Lance Armstrong and Oprah
Photo: Henry Leutwyler
The six-time winner of cycling's grueling Tour de France discusses the hills and valleys of a remarkable life (and he's only 33): his fatherless childhood in small-town Texas; his life B.C.—before cancer—and after; his spartan training protocol ("Eat, sleep, ride"); his recent painful divorce and klieg-lit relationship with rock star Sheryl Crow; the phenomenon of his foundation's "Live Strong" bracelets...and why, despite his upcoming retirement, "I have to win at all costs."
Lance Armstrong rides again—this time, aiming for his seventh victory in the Tour de France, which begins on July 2. In his 33 years, the cycling legend from Plano, Texas, has pedaled his way through very rocky terrain: a 1996 diagnosis of testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain; a divorce a year and a half ago from Kristin Armstrong, his wife of five years and the mother of his three children; and the relentlessly cruel gossip about his relationship with singer Sheryl Crow (people accused him of leaving his wife for a rock star, but he and Kristin had already publicly split).

Win or lose, Lance says, race number seven is a wrap—the end of a magnificent athletic career and the beginning of more time to play, spend afternoons with his children, and raise money and awareness for the battle against cancer. His charity, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, has already raised roughly $45 million through sales of its yellow "Live Strong" wristbands. Long after he retires from sports, he says, he'll be remembered as a survivor.

Start reading Oprah's interview with Lance Armstrong

Note: This interview appeared in the May 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Oprah: If you were to step outside your life and be an observer, would you define what you've done as heroic?

Lance: If I knew about the diagnosis and how hard the Tour de France is, I'd say it was pretty extraordinary. But I can't bring myself to say "heroic."

Oprah: Your mother was only 17 when you were born, and you grew up fatherless. I've interviewed so many people who are still sick at heart because of the lack of connection to a primary parent. Have you yearned for a relationship with your dad?

Lance: If the opportunity came, I wouldn't say "Absolutely not." But I don't sit awake at night longing. Never did. My mom was such a strong character. I don't want to say she was like a man, but she was tough. All the things you're supposed to learn in order to be good at sports—toughness, hard work, willpower—she taught me.

Oprah: When did you start cycling?

Lance: At 15—there were cycling clubs on the weekends. Back then I was primarily a swimmer. I'd swim an hour and a half in the morning, then two hours in the evening. I joined the swim team when I was 12, and I was the worst kid in the pool—I was put with a group of 7-year-olds. I look at my son now and think, "If I threw him in a pool and he had to swim with kids half his age, he'd never do it." But for some reason I just did.

Oprah: Were you embarrassed?

Lance: Never. I improved quickly. I didn't think I'd be an Olympic swimmer, but I was determined to get better.

Oprah: When you began cycling, weren't you competing with much older men?

Lance: Anyone could come for the group rides, so my buddies and I were with local and even regional racers. There we were at age 15, duking it out with these guys. At that point, I thought, "Maybe I'm pretty good at this bike thing." I started competing—just short races. A few years later, I began devoting all my time to the sport.

Oprah: In the early years, you had a reputation for being cocky. Were you?

Lance: Probably. But you know what? It's tough to be a 15- or 16-year-old athlete competing around the country. There's tension, there's media. I had no idea what I was getting into. If someone says, "You want to be on TV? We're going to interview you," a kid will just get up there and pop off. That's about being young. As you grow up, you evolve.

Oprah: You've said that at some point you started listening to what the other cyclists were telling you.

Lance: Yes. I'd always been an individualist, but cycling is really a team sport.

Oprah: What do you mean?

Lance: During the 2,200-mile Tour de France, I'm probably alone for 50 or 60 miles. Most of the time, I'm with the guys. We protect each other from the wind, the elements. We help each other get food or clothing. We talk tactics.

Oprah: You win as much with your mind as with your body.

Lance: Yes. And of course, each rider has a radio, so I can talk to everyone and also keep in contact with our guy in the car. We're kept apprised of what's happening with the race, if there's a mountain coming up, if there's a group way up in front.

Oprah: Let's go back to when you started—when you said to your mom, "I think I'm good at this." Did you decide cycling would be your ticket out? I realized early on that speaking would be mine.

Lance: I never expected to be in the position I'm in now. When I moved away from home at 19, I was making $18,000 a year. I thought that was a lot. I was renting an apartment in Austin for $300 a month. I'm thinking, "Shoot, I can clear the rent and put food on the table, I get to race and travel around the world." I knew I had a lot of work to do and that nothing was guaranteed.

Oprah: In your book [It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life], you say you can practically take your bike apart and carry it in your pocket—that's how familiar you are with it. What does it feel like to be part of that machine?

Lance: If you give me a sunny day in Texas, I could ride all day. I talk to myself, view the countryside, think. For me, riding is therapy.

