- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford spoke with seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong on Wednesday in Manhattan, N.Y. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Question from Ford: It looked from the outside like you had a perfect ending in '05. Did it feel that way to you then, and did it continue to feel that way as the years went along?
Answer from Armstrong: Yeah -- it was what I wanted, what an athlete dreams about, ending your career on top. I had my kids there and it was a big deal to me to have them there. But this almost feels like something totally different than that. It would have been one thing if I came back two or three months later and said, "Oh, I changed my mind." To me, this is a whole other life, although I suppose it is still a comeback. Three and a half years is a pretty long time. And it never crossed my mind before. I never struggled with it or thought about it or debated it in those three and a half years.
A: No. Never. Never. Never even entered my mind.
Q: Did the whole eruption in August  about the '99 urine samples mar your exit for you? It was barely two weeks later that the whole thing blew up.
A: No. It was a whole lot of noise and, it seemed like, chaos. But the fact of the matter is, as [French sports daily newspaper] L'Equipe said in the story, "The athlete in question cannot defend himself." They said that. There's no other sample, there's no C sample. That's the basic premise of the entire system. You catch dopers, but you have to be able to defend yourself in any trial, any situation where your credibility or your work has been put in question. I couldn't defend myself.
Q: You tried.
A: By --
Q: By disputing the validity of the results. And the process.
A: Well, the UCI disputed that. [Editor's note: A report commissioned by the UCI later criticized the lab's findings.] Now they bring it up again, [national French anti-doping agency] AFLD brings it up again, we'll retest the samples. They offered that. Let Lance Armstrong prove in good faith his cleanliness. Let me ask you this question: If this was your urine sample [grabs a half-finished bottle of iced tea on table] -- it's open. You haven't seen it, you don't know where it's been. It's been sitting open, and all of your credibility and your life's work, everything rides right there on that bottle. Would you go over there and test that? I can answer it for you. Of course you wouldn't. Nobody would do that. So we're not going to get into that game with them. It's time that they move on from that.
Q: To get back to the original question, did that spoil things for you?
Q: You didn't feel like you were retiring under a cloud?
A: No, because at the time, and I think still, it was a largely French issue, a European issue. The sponsors I have, the sponsors of my foundation, the donors to my foundation, since August 2005, not one of them has left, and not one of them has even asked about it. If it's something that glaring, and that obvious, and questionable, they'd at least ask about it and they'd probably leave. It's the reason we stopped litigating things, because No. 1, we were sick of it, and No. 2, we couldn't prove damages.
Q: It's going to take as much time on a daily basis for you to be on top of your game as it did when you were younger, if not more?
A: It'll take more, because it'll be more work off the bike. On the bike, it'll be the same.
Q: Being an elite bike rider is something that takes a lot of time every day. You're a member of a team and that takes a certain amount of time. There's physical risk involved in racing. Your comeback has stirred up a lot of old stuff in the public and media that could be distracting. Why is it better for you to be on the bike to promote your cause than off the bike where -- as has been chronicled -- you have access to anyone you want, practically, in the world and --
A: Because it's an international initiative. If it was a domestic one or a Texas one, we've done that. We continue to maintain those initiatives. But it was our view that we would be more effective if I were on the bike, racing internationally.
Q: The time you devote to being an athlete is time you can't spend lobbying.
A: No, but it doesn't always have to be me. [The foundation] is an organization of 70 people, and 10 working on the international plan. That, in and of itself, is a big team. It's not just me. I have great support, a great team, great visionaries and great people working for me. I feel confident we'll be effective.
Q: Talk about what you're doing with Don Catlin. Astana has an independent [anti-doping] program run by [Danish researcher] Rasmus Damsgaard. First of all, are you going to participate in that with the rest of the team?
A: Sure. Yup.
Q: [Catlin is] a guy that, from all parts of the industry, seems to get respect for his knowledge, his objectivity, his fairness and the fact that he's detached from the scene. So -- why Catlin? Why the extra throw? How would you persuade someone that it's not just window dressing?
A: First of all, these independent programs, two years ago everyone praised them as being the second coming. Now people criticize them. Cycling is worked up in such a frenzy now that they don't know what to think. Part of me doesn't care. I'm going to do everything I can to prove that it's talent and hard work, like I've done for the last 17 years. I'm not a donkey that turned into a thoroughbred. With regards to Don, is he window dressing? He's Don Catlin. That's like asking if Desmond Tutu is window dressing.
Q: My point is that you have testing from USADA, testing from the UCI, testing from Damsgaard, and the biological passport. So you've got four different entities testing you --
A: Probably more, but yeah.
Q: And those test results are accessible in various ways. So -- and I'm not saying this is my view -- but one could put forward an argument that you're just doing this for the American audience because they know who Catlin is -- he's American, it's PR.
A: I think you're wrong there. If you ask any anti-doping lab in the world, believe me, they know Don Catlin. He's beyond reproach. They can test all they want. I've already had USADA come, WADA come, UCI come out of competition. Those will continue. You add in Damsgaard, you add in Catlin, you add in probably some surprise AFLD controls, whatever. It's a bit of a nuisance if it's the wrong time of the day, but no problem. I don't care. Just like I didn't care before.
