most world-class athletes and businessmen—and Armstrong is both, to the nth degree – insulate themselves from the mundane details of their lives so they can focus on their jobs. Armstrong does the opposite. He removes all the insulators. If you were to diagram his world, it would look like a galaxy, with Lance in the middle and a dozen or so people in orbit around him, sending a constant stream of messages and questions. They actually call it Planet Lance. Some people believe he doesn’t trust anybody to do be his filter, which is partly true. But the larger truth is that Armstrong likes it. He thrives on the constant interaction, all these questions and answers constantly flying back and forth, and nobody really knows what’s going on except for him. It’s not about the bike—it’s about the information.

The last time I saw Armstrong, he’d just gotten a news-alert service on his BlackBerry that beeped whenever it located a news article with his name in it. The thing was buzzing every couple minutes. And he looked at it every time.

Booknoise: What surprised you most about his sport?

Coyle: In America, bike racing is associated with happiness and health—it’s a sport for middle-to-upper class suburban kids. In Europe, it’s exactly the opposite. Bike racers are nearly all poor, rural kids from the wrong side of the tracks—sons of coal miners, butchers, farmers, often orphans. They are literally trying to ride away their dead-end lives. In some ways, it’s closer to boxing: whoever can take the most pain, succeeds.

The ones who make it are scary-tough, partly because many of them don’t have anything to go home to, especially kids from the former Eastern Bloc. They crash, they break backs, they take insane risks, they don’t care. In this way, Armstrong’s background—absentee dad, single mom, working-class Texas—is closer to what his rivals had.

The rivals are a fascinating bunch. Jan Ullrich, whose father left when he was three, was raised in a crumbling East German housing project. Alexandre Vinokourov, Ullrich’s wingman who finished third in the 2003 Tour, is the son of chicken farmers from Kazakhstan, one of the bleakest spots on the planet. Iban Mayo, who was nearly crippled in a car crash when he was 19, comes from a poor Basque family. Yes, Armstrong is a remarkable guy who survived cancer. But his rivals are also survivors, from the world’s hardest places.

Booknoise: Six Tour wins in  a row, now trying for seven. What gives Armstrong his edge over these guys?

Coyle: His mind. He doesn’t just want to win, he needs to win, and so he tries to win every single interaction with his opponents. Armstrong is the kind of guy who wants to win not only the race, he wants to win the handshake­. He wants to have a faster bike. He wants to have a cooler-looking uniform. As his coach, Chris Carmichael, puts it, he’s not interested in making history as much as he’s interested in showing up every year and kicking the shit out of everybody in the big race. 

Armstrong spends hours reconning the roads, but he spends more time reconning his rivals. He trolls the news every day for items about them—he calls it “doing homework.” If there’s a photo of Jan Ullrich’s butt online, Armstrong will find it and study it and comment on it—how fat he is, how this year’s butt looks compared to last year’s. In all this, his message to his opponents is I’ve got something you don’t.

The funny thing is, a large part of Armstrong’s effectiveness lies in the style in which he delivers that message. The more important something is, the more casual Armstrong plays it. A good example happened after the first big climb of last year’s Tour, at La Mongie. Armstrong destroyed his contenders—really destroyed them—then afterward he downplayed it. He wished them well, and he yawned. Who’s more intimidating, the guy who simply beats you or the guy who beats you and seems bored by it? Classic Lance.

Booknoise: How strong is he, really? 

Coyle: Here’s a primitive test: Take two five-gallon buckets and fill them with water. Then lift them from the floor to waist height in one second—a move which requires about 500 watts of power.  Most fit people can last a minute or so. When he’s in top shape, Armstrong can produce around 500 watts for an hour.

The secret does not lie in his muscles—in fact, plenty of athletes could beat him in the leg-press. Rather, it’s in Armstrong’s amazing ability to transport oxygen to those muscles. He can work very hard for a very long time—a function of his heart and his blood. He’s got a great motor, and the world’s greatest fuel-delivery system.

