On the roads of France next month, however, it could be a very different story. It could be that the spectators who gather for the Tour de France may not appreciate seeing Armstrong pedalling past them ahead of the peloton.
It could be that they agree with Brian Cookson, the president of the International Cycling Union, who considers it highly inappropriate that Armstrong should return to France — even if it is only to join Thomas for two or three days in raising £1million for the Cure Leukaemia charity. It could be that they also agree with Team Sky’s Sir Dave Brailsford, who shares Cookson’s concerns.
Armstrong rather hopes not. He hopes cycling fans see their effort with a team of amateur riders as nothing more than two famous cancer survivors doing their bit for a good cause.
He hopes they support Thomas for asking Armstrong to rejoin the battle against the disease even if the Livestrong Foundation has severed all ties with its founder.
Inspired by Armstrong when he faced his own fight against leukaemia 12 years ago, Thomas justified his position to this newspaper three months ago when he said he partly owes his life to the man stripped of seven Tour titles.
If Armstrong raises awareness and the money saves lives as a consequence, Thomas says he really is not interested in listening to cycling’s objections. He maintains that he can separate Armstrong’s doping from his cancer work and here in the Texan’s house in Aspen, two former professional sportsmen are united in responding to the criticism they have received. Criticism, Thomas explains, that led to the withdrawal of some sponsors almost overnight, but attracted support from others, such is Armstrong’s ability to polarise opinion.
Armstrong, unsurprisingly, comes out fighting. ‘I mean, I don’t know Brian Cookson,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what his vision is for the sport. I don’t know if he is even able to form a vision. But I do know that me and Geoff riding in France is the least of his problems.
‘If he is making public comments — and this is as strong as I’ll go — he needs to be talking about other things because this sport is not in a good place for a variety of reasons. A lot of it has to do — perhaps some would say — with me. But he doesn’t need to worry about this.’
Armstrong is talking about doping, of course. Talking, too, about what he sees as a certain irony in the fact that Cookson complains about him participating in a charity ride when the Astana team threatened recently with a ban — on the back of five positive tests — will be racing in the Tour.
‘You guys can decide if he has (Cookson) done a good job, if he’s been tough on Astana, whether he’s stuck with his mission statement,’ says Armstrong. ‘Plenty of people would argue he’s laid down on a lot of things. Cookson is not very good at taking people down. So no disrespect to them (he is including Brailsford now) but I don’t care what they think. This is not about them.’
Armstrong is asked if he thinks cycling is in a better place than it was in his day, the ‘high-octane’ era of blood-boosting drug EPO.
‘I absolutely don’t think it’s in a better place,’ he says, although he then qualifies this by insisting he has no idea if doping is as prevalent as it was when he was riding.
Partly, he says, because he has pretty much severed his ties with a sport he claims to have no desire to return to. But the recently- published Cycling Independent Reform Commission report into doping quoted one witness suggesting as many as 90 per cent of riders are still cheating.
While Armstrong thinks that ‘excessive’, it supports his view.
What he objects to is the perception that he is solely to blame for cycling’s drug problem and that he stands alone in being punished, of being stripped of his titles, when even Cookson’s independent report said doping was endemic and was facilitated by the UCI officials who were supposed to be its guardians.
‘I’m that character in Harry Potter they can’t talk about,’ he says ‘Voldemort? It’s as if you can’t mention him. I’m the one everybody wants to pretend never lived. But that will not be the case for ever because it can’t be the case for ever. That won’t work, people aren’t stupid. We know what happened.’
Sympathy for him, he appreciates, is in short supply. Even when he agrees to discuss certain topics in what is probably the most wide-ranging interview he has given since he confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013.
It might be because he feels more comfortable. Not just because he is in his own home, with his children running around and his partner, Anna, in the background. But because he is clearly at ease in the company of Thomas. It has to be said that to Thomas and his team of riders, Armstrong has been the perfect host. It was his idea to hold this training camp and he has opened his doors to them as well as four English journalists. On the rides he invited Scott Mercier — a cyclist who quit the US Postal team Armstrong once led because he refused to dope — and Todd DuBoef, among the most influential promoters in American boxing.
