If youíre going to expend that first big block of effort and energy to participate, you might as well go ahead and give whatever else it takes to win.
What was it like?
That is one of the two questions I get asked the most.
The first thing most people want to know when they find out what I did for a living -- and who I did it with -- is: What was it like to work with Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, hero, seven-time Tour de France champion, greatest athlete on earth? The answer, as with most of the answers Iíve found in life -- and in the Tour de France -- sounds deceptively simple.
Imagine, I tell people, youíre standing in line to board a groaning city bus one day when someone plucks you up and plops you into the cockpit of a rumbling, roaring fighter jet. Or imagine youíre invited to play a game of chess but when you sit down you realize that your king is some sort of unprecedented, one-of-a-kind phenomenon that, rather than needing to be protected and sheltered to win, will be able to launch blistering offensive attacks by leaping squares faster and farther and in different ways than any chess piece ever has.
People understand what Iím trying to tell them: Power. Adrenaline. Force.
But most people also miss the second half of those analogies -- which is the important half, if youíre interested in anything more substantial than simple thrills. Put a civilian in charge of a fighter jet and youíre more likely to end up with a smoking wreck than a decorated and glorious hero. Give chess novices a superking -- give them two, or three -- and the board will still be ruled by a grandmaster opponent who has studied hundreds of thousands of games and memorized every opening and endgame and plays ten moves ahead of ordinary comprehension. Muscle power without mental power means nothing.
People -- mostly insiders who understand the sport of cycling and the intensely symbiotic relationship between team directors and star riders -- also ask the all-important second question: Could you and Lance ever have won if youíd not met each other?
Thereís no simple answer at all for that. Lance Armstrong and I found each other at the perfect time. Weíd each had some success when we met but neither of us had really found our specialty, the thing that would take us to the top of our sport and our particular potentials.
In 1998 I was thirty-four, freshly retired from a twelve-year pro racing career whose highlights -- I won two stages of the Tour de France, and once wore the yellow jersey given to the race leader -- arose more from cunning and tactics than from sheer physical ability. I had the mind and heart of a champion, but not the engine; at my best, I could sometimes beat the best, but the hard truth was that winning the Tour de France was simply beyond my physical capabilities.
Iíd been racing since my teens, and wasnít sure exactly what I wanted to do. Iíd always felt, from the time I was a child, that my destiny was to be a great champion of something, but my career had shown me otherwise. I wasnít disappointed in what Iíd done, but I wasnít fooling myself either. In one sense, Iíd accomplished great things -- risen to the most elite level of bike racing, ridden alongside great racers and colorful characters, and lived a country-hopping life that aspiring cyclists dream of. Iíd gotten new bikes every year, and uniforms, and clothes to wear, and all the food and other perks that enabled me to live comfortably. To those whoíd tried to become a pro at that level but failed, I was living the dream. I knew that. I appreciated that. But in another sense I was also aware that I hadnít left my imprint on the sport the way Iíd dreamed of doing when I was a kid.
I had half a thought that I might try to head up the pro ridersí union, which at the time was weak, unorganized, not really an advocate for the athletes. I knew that someone needed to show the riders how, if they could all just band together and take a tough stand, they could quickly accomplish things such as raising salaries at the low end (where, after years of sacrifice, a rider sometimes makes just into five figures), securing better contracts with more guarantees, improving the insurance options. They were all important issues, issues that would leave a mark on the sport. But not in the way I wanted.
I also knew that I could go into sports marketing for some team, or help promote a race series. Iíd studied marketing back in Belgium, when I was still racing as a young amateur. I loved the way ideas could be brought to life and communicated to people, the way a good marketer could bring excitement to any subject. There was something about the logical, methodical flow of progress from an ideaís conception to its presentation to the public that appealed to me. And my facility with languages -- I spoke five fluently, ripping through courses in school thanks to a natural affinity -- would help get any message across in any country in Europe, which is the hotbed of pro cycling.
Either of those two options seemed like the natural next step. And yet, something held me back from committing to them. I knew it was time for me to retire but I also had this sense that if I abandoned the competitive part of cycling I would feel for the rest of my life as if pro cycling had somehow gotten the better of me.
And I hate losing more than I love winning.
It seems funny now that I gave no thought to the idea of being a team director -- a position most often compared to that of a baseball manager or basketball coach, but which is really more like being a CEO and coach at once. Yes, of course you choose the lineup, create the game plan for the season and each race, call the plays, and organize, implement, motivate, and discipline the athletes. But you also manage the staff the fans donít see -- the board, the assistant team directors, the mechanics, the massage therapists, the doctors, the office managers, legal counsel, public relations staff, and even a bus driver and a chef. (For our U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams, it was a support staff of as many as forty, in addition to up to twenty-eight riders.) Itís not that I didnít want to be a team director; I just never thought of it. Why would I? Who would hire me? I had no experience.