Booknoise: So is Armstrong the world’s greatest athlete?

Coyle: A fine question for a bar-room debate. He’s definitely the world’s greatest human power-plant. He’s quite possibly the world’s most obsessed and competitive athlete. Bike-racing is also far more dangerous than people think—he’s as good as any downhill skier when it comes to whole-body coordination.

That said, you have to remember that bike-racing is an endurance sport—therefore it needs to be judged on a different scale than skill-oriented sport. For instance, there’s no doubt that, with the right training, Kobe Bryant would have a better chance of becoming a pro bike racer than Lance Armstrong would have playing point guard in the NBA. So it’s apples and oranges.

Booknoise: What are his vulnerabilities, if any?

Coyle: Armstrong’s power margin over his top rivals is 10 watts, or about 2 percent. To go back to our test, that 2 percent is about what it would take to lift one quart of water to waist height over and over. It’s not much—so Armstrong guards it, checks it, gets a nuts about it. Friends and teammates can tell how he’s doing by his mood. If the numbers aren’t where they should be, he’s not very fun to be around.

Booknoise: He’s 33 now, which is old for a Tour rider. How has age affected his abilities?

Coyle: Armstrong doesn’t like to admit it, but his hips have given him trouble for years. The night before the 2003 Tour, his hip went out of joint and he was barely able to walk up a flight of stairs. He was able to get it fixed—and kept it quiet, of course. In fact, his chiropractor said he never mentioned it again.

Last year Armstrong experimented with a top-secret $250,000 bike with pedals set 18 mm closer together—it was called the Narrow Bike, and it made him more aerodynamic. But when he tested himself on it, his power numbers dropped off dramatically. Other people, including Jan Ullrich, were able to ride the narrow bike with no power loss. Which is one reason Armstrong worries so much about a crash. It could throw his hips out of alignment, and the 2 percent would be gone.

So what’s Armstrong’s margin of success? In the case of this bike, it was 18 millimeters—about the width of your pinky finger.

Booknoise: How can we tell when Armstrong’s struggling?

Coyle: Armstrong is the best at concealing weakness, but even he has one giveaway: His face takes on a distinctive look that people call the Dead Elvis Grin. His head tips forward, his upper lip goes into a kind of a snarl, he goes pale. That’s what his opponents want to see—and what Armstrong doesn’t want them to see. If you see it, you know things are about to get interesting.

Booknoise: What caused his 2004 divorce from his wife, Kristin?

Coyle: Like most things in Armstrong’s life, it happened suddenly—and it surprised people very close to the couple. But it’s clear that the divorce seems to fit a larger pattern in Armstrong’s life. As his teammate Jonathan Vaughters puts it, you get close to him, and then inevitably something goes haywire. A few years ago, Armstrong had a dispute with his best friend, John Korioth. The two went two years without speaking. It happened again with teammate Floyd Landis, who will ride against Armstrong this year for the Phonak team. You have to remember this is a kid who grew up without a father, and who might have a few issues in that department.

It’s also worth noting that bike racers—like astronauts and race-car drivers—are not particularly known for their abilities in the monogamy department. In the spring of 2005, both Jan Ullrich and Italian champion Mario Cipollini separated from the mothers of their children.

Booknoise: We have to ask: What’s Armstrong’s relationship with Sheryl Crow like?

Coyle: In some ways, they’re a good fit: she’s sporty, he’s a huge music fan. They share a down-to-earth style. But fundamentally, she’s quiet and reserved—definitely the opposite of Armstrong. She bought him a book on meditation, but he couldn’t get through it. She told friends she was interested in starting a family, something Armstrong has told friends he’s not interested in doing right now. But they’re together, and they seem happy.

Booknoise: What role does Armstrong’s mother, Linda, play?