Q: I don't mean to imply anything about Don Catlin. His reputation speaks for itself. But the question is, why is it necessary to have him on top of all this other stuff?
A: It may not be necessary. But at the time, it was our idea. For us as Americans, certainly we know the name more than Damsgaard. But I think Don can take it to another level.
Anyway, I think cycling's main objective should be just to get back to racing. We keep killing ourselves. It's well-documented that the harder cycling has tried, the deeper they've gone underground. First sport to test hematocrit, first sport to test for EPO, first sport to do a lot of things. So naturally, you're going to start catching people, and all the while you're begging for credibility and begging for respect. But, in reality, what happened is, because you don't have a riders' union, you don't have solidarity from the teams and the organizers and press and people and sponsors, and you've just dug this hole. So now you have some people, all they do is scream about how clean they are. That doesn't help cycling. That leaves the impression that we're clean now, so everyone else must be dirty.
Q: Are you talking about Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia?
A: No. There's a lot of people that that's their PR strategy. But the people who say that aren't any cleaner than Johan Bruyneel or Alberto Contador or Levi Leipheimer or Carlos Sastre.
Q: Your training team -- I know [longtime coach] Chris Carmichael will be a part of it -- who else is going to be in your corner?
A: I started in June. My big goal was the Chicago Marathon and I was going to try to be fairly serious about it, actually train, lose weight. The kids and I and [ex-wife] Kristin went to Santa Barbara and spent the summer there. It's just easier for the kids that we're all in one place so they don't have to travel to see mom and dad. I started working with this old trainer of mine, Peter Park, a guy I met 10 years ago. He and I were lifting, doing core work, running, trail running, mountain biking with sights set on Chicago and trying to run 2:30, which I thought I could do. So he's been a big part of it, because he kind of kick-started the whole thing.
Q: I have to ask, have you and Kristin ever discussed getting back together?
A: No. I love her to death. But no. We're in a good place, our kids are in a good place; we're amazing partners. Any major decision in my life, this trip I took to the Middle East last year for this troop visit, and if I were ever to do anything politically in the future, that's the only person I have to get clearance from. The comeback she wholeheartedly supports, and that's important to me, because I have to juggle kid schedules. We still do family things together; we spent the summer together, essentially, in separate homes. There is a lot of chemistry and respect, more respect than anything else. We're actively involved in our kids' lives. And we're buddies. She's a smart, funny girl. I love spending time with Kristin, and I suppose she loves spending time with me. But probably not as husband and wife [laughs].
Q: In the Men's Journal story [October], you mentioned that you're still a friend of [former trainer and controversial Italian doctor] Michele Ferrari. So is he part of the plan?
A: No. Definitely a friend. There's no professional relationship there. But are you going to kick someone out of your life? No.
Q: So you won't be doing any training or testing with him, consulting? Or bouncing anything off him?
A: No. I know there's sensitivity there. That would be a mistake, I think.
Q: It might be fair for the voters of Texas to ask how doing this, as opposed to something else that requires more executive skills, would prepare you to possibly be their governor.
A: You mean as opposed to going to college or something? Well, it depends on how you look at it. If you want to look at it as somebody who's committed to hard work, committed to a team, committed to a constituency and committed to a cause, I'd run on that.
Q: There's a different standard of transparency for someone who's running for public office. I did notice and hear about how unhappy you were with the Austin newspaper's revelation of your water bill. That's the kind of thing politicians have to deal with every week, people burrowing into this and that.
A: The editor and I have kissed and made up. All I asked for is fairness. But because of the significance of the cycling stuff, layer in some political buzz -- now it becomes, "Did you get in a bar fight?" "Who's your girlfriend?" "Do you vote regularly?" Those have been stories for years. You're held to a higher standard. That's fine.
Q: Did you have anything to do with the management changes at [Tour de France parent company] ASO? Backchannel?
A: No. I'm glad you asked that. I had nothing to do with it. But I'm pleased; I think it's a good thing. I was not a supporter of [former ASO president Patrice] Clerc; he was not a supporter of mine. He was not good for cycling, he was not good for the Tour, and the record will show that. He ran the event into the ground.
Q: Are you interested in investing in ASO?
A: No. That report was not true, either. In the past, had we thought maybe we could buy part of ASO or put together a group and buy a large part? Yes. But we look at many things. That would be a difficult transaction to pull off.
Q: The hypothetical investors' group, did that include [former UCI head] Hein Verbruggen?
A: No. All Americans.
Q: The old Tailwind group [which managed the U.S. Postal and Discovery teams]?
A: It was an American group of influential, wealthy cycling-fanatical people.
Q: The perception is that you and Verbruggen are close, [UCI chief Pat] McQuaid is Verbruggen's protégé, therefore you and McQuaid are close, therefore the UCI is on your side.
A: How is that going to help me?
Q: They had to make a decision about you racing in Australia. [Editor's note: Under UCI rules, an athlete who comes out of retirement must have been in the out-of-competition anti-doping test pool for at least six months before racing. Armstrong was short of that requirement by one week, but was granted an exception.]
A: That rule's been applied umpteen different ways to umpteen different people. I mean, I've been part of the testing pool for plenty of time. I was optimistic, but I was internally thinking they would make a different decision. The race is ecstatic. We're psyched to go. I'm psyched to start racing. I need to start racing.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.