In the third, and final installment of this interview transcript, Armstrong talks about how he relates to the legends of cycling, his family, his phone call after the tour from President Bush, and what it's like to carry the mantle of being everyone's hero.
People are talking about USPS as one of the strongest teams in Tour history, yet you didn't win the team prize, or the TTT. Why not? What do you mean by "greatest team ever?"
Well, in order to win the team competition, you have to have three guys near the front in the climbs, three guys near the front in the time trials. Now, my guys, Roberto and Chechu, when their job is done, on the final climb of the day they sit up, ride the easiest gear possible, lose 10, 15 minutes; because they know that on the next day, they're going to be needed again.
After I attack, or after the race has started, their job is done, and they just need to recover and get ready for the next day. The team that wins the team classification has to get three guys to the front and keep them as close to the front as possible to try and gain time that way, but that's not necessarily the stronger team. It's maybe... I don't want to say a deeper team... It's just a different dynamic.
The TTT we did lose to ONCE, and I've been second in the TTT more times than I care to admit, and it's a big frustration. It's always a goal every year.
What is the rest of your schedule this year like? The year doesn't end for you now, does it?
Well, cycling goes on through October for a lot of people. I'll race two races in Holland this week, and do a Time Trial in Germany on Saturday, a two-man TTT actually; with Floyd. Sunday morning fly to New York, race in New York Sunday night. Monday I'm back to Spain, and then the following week the next World Cup, San Sebastian, and then in Zurich for the World Cup; and the San Francisco Grand Prix will be my last race.
You've already begun to prepare for next year's Tour de France, right?
I don't think you ever stop preparing. Even during the Tour de France, we talk to the guys on other teams, we talk to the guys on this team... are you staying, are you going, we've got to keep you. We have five guys from this group who are at the end of their contracts, and that's an uncomfortable position for me to be in.
The key guys are locked in though, right?
George, Roberto... And the other guys, we will keep if I have anything to do with it. Those conversations I have now, and have during the tour. So, it's a constant process, keeping this thing going.
What about your family? How are they, were they there at the finish?
They were there. Luke was a little freaked out, he wasn't sure about thousands of people standing around and screaming on a hot Paris day. They were definitely there, they came a couple of days before, and they came to the start at Luxembourg. Luke and Kristin came to the first Time Trial.
It's the hardest part for me, to be away for those weeks without the kids. I mean, Kristin calls and says 'Oh my God, Grace started crawling today!' ...and I think, 'well, I had a crash today, but...' Something's not right. Those are things that are part of it that bum me out, but they understand.
Luke's old enough to know that you should be wearing yellow though!
Yeah. A couple of years ago, he couldn't say yellow, so he would say yo-yo...and now he's able to say yellow. It's amazing what kids can do, how they can see 150 guys on TV and pick you out. It's amazing to me how perceptive and bright they are.
Well, if you're in yellow...
Right, but Kristin tells me that even in the team jersey, he points and says 'That's Daddy!' Of course, I'm biased...
What will you do when your career is over to further the sport of cycling in the US?
That's a complicated question and answer, and I don't know the answer to it. I know that sports live and die by the athletes. At least I think that. Look at the NBA, look what Tiger Woods has done for golf. Those things make sports.
So you think a guy has to step forward after you?
I think that from the participation standpoint, from the industry standpoint, and from the media standpoint, if you don't have someone, young or old, at the top level, competing for the biggest prize, you don't have the same attention, you don't have the same interest, and you don't have the same ability to bring new people to the sport. That's the question. How do you bring new people to the sport? People who never thought they'd ride a bike? Maybe they didn't do anything, but they say, 'Hey, I'm going to get a bike and ride around Central Park!' How do you do that?
In my opinion, it's producing, developing top level, world class athletes.
What did President Bush say to you by cell phone on the Champs Elysees?
He said 'What are you doing?' (laughs).
Having known him for 5 or 6 years, he's a big sports fan. It's always great to talk to someone in his position who loves sports. So I told him, 'Well, I'm standing on the Champs Elysees, and they just played the National Anthem while they raised the American Flag, and it was a great feeling.' He told me how proud he was, and how proud the country was, and then he finally said 'When are you gonna come see me?' and I said, 'Well, I guess whenever I get invited!'
George is... President Bush is a very relaxed person in my opinion. Relaxed, but very tough. It's always a pleasure to talk to him. It's easy to talk to him; and you realize that you're possibly talking to the most powerful man in the world! He's a very good guy.
What about the bikes you used this year?
Most of the bikes were actually nothing different than what we've used before. In fact, the climbing bike I used this year was the exact same bike I used in last year's tour. It's just one that felt perfect for me, the position, the stiffness of the bike, everything about it felt great. I get to be a stickler about it - the way the bars feel, the way the bike feels, the way it handles, the braking - The time trial bikes were also the same. The only major changes were the handlebars, and a few days in the mountains I had different wheels, that were light, stiff and aero.
Mystery Wheels! Hey, I was nervous! I had to pull out all the tricks!