Oprah: Do you train every day?

Lance: I didn't ride today, and I won't tomorrow. It's your fault!

Oprah: Is two days a long time for you to be off your bike?

Lance: No. In the winter, I might not ride for as long as a week. But I'll run or play tennis.

Oprah: Do you need to do many other kinds of exercise to stay in shape?

Lance: No. During the season, it's all about the bike. Once I start to ride five or six hours a day, I get leaner. But I'm huge for a cyclist. Most are like jockeys.

Oprah: I heard that after cancer, your body reshaped itself.

Lance: It did. My muscles seemed to atrophy and just didn't look the same. But when I resumed training, my body changed again. I also began looking at all aspects of cycling differently—the technical aspect, the strategic aspect, and the diet. I'm pretty hard-core about diet.

Oprah: What's a great diet for you?

Lance: It has nothing to do with America's low-carb craze. I'm a heavy pasta eater. You can't ride six hours a day and not eat carbs. Before a training ride, I'll have a big bowl of muesli with soy milk, maybe some toast.

Oprah: Do you look at your life as B.C.—before cancer—and A.D.—after diagnosis?

Lance: Absolutely. October 2, 1996, is the day everything changed for me.

Oprah: Before that, weren't you coughing up blood?

Lance: Yes—that was an extreme sign.

Oprah: If I see a hint of blood anywhere, I'm like, "Oh my God!" Didn't your testicles get bigger?

Lance: One of them.

Oprah: That ought to tell you something!

Lance: I'm so hard-headed.

Oprah: It must have been painful to ride.

Lance: I was sore. When you're in your early 20s, that's not something you want to go around talking about.

Oprah: Tell me about the day you were diagnosed.

Lance: I went to the doctor and he felt around and then sent me to a radiologist for an ultrasound. That took an hour. Then the radiologist said, "I also need to do a chest X-ray." At that point I was really scared. When he brought in the X-rays, I got in his face: "Dude, what's going on?"

Oprah: Because by now you've been there two hours.

Lance: He said, "You need to go back to your doctor's office." Then he said, "Look, I don't want to get in your doctor's way, but this looks like it could be testicular cancer." So then I had to drive back with the X-rays on the seat beside me.

Oprah: I'll bet that's an out-of-body experience. In your book, you say that white on an X-ray means "not good," and yours looked like a snowstorm. What did you say when you heard the words "You have cancer"?

Lance: I said, "Are you sure?" He said, "I'm so sure that I've scheduled surgery."

Oprah: From the beginning, you appeared never to have a moment of self-pity. You seemed to go on the attack: "I'm going to lick this."

Lance: I had moments when I wondered whether I'd make it. But I was confident I could take a shot at beating it.

Oprah: Didn't the doctors think you had almost no chance?

Lance: I found out later that I had only about a 20 percent chance of surviving. I was diagnosed on October 2, and I was done with treatment by December 13. But then the monthly checkups began, and that's the bummer. That's the fear.

Oprah: In the book, you describe a nurse, LaTrice, as a pure angel.

Lance: When you're in the hospital, doctors are busy, but I figured out real fast the nurses were the key. LaTrice was the head chemotherapy nurse and a beautiful lady. We bonded immediately. She remembers my time in the hospital better than I do—I was given so many drugs that I was cooked. I slept 20 hours a day. But one day, I asked LaTrice whether I was going to live. She said, "Yes, you're going to make it."

Oprah: You mentioned that she said, "Years from now, I want this time to be like a distant dream, a memory for you. I don't want to be in your life forever. The only place I want to see you is on TV, winning the Tour de France." That's so endearing.

Lance: And of course, LaTrice is going to be in my life forever. We still see each other once or twice a year.

Oprah: I'll bet you really find out who your friends are when you're in chemo, trying not to throw up.

Lance: I had great support from a core group of friends and family.

Oprah: Did you think you'd be able to come back as a cyclist, stronger than ever?

Lance: Of course not.

Oprah: All your energy was spent on getting well.

Lance: Right. I didn't care about biking. I just wanted to get my life back.

Oprah: Did you ever ask, "Why me?"

Lance: Never.

Oprah: If you did, what would the answer be?

Lance: I wouldn't have an answer. We don't know what causes testicular cancer. Is it environmental, is it hereditary? No one can say for sure.

Oprah: Do you define yourself as a cancer survivor more than you do as a cyclist?

Lance: I do. You retire from sports. There's always a new face, a new idea, and then you're finished. Sport comes and goes. That's why I'm careful not to become addicted to it. But I'll be known forever as a cancer survivor, and I'll have an impact there for a long, long time. I'm proud to do that.

Oprah: How did cancer change you?

Lance: It caused me to focus on what's important in life. But I've shown many times since that I'm not perfect.

