The view from the top of the final podium in the Tour de France is pretty sweet. It was particularly sweet in July 2005, when I was celebrating my seventh consecutive Tour win. I'd accomplished what I'd set out to do. An eighth attempt held no allure for me. As much as I love competition -- and winning -- and even the demands of training, I was ready for a break.
In 1997, after I recovered from the testicular cancer that had metastasized to my abdomen, lungs, and brain, I felt as though I deserved a permanent vacation. I did take one for a while. I played a lot of golf and drank a fair amount of beer. But that lifestyle played itself out for me after about six months and I found my way back to competitive cycling.
After that 2005 Tour I wasn't really feeling the urge for a permanent vacation, but I was eager to get back to the things that training had kept me away from -- chiefly my three kids. Luke, Bella, and Grace had had to deal with my being away during the long months of training required for successful Tour campaigns. I was eager to spend more time with them. I was also eager to work more actively for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the organization that I'd started to help other cancer survivors and people battling the disease. (I would also work hard on getting Proposition 15 passed in Texas -- the first state initiative to fi nance cancer research.) I also needed a break. Call it a mini-permanent vacation.
In 2006 and 2007, the Tour de France wasn't really on my radar. I wasn't avoiding it; it just wasn't on the front burner for me. Between my kids, lobbying for cancer research, and training for several marathons, my life was plenty full. But in July 2008, I was staying at the Blackwell Hotel in Columbus, Ohio, for the 2008 LIVESTRONG Summit, and my friend and manager Mark Higgins and I found ourselves with a lot of downtime in the mornings before conference events got going. Somewhat surprisingly, our hotel TV got Versus, the channel that covers the Tour pretty much 24/7 every July. Given this chance, I quickly dialed in. What got to me was watching the stage when they climbed Alpe d'Huez. I have history with Alpe d'Huez. Good history. Most notably when I won a Stage 16 time trial there that was critical to my 2004 Tour victory.
As I watched Carlos Sastre make his move on Alpe d'Huez, a move that went essentially unchallenged, I felt a pang: I want back in. It was the fi rst time I'd even considered a return to the Tour de France. I can't say that I decided right then and there to mount a comeback, but the seed was planted. In the days and weeks that followed, it was on my mind. Increasingly on my mind.
About this same time I was training for the Leadville Trail 100, a tough 100-mile mountain bike race in Leadville, Colorado. I'd originally planned to do this race in 2007. My friend and coach Chris Carmichael was going to do it, and then a bunch of us decided that we'd all do it and the guy with the slowest time would buy dinner for the rest. But after Floyd Landis announced that he was going to do Leadville, the media started pitting us against each other. I didn't like the feel of that, so I decided against doing the race that time. But I stayed interested and trained for it the following year.
Chris was coaching me. One day we were riding together and I said, "What if we keep it going after Leadville?"
"I think there's another long mountain bike race in British Columbia in September," Chris said.
"No," I said. "What if we did the Tour?"
Chris shot me a look. "You're kidding."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
Chris was genuinely stunned. He also didn't think it was a good idea. For one thing, he said, most comebacks don't work. If I didn't win, I'd go out losing. I guess he was worried about my "legacy." Later, my business partner Bart Knaggs expressed the same concern. Chris asked me to give it more thought.
Don't get me wrong. I'm very proud of winning seven consecutive Tours de France. But there's no way I'm going to let that "legacy" stop me from putting myself on the line again. For one thing, my legacy -- whatever it is -- can't be worth much if a lesser result would somehow tarnish it. Second, I can't let myself become paralyzed for fear of jeopardizing what I've achieved so far. For me, living life to the fullest is a lot about testing myself: accepting challenges, training hard, and then going for it. No way I'm spending the rest of my days avoiding goals. As far as I'm concerned, that would wreck my legacy.
When I mentioned the possibility of a comeback to Mark Higgins, he took it calmly -- not a surprise if you know the guy. He reminded me that when I retired I was all about my kids. Luke, Bella, and Grace were next on my list to tell -- but only after I'd told their mother, Kristin.