Out on the road Armstrong points out where Roman Abramovich lives — revealing that he actually rode with Chelsea’s Russian billionaire owner a couple of summers ago — and makes a lunch-stop at a restaurant once frequented by journalist and author Hunter S Thompson. He even entertains his new training partners by reading out the daily cocktail of alcohol and drugs Thompson would consume before sitting down to write.
Back at the house, Armstrong is candid on a variety of subjects, but he maintains he cannot remember what Betsy Andreu claims happened in that hospital room when he is said to have told a doctor treating his cancer the cocktail of drugs he had been using as a cyclist.
‘It doesn’t change the fact I’m sorry for the way I treated him and her,’ he says of Andreu and her husband and his former team-mate, Frankie. But he insists he is prepared to tell the United States Anti-Doping Agency whatever they still need to know. Indeed, he says discussions with USADA chief Travis Tygart are ongoing. And he reveals he is having counselling with Anna in an effort to be a better person.
‘Counselling is so funny because people are like, “Are you weak or something?”’ he says. ‘But s**t, the most important thing in life — your personal wellbeing, your relationship with your loved ones — are you just going to ignore it because somebody might think you are some sort of wimp? We can all be better people. And God knows I could. I was a complete d**k for a long time.’
We suggest his rehabilitation might progress more rapidly if he stops referring to himself as the winner of seven Tours. He contests that if other convicted dopers have been allowed to keep their titles, why should he be stripped of his?
‘I’m the one who gets to make my Twitter profile, no one else,’ he says defiantly. ‘And then it goes to the question, if I’m not, then who is? There has to be a winner.’
But he needs to be more contrite. ‘Again, I’m evolving as a man on that,’ he says. ‘But I’m not going to be sorry for certain things. I’m going to be sorry for that person who was a believer, who was a fan, who supported me, who defended me and ended up looking like a fool. I need to really be contrite and sorry about that. And all the others who were directly impacted. I tried to make it right with every one of those people.’
He has apologised to Christophe Bassons, a rider Armstrong was essentially accused of bullying off the Tour when the Frenchman spoke out against doping. By last year Bassons was expressing concern about Armstrong, worried a man being wholly blamed for cycling’s problems might take his own life.
Armstrong jokes that the only thing that might drive him to suicide is his new obsession with golf.
But what about the Whistleblower case — the fact that the US government is pursuing him for $100m? That has to be stressful. ‘I’m a sleeper, I don’t lose sleep,’ he says. ‘I’m not dismissing stress. I’m dismissing any thoughts of suicide.’
He still hopes to have his life ban from competitive sport reduced by USADA. ‘The ban matters for a couple of reasons,’ he says. ‘Primarily for triathlon (at 43 he still wants to compete) and because the world was told I was the biggest fraud in the history of sport and I don’t think that’s true.’
So he keeps talking to Tygart, the man who took him down? ‘I’m not done talking to Travis, I’ll tell you that,’ he says. But he wants fresh evidence? ‘If we don’t know it by now then I missed it, between 10 books and three movies,’ he says, a little exasperated. ‘At this point, after a federal investigation, a criminal investigation, a civil investigation, a federal agency, the threat of perjury and jail, an anti-doping agency threatening lifetime bans, books — trust me, it’s all there.
‘I came through on my end with the CIRC report. I said I would be the first man in the door, I did it, went twice, answered every question I could.’
But does he continue to protect those who were closest to him? The team managers, the doctors, the financial backers. ‘If the question gets asked, I’m going to answer the question, whether it’s to him (Tygart) or in the federal case,’ he says.
‘It’s not like I’m going to protect anybody. At this point?