Nervous because the competition was right there?
Before La Mongie and Plateau de Baille, we were behind!
Yeah, but you weren't in the mountains yet! Everyone who knows the sport knows you were waiting for that moment...
...and I worry all the time about it!
You might be the least confident guy in the world, then, because everyone saw this as a foregone conclusion!
I have to stress about all that.
Will you be able to keep the team together next year?
My intention, and my idea is to keep this group together. In a year, a lot of things can happen. Guys can get sick, guys can get hurt... A team has to have more than 9 guys. It has to have 15 guys who we think can do the Tour de France, but... someone gets replaced, he gets hurt, he gets shuffled if he's hurt or injured; but on paper? Give me these 9 guys on the start line next year! No problem!
Do you have any time in the idle hours about how you compare to the legends of the sport?
I can't even think about that. I don't understand that. I look at those guys as true icons. Knowing Eddy, knowing what he's done, knowing Hinault, knowing Indurain very well - I still look at them on a different level. I still do. Even though people will say, it's just one shy of what they've done, it still feels different to me.
When will you feel like you've joined them?
It's hard to say. The only real comparison that would be relevant is to Miguel, because he rode in the era of modern cycling. You know, Hinault, he won everything! Anquetil won everything! He won all the races. The sport changed in the mid 80's and 90's and Miguel focused exclusively on the tour and he won five times, and he joined that club. Look what Eddy Merckx did. He won all the classics, he won the Tour of Italy, he won the Tour of Spain, he won the world championships, He had numerous stage wins, numerous jerseys...
It's very hard, and I don't think it's fair, either, to try and compare myself to someone like that. Nor do I think it's fair for anyone to compare themselves to those guys. It's not their responsibility. It's someone else's responsibility to say, 'yes, you fit in that club.'
There's always resentment of someone who is stepping up into a club like that.
Well, that's why I try to stay close with those guys! If I ever even got close, at least with the living ones: Eddy, Miguel and Hinault, I know they would accept me, because they're all... I don't want to say they're all my best buds and we go play golf and drink cold beer; but I have an enormous amount of respect for them.
When I see Bernard Hinault everyday, it is with all respect that I shake his hand. He's a smart guy. After La Mongie, he said to me, 'Ah, you got the jersey!' Every year he comes to me at a certain point and says 'the race is over,' and I say 'come on Bernard! Take it easy!' and he just says 'nope. It's finished,' and every year he's been right.
So, it's like for all those guys... Eddy, who I know very well, called me probably 15 times during the Tour de France, just as a friend. Almost as a father-figure. You know, Axel's in the race, and we're almost like brothers. After the first Time Trial he called up and said, 'Hey! Don't worry about a thing. It's perfect.'
Those are things that I'm lucky to have.
Some people think it's over already for next year. How do you deal with that? Champions and teams lose that hunger...
Well, I can't make any promises. I might wake up in December just not want to do it anymore. It could just gradually diminish. The person I am, and the person I am on the bike; the person training and the person racing, the person traveling... you have to be willing to accept all that. If that got old; if that got to be a grind, then I don't think I could win anymore.
At some point you might wake up and just not want it as badly?
It's a gauge. It's a gauge you have to check and so far, the tank is still full.
You don't see that coming, with number 5 sitting out there...
No. I'm equally as passionate today as I was three years ago.
What did you think of ONCE saying that you didn't seem as strong as you in years past?
Well, I never have been one to believe that it's a good thing to talk like that. It's better to say, 'We like our team, we like out chances, we're well prepared, we'll do out best.'
To come out and say 'Look at him, he doesn't time trial as well, he doesn't climb as well, we're gonna beat him?' I don't know if that's the right approach. If they're saying that to someone in the media, who's followed the sport they're going to say 'Wait a minute! He's never won a race in March, and he won the Criterium International. He's never won a race in May, and he won the Midi Libre. He's never been that great in June, and he won the Dauphine Libere...' Where's the part where he's not good anymore?
In fact, I had the best spring and the best early summer that I'd ever had. Anyway. It was good for us.
What about the USA Today cover story that called you "Saint Lance," and the pressure you face to be a model cancer survivor?
Well, I'm not comfortable being called a Saint, and I am certainly far from a Saint. I am, however, very comfortable being a cancer survivor, and very comfortable having people come to me, either in messages, phone calls, or in person. We've had it dozens of times during the Tour. A couple of times, we've had people come to the hotel, before dinner, a young girl, a young boy or someone who wanted to talk, or take a picture... just wanted to have 10 seconds. That is to me, number one, an unfortunate situation that they're in, but it's also an honor that they come to me and ask for a picture, or say 'you're my hero.'
Those kind of words... look: we never expect to hear those kinds of things in life. I just do my thing, I represent my cause, I represent my family, and I love my sport. If people pay attention and they say, 'This guy's an example,' then I can't change that. But I can't wake up in the morning and say 'Hey! I'm gonna be a hero today!'
You can just live a real life and just hope people appreciate it.