Even if Iíd had experience, I probably wouldnít have put Lanceís team (which was then U.S. Postal) at the top of my list. They were, as Lance himself once described it, "the Bad News Bears, a mismatch of bikes, cars, clothing, equipment." The teamís total budget was $3 million, less than the salary of some of the worldís best racers.
And Lance, himself -- well, he was not yet LANCE, the one-word beacon of human potential, hope, and triumph that heís become. He already had the obsession, and the drive, and the physical ability thatís led him to greatness. But it hadnít all gelled -- and there was no way it could have by then. He was twenty-seven, still a child in terms of experience in the peloton, which is what a pack of pro cyclists is called. Heíd shown enormous promise as a one-day racer (winning a world championship at age twenty-one, and two stages of the Tour de France) before being struck by cancer, but his comeback was a patchwork of failures (dropping out of races) and near misses (finishing fourth in the Tour of Spain, a late-season stage race). He was not a Tour de France champion. He was an experiment.
We were opposites in many ways. Iím from a big, happy family in cycling-mad Belgium, where biking, second only to soccer in popularity, is shown on national TV nearly two hundred days a year, where no matter where you live thereís a nearby race just about every day of the week that attracts thousands of spectators, and where from their teens promising riders are adopted and nurtured by local fans and coaches who buy their equipment and pay their expenses. From nearly as early as I could remember Iíd been surrounded by bike racers and wanted to be one of them, the way nearly all American kids want to be basketball stars at some point in their lives. In my family, in my neighborhood, we rode more often than we didnít over the course of a week, and there were at least a couple local races each weekend and many through the week as well. The speeds were fast, the corners tight, the roads were in horrible condition, and the rain and wind were our constant opponents.
I was gifted enough physically to find success as a kid. I became a local star, then, as a teen, a regional power and a threat at the national level, and eventually, in my twenties, I found out that I had what it took to ride among the best in the world. It felt almost like a career track -- in Belgium, you were lucky and gifted and determined if you made it as a pro cyclist, but you were not by any means an anomaly; it was what Belgian athletes became.
Once I began competing against other world-class athletes, however, I quickly realized that I could not dominate races the way Iíd done back in my neighborhood, racing against my friends and kids Iíd known all my life. But I found out that I could steal a win here and there by racing with my head as well as my heart. I became a sponge -- soaking up the impressions and subtle clues riders gave off about their form, learning more about my opponents than they sometimes knew about themselves, studying course profiles, planning meticulous strategies for single races, and embracing both the nuances and the deep core truths about the curious and mysterious sport of cycling.
For instance, when two riders jump ahead of the pack and break away on their own, they must cooperate -- each taking turns at the front to block the wind, saving energy for the rider in back so that together they have the strength to hold off the charging pack. But as the pair approach the finish line, at some point they must turn on each other; the very rider youíve depended on for survival, co6 operating like brothers for miles and miles and hours and hours, instantly becomes your most bitter rival and you try desperately to leave each other behind -- but not too soon, or the pack will catch you as you struggle solo to the finish.
The strategies used to win a bike race, especially a multiday stage race as opposed to a one-day event, are shockingly simple, and not all that numerous. For instance, once you have a day where you gain some time on your chief opponents, you no longer have to beat them on the following days; you simply shadow them so you do not lose time. The leader wins by being led. Thereís no way around that, and your opponents know, so they must attack you, trying over and over to ride away. Itís no secret. Another example: if youíre behind in time, you send your second-strongest teammate to the front to attack before you do; if he is successful and rides away from the group, he tries to gain enough time to threaten the leaderís top position, which means the leader must then stop following you and attack -- making him vulnerable to fatigue, and to your own attack that will come later. Or, if your teammate gets away but doesnít gain much time, he might soft-pedal, waiting patiently far up the road. When you attack, dragging the leader (who is doing the right thing by following) along with you, you will at some point meet up with your teammate; the two of you can then take turns attacking the isolated leader.
Everyone in cycling knows and understands these few strategies. The difference is that amid the chaos and speed of a bike race, only a very few people in the world are able to execute them consistently, and at the right time. Only a few people are able to block out the madness of a bike race and focus on the fundamental strategies, while still being able to remember everything about the course profile or keep in mind a subtle clue an opponent might have given about his condition that day. So even at its most basic level, though cycling strategy is simple, the sport has no element as uncomplicated as throwing a ball through a hoop to score a point. I reveled in these complexities, and learned how to ride alongside cyclists who were much more talented than I.
Lance, famously now, grew up with unstable or absent fathers, roughing out life with his mother, who raised him as a single parent and sacrificed much to give him what little they had, in a country where the general public considers the bicycle more of a childís toy than a high-tech marvel of sport gear.