Oprah: Who would expect you to be?

Lance: A lot of people.

Oprah: That's why the world's so upset about the Brad and Jen breakup—they want the perfect picture. Perfection doesn't exist.

Lance: Right—and that's Brad and Jen's business.

Oprah: But would you say cancer made you a better human being?

Lance: Absolutely—in terms of what I do off the bike and what I give of my time, my soul, my emotion, my money.

Oprah: After five years, when the cancer hadn't recurred, did you think, "Done"?

Lance: No. The type of cancer I had was very aggressive—it can come back just like that. It's nasty. I always wanted to look at my tumor smeared under a microscope and say, "That's the bastard I'm fighting, right there."

Oprah: I'm surprised you didn't look at it. Between surgery and chemotherapy, you saved some of your sperm, right?

Lance: Yes. My operation was on a Thursday, I was out of the hospital on Friday, then at the sperm bank on Saturday. I could hardly walk. That Monday I started chemo.

Oprah: Get out!

Lance: Banking sperm is not exactly what I'd call a great time. It was awful.

Oprah: But aren't you glad you did it?

Lance: One of the best decisions I've ever made. Now I have three little miracles.

Oprah: What did it feel like to be back on the bike for the first time?

Lance: I just pedaled around the neighborhood. I didn't really ride for weeks and weeks. Because of the cuts, it was too painful.

Oprah: When did you decide you were going to race?

Lance: A year later. Even then, I was a little skeptical. Part of me was like, "Are you sure you can? Why don't you go out and live a little, have some fun?" But I knew that if I took off for two years, I'd miss valuable time as a cyclist. I'm 33 now, and I'm going to be done soon. I've got the rest of my life to have fun.

Oprah: Did you ever doubt you could make a comeback?

Lance: My first race was in February [1998], then another in March. I put a lot of pressure on myself to win. When that didn't happen, I quit and came home. My coach said, "You've got to try again." So I went to a cabin in Boone, North Carolina, for eight or nine days. That's when I fell back in love with my bike. I decided to race again, and I made myself one promise: I would finish every race I started. My first race after that was the Tour of Luxembourg. I won it.

Oprah: That's extraordinary. Your only ambition was to finish?

Lance: Just to finish.

Oprah: One of my favorite quotes of yours is "Pain is temporary, but quitting is forever."

Lance: In the very first professional race of my career, I came in last. I was half an hour behind the pack, but I refused to quit. That's my mom's whole thing. From the moment my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, she said, "I'm not quitting. Call it V1." V1 is the maximum speed a plane can travel before it has to leave the ground. After that, it has to take off because it's going too fast to stop without crashing.

Oprah: Got it. How did you decide to go for the Tour de France?

Lance: After I won the Tour of Luxembourg, I was asked to do the Tour de France—but I decided on the Tour of Spain instead. Before cancer, the best I'd ever placed in the Tour de France was 36th. But when I came in fourth in the Tour of Spain, I thought, "Wow, maybe I'll give the Tour de France a crack next year."

Oprah: Tell me about your tolerance for pain—especially for all those who can't even stand being uncomfortable through a little exercise. How do you ride through the pain?

Lance: For me, pain is about the time of the year. In January training camp when I'm not in good shape, I suffer. That's an ugly pain. As I start to get fitter and leaner, I get more comfortable. Then the pain becomes really sweet. I crave it. You can be right at your threshold, your limit. For everything to click, my weight and diet have to be right, and I can't have any negative elements in my life. Cyclists should live like monks: eat, sleep, ride. My life's not like that now, but it used to be.

Oprah: You have to deal with the stuff of being Lance Armstrong—people, demands, appearances. But when you're in your best training mode...

Lance: It's eat, ride, massage, nap, eat, sleep.

Oprah: Can you describe what it feels like to come down a mountain, sailing with the wind?

Lance: It's so fast. I think it surprises people that we're speeding at around 75 miles per hour on tires that are less than an inch wide. If you hit a rock, you're like, "Oh, God." I've been lucky. Never broke a bone other than my collarbone and a vertebra.

Oprah: Can you even enjoy the view?

Lance: Depends where I am. But I still cherish riding in beautiful places. My heaven on a bike hasn't changed: South of France, the Alps. I like riding on hills, even though it's harder. For me, two hours riding flat is torture. I like to climb.

Oprah: Is that a metaphor for how you live?

Lance: I don't know. I'm not a very deep person. I'm more black-and-white. I do like it when others don't have any great expectations for me. After a surgery when I'd had two lesions removed from my head, I was asked, "How are you doing?" I said, "Great!" How could that be? Because no one expected me to make it.

Oprah: I think you were born with the thing that makes you stick, Lance. No one can teach you that. You come with your own nature, and then your environment nurtures whatever that is. You want to go into the pain, into the climb. That's who you are.