‘I would like ultimately to be part of Livestrong again,’ he adds. ‘And that might take longer than any of it. But it would be the logical move for both of us, them and me.’
Are they coming around to the idea? ‘No,’ he says. ‘Not that I know of. But I’m here, I’m ready.’
He gets accused, of course, of using his cancer as a cover for the doping. ‘The facts are the facts,’ he says. ‘That organisation was started the day I was diagnosed. That was in 1996. The Tours didn’t start coming until 1999. So it wasn’t like I got to 1999-2001 and I knew all the doping was going around and I thought, “Oh f***, we better do something good, because this s**t is bad”. That never happened.’
With Thomas he hopes to start helping people again and appreciates that by inviting him on his ride Thomas is helping him, too. Others had approached him only to step away again because ‘they had some concerns’. He feared Thomas would lose his nerve. ‘We knew there would be some criticism but it was pretty heated from all angles,’ he says. ‘And I was talking to Mark (Higgins, his manager), saying, “Dude, any day this motherf****r’s calling, any day, and going: all right, it’s too much”.
‘I never called him “motherf****r” but any minute we ain’t going to France. And every time I heard “Geoff wants to talk tomorrow” I thought, “OK, here it comes”.
‘I view my life and career as two parts. One was the cycling side and one was the non-profit side with Livestrong. And that’s all totally authentic and real. That work is unimpeachable. But Geoff has been consistent. He caught a ton of grief. Most people don’t have the guts to ride that out.’
So does Armstrong see the crowds objecting to him being in France? ‘I could be wrong but I’ve been to France since all this happened and that’s not the reaction I get,’ he says. ‘I don’t know if certain people might be concerned that, God forbid, the reaction is positive. What happens then?’
Regrets? Armstrong admits to having a few, revealing: ‘There are about five things in this world I’d go back and erase’.
He says: ‘The speech on the Champs (Elysees, in Paris), I would do anything to erase. (This was after his seventh win in 2005 when Armstrong said he pitied those who didn’t believe in the miracle).
‘I sit through the videos when I’m giving all these depositions. There’s only one word and that’s “embarrassing”. It’s awful.’
Among the other four he lists the comeback in 2009, although he denies it is only because it led to him being exposed. He says he ‘appreciates’ that is ‘how it sounds’ but argues to the contrary.
‘The comeback, I see the negative side of it. Real people getting really hurt by it and what happened to the (Livestrong) foundation,’ he says.
Armstrong fears losing his two family homes and his personal fortune if the verdict goes against him in next year’s $100million ‘Whistleblower’ trial.
The American rode for the US Postal team in six of the seven Tour de France races he won while doping and he now stands accused by the US government of defrauding a government agency in a case launched by fellow doper and former Postal rider Floyd Landis — The Whistleblower.
Armstrong says he ‘likes’ his case and is quietly confident of winning, but he said: ‘We would not be sitting at this table any more. We wouldn’t be sitting in this home any more. We wouldn’t be sitting in any home. I don’t have $100m.
‘But we like our case, is all I will say. I’m not going to jinx myself. But I don’t know. How do you guys see it? Say the jury says pay up $100m so Floyd Landis gets $33m. Is everybody at this jury happy with that?
‘There’s no logic to that. But the case is not about who lied, who doped. The case is about the damages. The Postal Service on its own commissioned the studies in 2004 that showed it made $100m. So where are the damages?’
He insists he will tell all. ‘Certainly in my depositions and hearings in the trial for the federal case, at this point in my life, I’m not lying, I’m not going to jail,’ he says. ‘I’m not leaving what I got going on. And they would. If they found out I had lied, they would absolutely move for that. They would love it, love it.’
Recently Armstrong was involved in a car accident, with his partner Anna initially attempting to take responsibility when he in fact was driving. Armstrong was reticent on the subject but said he regretted she had been dragged into the controversy, adding that she has also been asked to provide a deposition for the Whistleblower case. – Daily Mail
Original source: People pretend I never lived - Lance