Coyle: Anybody who wants to see the source of Armstrong’s intensity needs to look no further than his mother’s blue eyes.The daughter of an alcoholic Vietnam veteran, she got pregnant at 17 and decided to keep the baby. His relentlessness, his positivity, his organizational drive finds its wellspring in her—along with a certain willingness to keep moving forward, no matter what. Now married to her fourth husband, Linda shows up at each Tour, and is greeted like the Queen Mother.

Booknoise: How big a role does his cancer survivorship play?

Coyle: It’s defining. He’s incredibly committed to the cause, and the cancer community is committed to him; for a lot of people, it’s like he’s a living saint. It’s a feedback loop: he inspires them, and they inspire him. It also separates him from the other riders. He faced death, they didn’t.

Booknoise: How hard is the Tour de France?

Coyle: It’s the hardest event on the planet: nothing comes close. Studies have shown that Tour riders spend more daily energy than Everest climbers. During those three weeks they spend energy at a rate that exceeds the capabilities of all but four animal species. Imagine running a marathon a day for twenty days. The food alone is ridiculous: on big days, they eat the equivalent of 28 cheeseburgers.  Watching them eat is like watching a cartoon: they lean forward, inhale, and the food disappears.

Booknoise:What’s Armstrong’s relationship with his team?

Coyle: If there’s anybody he watches closer than his rivals, it’s his teammates. Especially since Armstrong is part-owner of Tailwind Sports, the for-profit company that manages the team—he is literally paying their salaries. Like a good boss, Armstrong is a great motivator and rewards those who do good work. But as his teammates know all too well, if they don’t do their job, they’re out. Dead Man’s Rules, they call it. Friendship comes second—and they all know it. As his ex-teammate Floyd Landis says, everyone is a scared of Lance. If you’re not, you haven’t been paying attention.

Booknoise:How did the book come to be?

Coyle: During the 2003 Tour, an editor friend and I were talking about Armstrong, and cycling in general. We were both fans, but in the course of the conversation we realized that we didn’t really know all that much about Armstrong or his world. As a culture, we’ve been watching Armstrong win the Tour like new baseball fans might have watched Babe Ruth hit home runs. There’s a collective sense that we want to move closer, move down from the upper deck, understand what’s going on, how the game is played, and how Armstrong plays it.

So the idea hit us—what if I moved closer to the field? What if I went to Europe, lived through a season—the season of his attempt to get his record sixth Tour de France victory, it so happened. I ran the idea past my wife, Jen, and our four kids, and to their credit, they were up for it. So I pitched the idea, and when HarperCollins said yes, we started packing our bags.

Booknoise: How’s your relationship with Armstrong?

Coyle: I’d call it carefully cordial. He knew about the book from the get-go; he did all his homework on me, and he treated me in a friendly, if distant, way. We’d been in Girona about a day when Armstrong rode by on a bridge and yelled to my son, “Don’t jump.” Later, he jokingly called me “LoJack,” because I always knew where he was.

I went to all the races, from February in Portugal to the Tour, and our living in Girona helped. He permitted me to hang around some—though of course not as much as I would have liked—and I gradually gained a degree of trust and access to the key people around him—especially Johan Bruyneel, the team’s director and probably the guy closest to Armstrong, sports-wise. Also, I spent a lot of time researching Armstrong’s rivals, in case one of them would emerge as Tour winner. From a reporting standpoint, I had to be ready for every possible outcome—win, lose, or crash.

My goal was to tell the story clearly, fairly, and accurately. In March, I sent Armstrong a draft of the book to read for corrections and clarifications; he didn’t respond. I don’t know if that means he hates it or loves it, or (maybe more likely) somewhere in between.

How important is bike technology to Armstrong?

