In his first interview since announcing that he and his girlfriend are expecting, Lance Armstrong talks to The Daily Beast’s Mark McKinnon about his political ambitions (“If you feel like you can do the job better than people who are doing it now, and you can really make a difference, then that’s a real calling to serve, and I think you have to do that”); why 2009 might not be his last Tour de France (“I certainly don’t want to limit [the comeback] to one year”); how LIVESTRONG and other charities will survive the economic downturn (“ It’s going to be a hard time for us nonprofits.”); and he reveals what athletic mountain he’ll climb when he’s finished with cycling.
“You can help raise your children,” Armstrong said. “You can lead the state of Texas. You can be mayor of a city. You can run for the Senate.”
Lance Armstrong, athlete and cancer advocate extraordinaire, had a typically ambitious year or so: his foundation (on whose board I sit) raised $37 million for cancer research, programs and advocacy while reaching 332,000 people living in 200 countries; he helped conceive and pass a first-of-its-kind statewide proposition in Texas that created a $3 billion cancer research fund; he testified before Congress; he ran the New York and Boston marathons; he rode and placed second in the Leadville 100 mountain bike race (after just several weeks of training); and he decided he would mount a comeback and compete for an eighth Tour de France victory in 2009.
The Daily Beast caught up with Armstrong in Hawaii, where he was taking a brief holiday break with his kids before heading to Australia where, in a couple of weeks, he will ride his first race of 2009 for Team Astana in the Tour Down Under:
It’s New Year’s. A good time to reflect. Let’s take a look back.
It’s been an interesting period for me. I transitioned from part of my life that I’d been doing for what seemed like forever. For the better part of 15 years or so, I was a professional athlete. And I channeled all that energy and competitiveness into the fight against cancer. Which has been awfully rewarding. We’ve done some things that are ground breaking. Done some things no one thought we could do. We’ve represented this disease to a whole community of people who were eager to have something to rally behind. Whether it’s a color, or a name like LIVESTRONG, the idea, the notion of being part of a group to affect change. I think we’ve gone a long ways to unifying that idea. Now we need to see the results.
How is the Foundation dealing with external economic events?
If we all look around at our economy and the markets and the absolute destruction of wealth in this country, it’s been devastating for almost everyone. I just came from a lunch with George Roberts, one of the founders of KKR [Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co, a private equity firm]. We talked about a lot of things, but a lot about the economy. When you look at just the markets alone, we’ve seen $7 trillion of wealth lost. So, you can look at automakers, you can look at retailers, you could look at technology companies. But you also have to look at nonprofits. Those are the people who are doing the greatest work in my opinion, and unfortunately they are going to be hurt the most. Because people are going to stop giving. It’s scary. We’ve heard of many, many organizations that have had to lay off staff or just closed the door. It breaks my heart. We’ve been pretty disciplined and pretty tough during this time. Fortunately we have not had to cut any staff or programs. It’s going to be a hard time for us nonprofits. That’s just the harsh truth.
The comeback will perhaps alleviate some of that for us because there will be added attention and added exposure to what we’re doing and to what LIVESTRONG means. To the great programs, grants, organization, people and staff we have. So it’s almost fortuitous, certainly not by design, but the comeback may help be a natural buffer for us.
What was the catalyst for the comeback and the taking your cancer advocacy international?
First and foremost, we realized we could take LIVESTRONG around the world. That there was a place for that, and there was an audience for that. Not just in Texas and the United States. There are people in India, Italy, Mexico, Asia, and South America who understand what we were talking about and want to hear more about it.
But then the rubber ultimately meets the road. You have to go out and pedal and train and be an athlete in probably the hardest sport in the world. For me, the desire to take LIVESTRONG around the world met the Leadville 100 which was a race I trained for last summer just for fun, just to go out with some buddies and see if I could be competitive in a 100-mile mountain-bike race. But the process of building up for that and training for that reminded me that, uh oh, I still love this and I could still do this full time. However, it’s still not a paying job. It’s basically a volunteer position for the Foundation.
And at the Foundation we studied whether we could have an impact around the world. The result of study after two years was, “Yes, there is a place for us. There is a need for us which is more important.” I didn’t announce my comeback in order to do that, they came together very organically and naturally. But when they did, obviously me racing around the world touching different continents and being in different environments and talking about this issue in all walks of life in different societies, it helps the initiative. So that’s the reason I went to Johan [Bruyneel— Armstrong’s general manager and director during his seven tour wins and coach today of the Kazakhstan Astana team] and said, “I’d love to come back. You’ve got me for free. I’m racing because I’m passionate about cycling but most importantly I want to take this message around the world.”
You are such an inspiration to so many people. Who inspires you?
Of course, I’m in a unique position because I hear a lot of stories and see a lot of courageous, tough people. It’s not just a monthly or weekly thing. It’s probably an hourly occurrence. Where you see somebody who is fighting hard and showing incredible strength and courage that we all look up to. Just today, I’ve been thinking about Jim Owens who’s been real involved in the foundation and was a Tour of Hope rider. He was down at our LIVESTRONG ride a couple weeks ago. Looks like he’s at the end here. They’ve decided to stop treatment and enter hospice. This guy has fought literally for the better part of over a decade. That kind of strength, to fight for five or ten years, you can’t compare that to anything else. Athletically, politically, socially, It’s really inspiring. [Note: Owens passed away Sunday, the day after our interview.]