Where I was part of a long tradition when I began racing as a kid, he was an exception. And he won races differently, with raw horsepower and guts. He cared little for the traditions and unspoken rules of the peloton.
But in the few years we raced against each other, I as the aging insider and he as the brash kid, weíd improbably shared some key experiences -- moments of intense beauty and agony -- that forged an unlikely bond. By 1998, when I was retiring and Lance, who was searching for something, asked me to become his team director, it was perfect timing for both of us.
As soon as I realized I had a chance to be Lanceís team director, I understood why Iíd been hesitating about my other career options. It crystallized for me: I didnít just want a job. I wanted one last chance to become the champion that racing had both shown me I could be and kept me from being. Here was my chance -- the opportunity to become the best team director in the best race on earth. The Tour de France is the greatest sporting spectacle because it transcends bicycle racing. The Tour de France is like life. Itís not a game, or a series of games. Itís a two-thousand-mile, month-long odyssey that creates and breaks heroes, elevates some while diminishing others. Thereís unspeakable triumph and heartbreak, not in fleeting moments but washing over you for sustained periods. There are disasters, and illnesses. Babies are born while racers speed simultaneously away from and toward home. Deep friendships develop. Rivalries, too. Bikes crash. So do cars. There are cheaters -- and there always have been, though the methods have varied. The Tour de France is the only sporting event, someone once said, so long that you have to get your hair cut in the middle of it. This messiness and glory is what I think of when I say the Tour de France is like life itself. It was always where I had most desired and most sought to prove myself.
Everything I knew about cycling, and about the Tour, was telling me something about Lance, this kid whoíd been a spectacular one-day racer but had never even finished a complete Tour de France, and who was trying the most improbable comeback in all of cycling, if not sport. I turned off my brain and listened to my heart.
I accepted the job. Then I told Lance something shocking.
"I think we should focus on the Tour de France," I said.
"Okay," said Lance. "Which stages? I can win a few stages."
"No," I said. "I want to see you on the podium. I want to win the whole thing."
Lance said nothing for a moment. Years later he would tell me, "I thought it was far-fetched, but at that point I had nothing to lose."
"Look," I said. "If weíre going to ride the Tour, we might as well win."
Finally, Lance said, "Sure. Okay, letís do it. Letís win the Tour de France."
We might as well win. Iíve always had this idea that if youíre going to try something, if youíre going to expend that first big block of effort and energy to participate -- whether itís riding the Tour de France or applying for a new job or coaching your daughterís soccer team -- you might as well go ahead and give whatever else it takes to win. I mean, Iím going to be there no matter what, right? Why not go ahead and get the victory?
Itís a simple idea -- but itís one of those simple ideas that, like cycling itself, or like trying to explain what itís like to work with Lance -- is full of hidden meanings and finer points.
Over the course of the seven years Lance and I contested and won the Tour de France together -- from 1999 to 2005 -- then during the year after Lance retired, when I didnít win the Tour, I absorbed a lifeís worth of wisdom about what it takes to win, and how to learn to win from losing.
The Tour de France became my crucible. I emerged from it as the most successful team director in history. I donít think you can become a winner, or figure out how to turn loss into victory, through some snazzy ten-step program full of catch phrases and bullet points. I think you have to immerse yourself in life, in the race, in the stories, in the experiences of triumph and failure. I think you have to absorb it, not memorize it. And I think we all have such chances in our lives; every day we deal with the elements of success and failure. Every day we bump into people who can help us or hinder us. Every day we are given a choice to attack or follow. Sometimes itís hard to figure out what to do, or to know if youíre doing the right thing once youíre doing it.
All I know for sure is that winning starts with belief. Itís the one thread that runs through every story in this book, the one constant in my life: no matter what the experts said, no matter what the facts seemed to indicate, no matter which way I was being pushed, by money, or the media, or fans, I made every decision with my heart, and once I made a decision I committed to it all the way. I made decisions as if I were jumping off a cliff. I didnít want to leave any possibility for second-guessing.
Thatís not to say I leapt into those decisions blindly; I didnít want to fall to the ground and die. I wanted to jump, then soar. Leaping off a terrifying cliff takes heart. To fly instead of fall, you better have been smart enough to build a glider -- or a jet -- before you jumped. (Or possess the quick-wittedness to put one together on your way down.)
This is not an autobiography, nor is it a comprehensive chronology of every Tour de France I won with Lance and Alberto Contador. This is the expression of the moments that stick with me, the simple yet somehow profound stories about how I won and lost -- and won again, thanks to all that Iíd learned from Lance, from the Tour de France, from bike racing, from my father, from my team, and from the ticking of my own heart.