Lance: That's true.

Oprah: Is it exciting to win by a narrow margin?

Lance: I'd rather win by five minutes. In 2003 when I had some bad luck and got sick along the way, it was no fun for anybody. Not the riders, not the staff, not the fans. I was miserable. I was afraid I was going to lose.

Oprah: Doesn't thinking about losing slow you down?

Lance: Yes. I kept having one bad day after another, and every night, I went to bed absolutely certain that I was going to feel better the next day. I'd think: "I want this; my team deserves it." But sure enough, I didn't feel better. Until one day, I did. During one of the final climbs, I was a minute ahead. If I hadn't gotten that lead, I would have had only a 15-second head start into the last part of the race.

Oprah: Who needs that? Not even you!

Lance: When there's a five-minute margin, even if you fall or miss a turn, you win. Five minutes is almost three miles. But if I lose and I know that I was prepared, that I was fit, I can take that.

Oprah: Don't you hate to lose?

Lance: Yes, but if you get beat but you didn't make any mistakes and your preparation was perfect, then you realize that someone else was just better. I think I can live with that.

Oprah: You've already exceeded your wildest dreams. What's your new vision for yourself?

Lance: First and foremost, I want my kids to be healthy and happy. Kristin and I don't live in the same place, so we have to raise our kids in more than one home. That's the reality, and that's a big deal. But the kids are doing great. Second, I want to continue working in the cancer community as long as I can.

Oprah: How did the whole "Live Strong" campaign come about?

Lance: "Live Strong" is our version of "carpe diem." It's a powerful phrase that a cancer survivor can use—or even a person who's starting an exercise program. That's why the wristbands have been so successful. When I wake up tomorrow, I'm going to live strong. It's cool.

Oprah: I love it. We know you live strong, but do you play well?

Lance: Yes, but I'm still too busy. I canceled a couple of vacations last winter.

Oprah: What do you do for fun? I know you love building and decorating houses.

Lance: It's the same kind of thing as training. You're constructing something. In January, you pour the foundation. February, the frame. March and April, the dry wall. July, the furniture comes in. Then on July 25, you open the door and say, "Hey, guys, how do you like the house?" The lights are lit, the music's on, the beer's cold. I build a house a year. I've built homes in Spain; now I'm doing one in Austin. But I do just play. I like to go out and have good dinners, see friends, travel, and ride motorcycles and mountain bikes.

Oprah: That's a good thing. So tell me, why didn't your marriage work?

Lance: I'm not happy that it failed. For me, divorce feels like a failure—and I don't like to fail at anything. Kristin and I met at an interesting time, when I was coming back to life, getting back on the bike. We started dating in July 1997. I still wasn't sure if I was going to be around a year from then. It all moved so fast: married in 1998, pregnant in '99, Tour de France win in '99, baby in '99. More Tours, more babies, more travel, more separation. At our core, we're just too different from each other. We drifted apart. She's a great lady and an excellent mom. We just weren't happily married.

Oprah: Where did you meet Sheryl Crow?

Lance: At a charity gala Andre Agassi threw in Las Vegas.

Oprah: Is it difficult dating another famous person?

Lance: Schedules conflict—but our interests don't. We're very similar. She's a rock star, but she's not a rock star—she's an adorable, down-to-earth girl from Kennett, Missouri, who talks to her sister every day. I can be myself with Sheryl, she can be herself with me, so we relieve each other of pressure.

Oprah: When you're the best in the world as a cyclist, does that add pressure for you to be good at everything?

Lance: You know I hate to lose, but my winning doesn't need to be profitable or monumental. I could go on a five-mile run with a buddy.

Oprah: I don't know if you play Scrabble or other games...

Lance: I have to win. At all costs.

Oprah: If you're in an argument with Sheryl, do you have to win?

Lance: Not necessarily. But ask her about the first time we played tennis. She's a really good athlete. She almost beat me.

Oprah: But after you've been the best cyclist in the world...

Lance: I'm ready to chill out. People tell me, "You'll never be happy unless you're working toward something or being competitive." I disagree. I think I'm ready to relax.

Oprah: I don't think you could be happy permanently coaching T-ball. I just don't think that you can have this kind of drive, determination, and perseverance to go into the storm, to take the pain, to embrace it, and then...

Lance: I'll always get my fix of suffering on my own. I'll always want to be fit, feel good.

Oprah: Live strong. What would it mean for you to win the Tour de France again?

Lance: It would mean that all my hard work during winter and spring paid off. It's fun to win, to ride down the Champs-Elysées wearing the yellow jersey, hearing 100,000 Americans cheer. It's awesome to have my country's flag raised and to hear our national anthem. I wouldn't want it any other way.


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