Lance Armstrong is a jerk.
Even in 1999, we knew that. As a journalist, I knew it. But when my boss at the Philadelphia Daily News, who knew of my love for cycling, assigned me to write a preview of the US pro championship race held there in June, I knew what I needed to write about and who I needed to speak with.
He had been diagnosed with testicular cancer the summer before, had survived a grueling chemo and radiation regiment, and was back on his bike. His results were mediocre as he rode through the cold of early spring in Europe. But he was the best American cyclist of his generation, he was the most compelling story in the sport …
And he was, all writers agreed, a jerk.
Lance rode for the US Postal Service team at the time, and I called the team’s PR department. They weren’t sure when Lance would get back to me, but he would.
I was at home when Lance called me while sitting between two fellow cyclists in the back seat of a car headed to Lancaster, Pa., for a minor race, a prelude to the much-larger one in Philly. His answers were perfunctory, short.
There are few things I know about writing a profile, but one is that the subject himself or herself is often the least-capable person to comment on his/her life. Especially with hard-charging, willful types; they don’t monitor, inventory, and assess their feelings and motivations through the course of a week, or a month, or a year. They decide and then they go. So, and I learned this from the amazing sports writer Gary Smith, you’re looking for the observer, the person who watches the other with interest. Perspective is, in the end, a second-person experience, right?
So I asked Lance if I could speak with his mom, whom had been his confidante and supporter for years; he said no.
“But you could talk to my fiancee,” he said.
I’d never even heard he HAD a fiancee. I completely felt as if I was being blown off.
“Sure,” I said. “That’d be great.”
I drove to the office downbeat. Arrived at my desk. The red light on my phone was on.
I checked the message.
“This is Kristen,” a female voice said. “Lance spoke with you, and asked me to give you a call.”
We spoke the next day—for two hours. She offered insight after insight. She was into him, after all. Falling in love. She paid attention. She sent me a copy of a hand-written note that Lance sent to a boy, suffering from cancer, who, he had met on a hospital visit. It encapsulated both Armstrong’s singleminded drive and his desire to help others struggling to live with and through this dread disease.
I got a great story. And Lance Armstrong had done what he said he’d do.
Lance Armstrong started getting much better on his bike in the ensuing months, until suddenly he was winning bike races. Then big bike races. Then the biggest race in the world, the Tour de France—over and over. Seven times. And because of his recovery, and his work to help others, and the fact he’d shown me the kindness of doing what he said he would, I cheered him on, and dismissed those folks who claimed he cheated in doing so.
Well, the folks who thought he cheated were right. I feel manipulated but not necessarily demeaned. And I think that he is simultaneously a cheater, the greatest cyclist of his era, and almost certainly the greatest athlete philanthropist in the history of the world.
He’s also a bully, and a colossal jerk.
But we knew that in 1999.