Coyle: Very, but not only in the way that I’d assumed. They call him Mr. Millimeter for good reason—he’s very persnickety. But what he’s after isn’t just the extra fraction of a second from the wind tunnel. He’s after the feeling of having that extra second, showing the competitors he has that extra second. He uses technology as a tool to build his own confidence and demoralize everyone else. He’s in love with the process. As the mechanic told me, at some point, at some point the math stops mattering. When he has a piece of equipment he likes, he calls it The Shit, and when he really likes it, he calls it The Shit That Will Kill Them.

Booknoise:How do his top rivals—Jan Ullrich, Iban Mayo, Ivan Basso—react  to Armstrong’s strategies?

Coyle: As a group, they seem to have settled on a strategy where they try, as much as possible, to simply ignore him. Ullrich, who nearly beat Armstrong in the 2003 Tour, gets real smiley and casual around Lance. Ullrich has developed an approach where he flaunts his simplicity—a low-tech, easygoing style. Ullrich has become an alternate-universe version of Armstrong—after all, how do you beat the guy who comes at you with everything? You lean back, you stay casual and mysterious. So far, it hasn’t worked.

Booknoise: What about the allegations of Armstrong’s doping? Are people out to get him, or is there actually something to these charges?

Coyle: Going into the book, I hadn’t hoped or planned on spending much time on the doping question. Doping is part of the shadow-side of bike racing or any sport—facts are often murky, contentious, hard-to-prove, and stories tend to end up in a courtroom or a lab.  Plus, I had the sense that I probably wouldn’t find anything new. As a relative outsider to the sport, I thought I knew the routine. People—sneaky French journalists, it seemed—accuse  Armstrong, Armstrong denies, there’s no proof. It didn’t exactly increase my interest to know that Armstrong had a well-practiced habit of suing people who questioned his integrity on the subject.

As it turned out, doping was a subplot of the bike-racing season—there was David Walsh’s book, Tyler Hamilton’s shocking positive test result, Armstrong trainer Dr. Michele Ferrari’s guilty verdict, and, as the season ended, a flurry of lawsuits between Armstrong and his former personal assistant, Mike Anderson. But to me, these weren’t just stories—they were people whom I’d gotten to know during the season, people whom I found utterly fascinating. And after two years of research, all I can say for certain is this: the doping issue has been around Armstrong and cycling for a long time, and it’s probably never going to disappear. I found that, as a relative outsider to the sport, there was a lot about cycling that I didn’t know—not all of it pretty. In my book, I try to share that information so that people can come to their own decision.

Booknoise:  What are the facts?

Coyle: They fall into two categories. On the one hand, you’ve got Armstrong’s spotless record: 150-odd doping tests over the past six years, all clean. You’ve got the fact that he donates money to testing programs, that he’s probably the most-tested athlete in the history of sports, that his $20 million in endorsements would end if he tested positive. You’ve got the fact that some journalists would clearly love to nail Armstrong. You’ve also got the sheer epic stakes of the present situation. As Armstrong’s agent, Bill Stapleton, put it, “Can you imagine what would happen if Lance tested positive? Can you imagine what would happen if it turns out we’re screwing with people on this?”

On the other hand, you’ve got the fact that doping is inseparable from bike racing. (If you’re interested, check out The Crooked Path to Victory: Drugs and Cheating in Professional Bike Racing, by Les Woodland.) In 2004 alone, three current and former world champions were busted for dope, one team was nearly disbanded, and several pro cyclists went public with detailed, harrowing stories of doping practices on their teams, including one who said he was given a substance designed for anemic dogs. What would people say about the NBA if Kobe, Shaq, and Tim Duncan all tested positive in a single year? If a bunch of them died of heart attacks—as eight cyclists did in 2003-4?

You’ve also got the accounts accumulated by David Walsh, who spent two years trying to prove Armstrong might be a doper. His book, L.A. Confidentiel, came out on the eve of the 2004 Tour. It was 375 pages, and it went into exhaustive (and exhausting) detail. (See this link for more detail on Walsh’s allegations.)