Kristin and I had a family vacation with the kids in Santa Barbara. On the way home to Austin, I told her there was something I wanted to run by her. When I explained my desire for a comeback, she cried -- I think in part because I asked her and partly in relief; she'd thought I was going to say I wanted to run for office. She was fi ne about my coming out of retirement. I'd have her support.
My kids knew about my history with the Tour, but at this point it was more through what friends had told them than from anything they actually remembered. So they were excited about the prospect of living through it with me and going to France.
Two days after he'd asked me to think about it, I called Chris Carmichael back to let him know I was doing it. I asked him if he wanted to work with me. "Dude," he said, "what do you think?" Chris had just wanted me to consider the pros and cons, but once I'd made my decision, he was with me all the way. It was a relief. It's hard to imagine training without Chris's expertise.
I also couldn't imagine launching a comeback of any kind without Johan Bruyneel. Johan was the directeur sportif -- the guy in charge -- of my team in all of the Tours that I won. He himself is a former pro cyclist and Tour de France veteran who once outsprinted the great champion Miguel Indurain in a stage that ended in Johan's native Belgium. In the years since, he's become a brilliant team strategist -- truly unparalleled in our sport. Small wonder he's been the architect of so many team and individual victories in the Tour de France.
Like everyone else I confi ded in at this time, Johan didn't know whether or not to take me seriously. He wound up fl ying to Austin pretty much to look me in the eye to see if I was for real. He instantly saw that I was.
Johan was set to direct the Astana squad, a cycling team based in Kazakhstan, in the 2009 Tour, and he already had an amazing lineup. I was pretty frank with him. I didn't want to keep him from working with a guy who might dominate the Tour for the next several years to work with me for maybe just one. But Johan said that to him, working with me again would be more satisfying than working for the next fi ve years with a potentially dominant Tour force. So we were good. And I couldn't have been more heartened by Johan's great friendship and confidence in me.
Right around this time I called Bill Stapleton, a former Olympic swimmer who's been my longtime agent. Bill has had my back for so long, I don't remember when he didn't have it. When I had cancer, he was the guy who kept the director of Cofi dis, my Tour team then, at bay when the guy arrived with the false gift of a bottle of wine, determined to renegotiate the terms of my contract or force me to take a physical when I was lying in a hospital bed, sick from chemo.
I'd started texting Bill about the Tour right after watching that Alpe d'Huez stage. At fi rst he thought I was joking. "Put down your beer and go back to the beach" pretty much sums up his reaction. But when he realized that I was serious, he took me seriously. His only real question was, "Do you really want to suffer like that again?" It was a good question. Because suffering is what bike racing is really all about. And the one who can suffer the most usually wins. Once I said yeah, I was ready, Bill's reaction was simple -- and close to the Nike motto: "Let's do it," he said. And he began to put in motion all the steps necessary for my return, from clearing my schedule to finding me a team.
The cancer survivor movement is never far from my mind. I happened to receive the Lance Armstrong Foundation board packet for our upcoming Columbus summit right around the time that the 2008 Tour was starting. It had given me a lot to think about.
The LAF had just completed two years of research focused on views about cancer in twenty-fi ve foreign countries. The results were staggering: Stigma about having cancer was still common in both developed and developing nations. Many people think that cancer is contagious. Even more important, at that time there was no individual or organization leading the charge globally for those dealing with cancer. At our Columbus summit, we planned to discuss the launch of an awareness campaign with global reach.
I got on the phone with Doug Ulman, a three-time cancer survivor who is the president of the LAF, and asked if my comeback could help boost this global initiative. While he was at Brown University, Doug had survived chondrosarcoma and then two malignant melanomas. He came back to help Brown's soccer team win three Ivy League championships. Since then he's completed ten marathons -- and one 100-mile race in the Himalayas. I've heard of altitude training, but altitude racing? Crazy.
Doug was immediately enthusiastic. He said that my comeback could help a lot. So right from the start, as my training and racing plans began to take shape, Doug helped me form an itinerary that would have me meeting with cancer patients around the globe as well as with the foreign leaders who have a lot to say about making cancer research a priority. My goal would be threefold: to raise awareness about cancer, the number-one cause of death worldwide; to reduce the stigma still attached to the disease a...