The route for next July's Tour de France was recently unveiled, and it's a doozy, with molar-rattling cobblestone sections and an unprecedented time trial up the switchbacked and insultingly steep Alpe d'Huez With some Stateside cycling fans seeing, in the unconventional course, an attempt to Lance-proof the Tour, this seemed a good time to visit the man who won the last five of these races.
From the foyer of Lance Armstrong's house in a tony suburb of Austin, one glimpses framed yellow jerseys on the walls of a distant room. Strapped to chairs in his den are a pair of matching blue booster seats. But where are the boostees?
"They just left," says Armstrong of his twin daughters, Grace and Isabelle, who turn two this month. While four-year-old Luke often steals the show, the girls "are characters too," says their father. "They're awesome and gorgeous." Right now they live with their mother, Kristin, two houses away. "It's a good setup," he says. "We're within walking distance. We still do stuff as a family." He stops himself, then says, "Well, not as a family, exactly."
Other than confirming that he and Kristin are divorcing—and denying rumors linking him romantically to his "friend," actress Sandra Bullock—Armstrong declined to discuss "the personal stuff."
That "stuff" (he and Kristin separated last winter) was one reason he went into the 2003 Tour de France well shy of his top form. His early-season training was hurt by the crumbling of his marriage—"a disruption in my head and my heart," he says in his new book, Every Second Counts. (The couple's apparent reconciliation at the race was short-lived.) He was, at times before and during the race, sick to his stomach, bothered by tendinitis in his hip, badly dehydrated and oblivious to a brake pad rubbing against his tire. Not all his fortune was bad. His chief rival, Jan Ullrich, crashed in the penultimate stage, scattering hay bales and sealing the most dramatic of Armstrong's Tour victories. But the question remained: Was his close shave—he won by just 61 seconds—an aberration or a portent of decline?
"Listen, man," says Armstrong, "at 32 it's tough to think you're still improving physically." He is not a young 32. Hanging on the den wall near a picture of himself with former Austinite George W. Bush is a haunting close-up of a gaunt, bald, chemo-ravaged Armstrong.
"The race was a microcosm for the year," he says, getting back to the Tour. "Personal problems, a lot of distractions, extra time with the foundation." (The Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised some $30 million for cancer survivor programs and grants.) "It's a complicated life, and it's hard to manage. I've tried to back off somewhat."
He's done little racing these last few months. "I've been too busy," he says, "trying to manage this new life with the kids across the street."
Whatever complications that new life may bring, Armstrong will almost certainly be more settled emotionally as he prepares for the next Tour. He'll need to be because Ullrich has signed with a much stronger team and this Tour will be a bear, with those cobblestones and two time trials in the final week.
Which brings us to those accusations of Lance-proofing. "That's bulls—-," he says, pointing out that the course includes finishes at La Mongie, the Plateau de Beille and the Alpe d'Huez—mountaintops on which Armstrong has won stages in recent years.