Is it really over? "I am ninety-nine point nine nine nine nine percent sure," he says from the massage table. It is pointed out that the first time Michael Jordan retired, he said he was 99.9% sure. "Well," says Armstrong, "he left off all those other nines."
I met the man a decade ago. He was sitting in the Motorola team car in the city of Revel, dropping f-bombs. An hour earlier, he'd escaped from a group of breakaway riders with a wily Ukrainian sprinter named Sergei Outschakov. With the finish of stage 14 of the 1995 Tour in sight, the Russian had worked him over, winning easily. "I can't believe I lost," Armstrong kept repeating.
At this point in his career, tactics were not his strong suit. Armstrong came to bike racing from triathlon, where drafting was not allowed. In his new sport, of course, drafting was everything. He failed to grasp this immediately. One day during Utah's Moab Stage Races in 1989, Jonathan Vaughters recalls, some newbie simply rode away from everyone in the pack. Everyone, that is, but Vaughters and Bobby Julich, who let the new guy do all the hard work, then passed him just before the finish line. "That kid is strong," Vaughters exclaimed afterward, "but boy, is he dumb." It was Vaughters's misfortune to be overheard by the dumb kid. "Next thing I know," he recalls, "I'm being chased around the parking lot by a guy who wants to tear my heart out. And that's how I met Lance Armstrong."
Armstrong's disappointment at losing the '95 stage into Revel faded into insignificance three days later. Whistling down the Col de Portet d'Aspet in the Pyrenees, Motorola's Fabio Casartelli crashed, fractured his skull and died. The following day the peloton rode in his honor, with no one contesting the stage. Two days after that, Armstrong found himself in a breakaway with a dozen riders. Having learned from his mistake in Revel, he launched a solo attack 30 kilometers from the finish and stayed clear. Rolling toward the line he pointed heavenward, dedicating the stage win to his fallen teammate.
The Tour was won that year, for the fifth time in a row, by Miguel Indur�in, a passive-aggressive Spaniard content to keep the leaders in sight in the mountains and destroy them in the time trials. When Big Mig had attacked on the road to Li�ge earlier in the race, Armstrong had tried to go with him, "but he just rode me off his wheel," the Texan marveled. "Nobody's going to touch him. He's superhuman. Five? He could win seven or eight of these things."
Armstrong in the early years stood out not only because he was prone to impetuous stunts--mouthing off to his elders in the peloton; bolting on doomed solo breakaways--but also for how he looked. Unlike his peers, with their Muppet chests and pipe-cleaner arms, he was buff. His muscular pecs and biceps were vestiges of his short, happy life as a pro triathlete.
In 1986, at age 15, Armstrong turned heads at a Dallas-area triathlon by clocking the fastest swim time--getting out of the water ahead of stars like Mark Allen and Scott Molina--before fading to 90th in a field of nearly 500 competitors. As his reputation grew in the tri community, he made friends with Bob Babbitt, publisher of Competitor magazine, who hosts a radio show on endurance sports. One night in 1996 Babbitt kept Armstrong on hold while he finished an interview with Steve Scott, the record-setting U.S. miler, who was talking about his battle with testicular cancer.
A month later Babbitt got a call from a tense, distracted Armstrong, who asked him for Scott's number. Next Babbit got a call from Scott, who said, "Do you know why Lance wanted to talk to me?" The kid, it turned out, was full of cancer: It had started in one of his testicles, then spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain. "Compared to Lance," Scott said, "what I have is like a pimple. I'm afraid he's not going to live."
"Lance never thought he was smart," Bart Knaggs says. "He would kind of slink out the side door of his high school. But things clicked for him when he got sick." Knaggs, now the president of the Discovery Channel team, is one of Armstrong's oldest friends. He helped research the treatments that kept his buddy alive. As Armstrong immersed himself in the fight of his life, a transformation took place. "He had to understand what he was taking, how many milligrams, where his [blood] markers needed to be," Knaggs says. "He became very focused on details. When he got sick, it turned his brain on."
If cancer focused Armstrong and instilled urgency in him, it also made him a bit of a geek. The same discernment he used to choose ifosfamide over bleomycin for his chemotherapy he later applied to his diet (the guy would weigh his food), his training programs, his bike's components, his jersey's fibers. He slept in an altitude tent, studied his wattage and heart rate and mercilessly pestered members of the advanced concepts group at his bicycle company, Trek. "I could lift a carbon-fiber [bike] frame with one finger," he writes in his second memoir, Every Second Counts, "but I asked, 'Can't you make it even lighter?'"