Hamilton Jordan [cancer crusader, former chief-of-staff to Jimmy Carter] is another person who spent many, many years dealing with his health. I got to know him very well. He never let on to how he was doing. You’d call Ham and say, “How you doing?” He could have just left the doctor’s office and received the worst news possible and he would look you right in the eyes and say, “I’m doing great.” That spirit is hard to come by.
There are those examples. But, of course my greatest inspiration has been my mother. Because she was always so tough and so committed to being such a great mom, committed to her son and trying to teach me the right things to do and keep me going in the right direction. Pound for pound, she’s far and away the toughest person I’ve ever known.
Tell us about your training.
Training is ahead of schedule. Because I started earlier and it hasn’t been a traditional run up. Normally you’d race the tour in July and you do some other races in August and maybe September and then you spend October and November just recovering from that season and then you get back on the bike and start going again in December. This one was completely different for me. I started in the summer primarily training for the Chicago marathon. And then that transitioned into training for Leadville which really kick started this whole thing. But since that point, I haven’t stopped training. I’ve spent months and months in the gym trying to build back a certain level of strength that I think I’ll need, not just strength but core stability. Now, for four to six weeks I’ve been out of the gym and strictly on the bike. So, long hours, four or five hours a day just getting ready for the season and first races, which come a lot of earlier now than they would have in the past. So, I start in a couple weeks, in mid-January. Typically I wouldn’t have started racing until late February.
Can you talk about the team dynamics?
It’s an interesting dynamic. It’s a very international team. It’s by far strongest team in the world. Also has the best stage racer in the world on it [Alberto Contador]. So my return, although it made a lot of sense to me and to Johan because of our loyalty to each other, was a little surprising to a great rider like Contador who didn’t expect to be in this position. It’s going to require some discussion and some balance. But I’m committed to riding and following the rules of cycling and supporting the strongest rider. Whoever Johan thinks that is, I’ll follow team orders.
Is this the strongest team you’ve ever ridden with?
I think so.
There are like four guys who could win the Tour, right?
Right. That’s why I say that. We have five riders that have been top five in the tour (Armstrong, Contador, Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Haimar Zubeldia).
So, theoretically, any five of those could win the Tour?
Theoretically any of them could be very close. And I think more realistically than theoretically, you could perhaps put three guys on the podium if you did it right.
Be pretty exciting.
Be exciting for us. Not exciting for the race [laughing]. But exciting for us.
What’s it like riding for the Kazakhstan team—very different?
Honestly, I don’t pay that much attention to it. It is certainly a very international team, funded and supported by the Kazakhs. I’m on the team and part of the program because of Johan and because of the mission. So for me, while I’ll race every race this year for Astana, I really consider myself part of team LIVESTRONG. So that’s why you see all training footage and all training shots. I’m in LIVESTRONG gear because that quite frankly is the real reason I’m doing it.
What drives your competitive nature?
Fear of failure.
Is it possible you could you race beyond 2009?
I don’t want to limit it. It would be a little irrational to announce or even think about it now, because I haven’t even started to racing this year yet. But it’s entered my mind. I’m having fun right now and feeling strong and healthy. I certainly don’t want to limit it to one year. But it could be one, it could be two. But later on even after the cycling comeback, I’d like to conquer some other endurance goals that I’ve had for a long time.
What do you mean by that?
You know, other sports I’ve dabbled in 15 years ago. Perhaps go back and get wet at the beginning, and then a blow dry in the middle and then run. You know what I’m saying? These days they say triathlons are a shampoo, a blow dry and then a 10K.
Is there a future for Lance Armstrong in politics?
If you feel like you can do the job better than people who are doing it now, and you can really make a difference, then that’s a real calling to serve, and I think you have to do that. I felt a strong desire to come back and race right now because I felt we had a place and I could have a real impact and that’s why I’m doing it. I don’t think you want to enter political life unless you really think you can really have an impact. Don’t do it for a bet, or a dare or for your ego. Or for any other competitive desire you have. Do it because you can get in there and change people’s lives. That’s why you do it. So, there will come a time, or not, that I say to myself, “You know what, I can help affect change.” And if that day comes, then absolutely.
Your life these days is really about leveraging talent on the broadest stage possible, right?
Yeah, but it can also be on a small stage. Being a parent is important. Not that that’s a small stage, but it’s micro level. You can help raise your children. You can lead the state of Texas. You can be mayor of a city. You can run for the Senate. You can lead a cycling team. You can run a non-profit.
Not a lot of dull moments in the world of Lance Armstrong.
That’s why I sleep a lot.
I hear you are a fan of The Daily Beast.
I’m an avid reader of the Beast. It suits my style and my attention span. The Beast packages up everything nicely. You get all the latest news that seems to be relevant. It’s my homepage. When I open my browser, that’s what I get.
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, causes, and individuals, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-chair of Arts & Labs, a collaboration between technology and creative communities that have embraced today’s rich internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers.