Retro-PEZ: The Lance Armstrong Interview
Great champions are defined by accomplishments that transcend their sport. Such is the story of Lance Armstrong – a story that by now is larger than life. So I was in shock and awe when Jogi Muller (The USPS team press officer) confirmed our interview with one of sports greatest champions, Lance Armstrong. This is Part 1.
Following the US Postal Team Presentation on January 23, 2004, select media were invited to spend 10 minutes with Lance in one-on-one interviews. Talking to the biggest name in cycling is something we’d been wanting for a long time, but only in the last couple of weeks did we find out Lance actually wanted to talk to us…
Part 1 of our PEZ-Clusive interview with Lance will appear tomorrow, as an event of this magnitude must be appreciated a bit at a time…
PEZ’s Randall Butler caught the first flight to the Californian coast where the USPS team was training and arrived just before the start of the media press conference.
Here’s How It Started:
I didn’t know what I could ask Lance that hadn’t already been answered. No problem I told myself – I’ve been preparing for this moment for years. Meanwhile my knees were knockin like a loose headset on it’s way to Roubaix…
Shortly after the press conference I was invited to the room where Lance was meeting select media for brief one-on-one interviews. I walked in and joined Lance along with his pals Jogi and Mark Higgins [client services manager with Capital Sports and Entertainment – Lance’s management company]. I dropped it onto the 12 as my frame of mind quickly shifted from anxiety to excitement. My heart was racing… (who’s wouldn’t?)
Before the meeting I asked Jogi Muller (USPS Press Officer) about autographs – “no autographs” he said. I asked about pictures – “no pictures” he said. Jogi must have wondered if I was a reporter or fan who’d snuck in…
PEZ: Hey Lance – that was a great press conference!
LA: Was it all right?
PEZ: Oh it was great – you were really good.
JM: Jokes – all he knows I taught him.
LA: Yeah, Jogi taught me.
PEZ: So I’m from Toronto.
LA: All right! – is PEZ from Toronto? You know PEZ is on my list of favorites – I read it. No, I like it man – its funny!
PEZ: Forgetting Jogi’s advice, I pull out a photo of Lance taken on his historic climb of alpe d’Huez in 2001. I’ve been waiting a long time to get it autographed by him. Worried I might end the interview before it starts I hesitate, then ask…”would you autograph this for me? This was taken by Photo Breton at alpe d’Huez. That’s 2001.”
Lance takes the picture and looks at it in detail like he’s studying his form or maybe thinking back on the moment. He recognizes the shot immediately, recalling the day clearly and says…
LA: Oh, I know – where’s a pen? Just sign it up here?
PEZ: Sure – it’s a great photo.
LA: Yeah – that was the best day ever.
PEZ: “Will you do these?” I ask, as I pass a USPS cap and two yellow jersey caps his way…
LA: Allright – ok well, we better ask the questions otherwise these jerks [he says joking with Jogi and Higgins] are going to come in here and tell you to leave.
The team presentation began when Lance Armstrong walked into the room alone and took the podium. The first thing you notice is that THIS GUY IS FIT. He fielded media questions with ease and experience. I was struck by the attention he paid to each question and the thoughtfulness of each answer. He combined down-home humor with the serious insight that only comes with one of the greatest palmares’ in the history of professional cycling.
Shortly after the press conference I was invited to the room where Lance spent 2-1/2 hours meeting select media for brief one-on-one interviews. Before the meeting I asked Jogi about autographs – “no autographs” he said. I asked about pictures – “no pictures” he said. Jogi must have wondered if I was a reporter or fan who’d snuck in…
I walked in and joined Lance along with his pals Jogi and Higgins. I dropped it onto the 12 as my frame of mind quickly shifted from anxiety to excitement. My heart was racing like a Porsche on a test track…,
I didn’t know what I could ask that Lance hadn’t already answered. No problem I told myself – I’ve been preparing for this moment for years.
SO… WHY PEZ?
PEZ: OK, so you’re a great cycling star, your stature extends beyond bicycling, there are media people from all over the cycling world here to talk to you and, compared to say NBC, we’re a relatively small internet site started in Canada. So the question is – why Pez?
I was expecting a joke in reply. Lance surprises me as he thinks a moment then gives a serious response. His answer reflects the constant media demands he lives with, but also his sense of humor and down-to-earth nature.
LA: The requests come in for one-on-ones [interviews] after the press conference and there are anywhere from 50 to 100 requests. A lot of the people who make a request weren’t there, because if they don’t get the request for a one-on-one fulfilled… they don’t even come to the press conference. So it’s a lot more than what you saw in there… [referring to the media throng present in the press conference held earlier]
So I see all these requests. I’m like, oh, PezCycling News! As I said, I’ve got it on my list of favorites on my browser and I read it, maybe not daily but certainly 4 or 5 times a week. I thought it was kinda funny, kinda quirky. I mean, I’ve got a lot of the cycling sites marked but, you know… why do all the ones that you would typically always do when you can do one that’s … uhh…uhh…
Lance smiles then continues…
LA: I doubt that you expected to get your interview request honored [ed: he’s got that right – he only did 4 one-on-one interviews!]
I say to him ‘it’s a high water mark for us’, and we both have a laugh.
LA: No, but I read the site and I think it’s great that you’re here – you know what.
PEZ: Well we appreciate it.
LA: No problem – yeah.
Let’s say at this point I clearly sense that his kind and charitable nature extends well beyond the public work he does with the Lance Armstrong Foundation. I find myself reconciling Lance the terminator and with the laid back guy across from me.
PEZ: So seriously, you’re a big celebrity on the bike, you’re a big celebrity off the bike. You’ve got a lot of demands on your time – you’ve got worthy causes, you’ve got sponsor things, press conferences, invitations from your friends and so on. How do you maintain a focus to continue cycling at the very highest level given all the demands on your time?
Lance’s demeanor shifts to serious and the work ethic and focus that are the hallmarks of his professional success are clearly evident in his look.
LA: You know, you have to split the year into different parts. When it’s time to start really training hard, like now, ALLL that stuff goes away. All sponsor obligations go away, all functions go away, all non-profit work goes away. There’s one focus and that’s racing the bike, and training and trying to be the best.
Then when the season’s done and all the stuff kicks back in and the sponsors come calling and the foundation work resumes, then you just try to balance it the best you can and take the bike everywhere you go.
If you can’t take the bike you go running, you go to the gym, always doing some sort of physical fitness. But you know, overall it’s just, it’s my job. I know it’s what I have to do, it’s what I want to do and…, it’s worked so far.
I mean, I think every year it’s just gotten busier and busier – year one, year two, it’s just not backed off. Then you have kids and you have more kids so it becomes difficult to really focus.
Lance’s voice takes on a tone of single-minded determination as he continues…
LA: But when this time of year starts it all goes away, except for the kids. So, I’m fortunate because those people know this is the time of the year to leave Lance alone, let him do his thing.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
PEZ: When you were a kid I know you had aspirations at a young age to be a bike racer. You’ve accomplished so much on the bike and off the bike. When you sit back and reflect on it, what goes through your mind? Have you exceeded your expectations – has it turned out the way you thought?
LA: Yeah, you know I never … I think back to certain milestones – the days of being a swimmer, to the days of first getting on a bike, to my first triathlons, to my first bike races…umm…, my first world championships in Moscow in ’89 with the junior team, my first big amateur races with Subaru-Montgomery which is the same team as this one, my first days at Motorola. I never expected… all of those things were always a surprise to me.
When I first had success in triathlon 15 or 16 or 17 years ago, that was a surprise. I was like, I never thought I would be able to do this, never knowing that when you’re 17 you still have a lot to improve. And so, when I started to win the tour that was also a big surprise. Now, I mean obviously I want to win the tour and I expect to win the tour again – although Ullrich’s the favorite…
”We thought we’d be close”
PEZ: After you did so well in the ’98 Vuelta after coming back from cancer, with a 4th place finish and I think you also had a 4th place in the worlds that year…Lance jumps in “Yeah – two 4ths, two 4ths” he says for emphasis, again showing the attention to detail necessary in preparing for a 21 day bike race that is often won by mere seconds.
PEZ: In ’99, to be honest with you, I was at the tour and I was a little bit surprised – I mean Ullrich wasn’t there and Pantani wasn’t there. I knew you had a good year in ’98 and I knew you had a great record as a cyclist but, were you surprised that you won the tour initially or did you think that you would win the ’99 tour?
LA: We thought we’d be close. We thought we’d be close. Because I, umm…, I had obviously been feeling good. The tests that I had been doing were off the charts. The tests that I was doing – at the time I was living in Nice – doing this testing on the col de la Madone down there in the south of France. You know, Rominger was always close to beating Indurain and my times were 45 seconds faster than Romingers.
The Madone is a 12 km climb from sea level to 927 metres. Lance established the record on the climb in 1999 with a time of 30:47. Lance continues, recalling the events leading up to his first tour win like it was yesterday…
LA: Good races – [we] did some races in June, the Route du Sud – Jonathon [Vaughters] and I killed everybody on Plateau de Beille. You know, we knew we’d be close. Then when you have the prologue and win your first yellow jersey things just start rolling.
And then Metz – Metz was arguably one of the best time trials I’ve ever done. And then the big question was answered at Sestriere. After the prologue and Metz they said, ‘ok – you can do all that but he still can’t climb – I don’t care what anybody says, he can’t climb’. So then we finally answered that question there.
PEZ: Johan had always said you could climb. I was on the top of the Galibier in ’99 (on the stage to Sestriere). I was surprised when you came by – I wasn’t surprised you were in the front group but what struck me was that you were clearly riding within yourself.
LA: Yeah, well the Galibier is typically a control climb – although this year I was on the limit.
”Watts – Time and Watts”
PEZ: When you do these tests, tell us what you do – do you measure time or do you also measure wattage output?
LA: Watts – time and watts. And really watts are a much better indication than time because time can be affected by temperature, by wind, by humidity, by pavement surface – a lot of things. But the record is a record of time. So when I say I beat his record by 45 seconds… but I also cranked out 495 watts for more than 30 minutes so…laughs…I knew we were in a good position.
Is It Still Fun?
PEZ: You’ve been in bike racing for a long time and it’s a huge commitment. Is it still fun and what are your favorite things about bike racing?
LA: I really like time with the guys. This is probably too big of a group (25 riders plus team entourage). But a smaller group, the tour for example with 9 guys. Or an even smaller group of 4 or 5 guys at a training camp in the mountains, alone, no other teams, no distractions, no people, a couple of mechanics, a couple of soigneurs – I love it. A great quaint mountain hotel…and breakfast with those guys…,it sounds corny but I just love getting up and (laughs) having a good strong cup of coffee and having breakfast with these guys and going out and riding 6 hours – I STILL love that.
Be sure to tune in Thursday for Part 2 of our Pez-Clusive interview with Lance!
– Read Part 2 of our PEZ-Clusive interview – LANCE UNPLUGGED Part 2