Walsh has his own backstory—he’s anything but objective about doping, and people have pointed out that his personality resembles Armstrong’s, most particularly in stubbornness. But the accounts Walsh unearths–including testimony  from seemingly credible ex-teammates, Armstrong’s former masseur—are interesting and detailed. Those accounts, it must be pointed out, are not clearcut proof of any wrongdoing—which is part of the reason, along with the inevitability of lawsuit, that the book was published only in France.

So maybe it will turn out that all these accounts are made-up, fantastic tales, vindictive baloney from disgruntled people. Walsh and his sources knew full well he was going to be sued—that’s part of what makes it so interesting. 

Booknoise: What about the lawsuit with the ex-assistant, Mike Anderson?

Coyle: After the 2004 season, Armstrong’s former mechanic—Mike Anderson, a guy I’d gotten to know in Girona—alleged that he’d found a box of steroids in the bathroom of Armstrong’s Girona apartment.  (see the pdf filings of the lawsuits here and here).

I didn’t know Anderson well, but as I say in the book, he didn’t strike me as the vindictive gold-digging type. Like much of this, it will probably get settled—to the extent that anything gets settled—in a court of law.

Booknoise: How does Armstrong handle all these allegations?

Coyle: He gets angry, and he attacks—the same as he does on a bike. At the start of 2005 he had ten lawyers in his employ, in various suits in France, England, and America.

He also uses the press effectively. Essentially, Armstrong drug-tests journalists. The ones who write about doping are put on a blacklist; the ones who don’t are his friends—which is not a small thing to a writer for whom Armstrong and his team are frequently the only story.

Booknoise:Do you believe him?

Coyle: I think we all want to believe him. I want my nine-year-old son to be able to believe him. I want my friend who’s suffering from cancer to believe him.

At the same time, when I looked at all the facts, I found it tough not to come away with a few questions—questions that I hope can be answered fully someday (Like a lot of people, I’ll be watching those court cases closely). Are those questions big enough to have us question Armstrong’s accomplishments? His character? That’s for each person to decide. My goal in the book is to give people some tools and some context to come to their own decision.

Why do we want to believe Armstrong and not believe Barry Bonds or Marion Jones? Is it because his story is so powerful? Because we don’t know much about his sport? Because, on balance, he creates a lot of good in the world? That’s an interesting question, and one that probably has more to do with us—our need to believe in our heroes—than with what Armstrong or any of these athletes have done.

Booknoise:What about the case of Tyler Hamilton? He was busted for blood doping during the season.

Coyle: That was a shocker, a real twist in the plot. Nobody thought this would happen to Hamilton—who lived right above Armstrong in Girona and who had a reputation as  a nice guy, a clean rider. But at the same time, the evidence seems strong. He’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on tests and lawyers, and he hasn’t been able to beat it. It’s on appeal.

Booknoise: What’s Armstrong’s legacy?

Coyle: The power of his story, for most of us, remains its perfect simplicity: A young brash athlete gets cancer, beats it, then wins the world’s toughest race once, twice—six times.  It’s mythological—in fact, it’s just about every myth combined into one. He crosses the river into death, defeats it, and returns with a lesson for us. It’s beautiful. He’s changed a lot of lives for the better.

At the same time, I think we all understand that life’s just not that simple, particularly when you live it on his level—having a family, being a celebrity, running a team and a  business, being a father. There’s human relationships, there’s pain, there’s kids, there’s questions and complicatons and fascinating shades of gray—shades that need to be understood if you’re going to fully understand the man and what he’s accomplished.

Booknoise: What should we watch for in the 2005 Tour?

Coyle: Circle Tuesday, July 12th. It’s stage 10, from Grenoble to a mountaintop finish at Courchevel. It’s the first big mountain stage, the place Armstrong loves to send a message—and where his rivals are going to be trying to send one of their own. If Armstrong finishes alone, or clear of his main rivals, number seven is likely. If not, the next twelve days could get very interesting.


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