Armstrong setting off on his longest ride

Cycling: Changes in his personal life, increased business demands and advancing age make winning a sixth straight Tour his toughest test yet.

Tour De France

July 03, 2004|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Much has changed for Lance Armstrong this year.

He got divorced. He began dating rocker Sheryl Crow. His team had to find a new sponsor. He skipped part of the spring European racing season and competed in a U.S. stage race for the first time since 1998.

In the Tour de Georgia, he shocked the peleton by charging out of the pack to win a field sprint, a move akin to a marathoner abruptly uncorking a long jump.

Armstrong is hard to rattle, and that is one reason he is a heavy favorite to win a sixth consecutive Tour de France, which begins today.

Winning a 2,000-mile race conducted at the mercy of the elements and the asphalt and against the 180 or so other riders requires some luck.

But it also demands never-wavering concentration, the detached analysis of teammates and painstaking attention to detail. Breaking through the six-victory barrier that has thwarted other great riders will also call for focus on the present rather than the past - except his own.

"That's the comfortable thing about winning five times - you can look back and compare notes," Armstrong, 32, said recently. "The years I had a good June, I did not have a very good July, and the years I had a bad June, I had a fairly good July. I tried to come in a little cooler this year, realizing the last week of the Tour this year is epic.

"I know I'm not going to improve because I'm an older guy," he said earlier this spring. "But the training ethic can't change and the body weight can't change and the team [standards] can't change."

A shrewd businessman, increasingly sophisticated spokesman and sometime actor, as combative about defending his reputation as he is his Tour championship, Armstrong in his prime is an interesting combination of casual and calculating, spontaneous and studied.

Perhaps no other modern superstar has so much influence in shaping the way the public views him.

He has had his share of public relations challenges, but nothing - not the dissolution of his outwardly charmed marriage or doping allegations - seems to dent his popularity or his commercial appeal.

"Five years ago, I said, `He's great, but nobody's buying cyclists,' " said Nova Lanktree, who matches celebrities with ad campaigns as executive vice president of Skokie, Ill.,-based CSMG Sports. "I'm eating my words. He has so taken the marketplace by storm. It's astounding, and 90 percent of it is attributable to how he approaches his wellness."

Lanktree said divorce is so common these days that people are apt to be forgiving rather than judgmental on the subject. As for drug rumors, she said: "People are going to wait for definitive evidence. He has earned the right to the benefit of the doubt."

Discovery Communications thought so. In mid-June, the broadcast giant, whose stations reach an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide, announced that it had signed on as title sponsor of his team, beginning in 2005. The three-year, multimillion dollar deal fills the void left by the U.S. Postal Service decision not to renew its support after a nine-year affiliation.

Post-career provisions

The contract includes provisions for Armstrong to become an on-air personality for fitness, health, travel and science programming after he retires from competition.

Such was Discovery's faith in Armstrong's charisma that company executives felt no need to meet him face-to-face during negotiations.

"I'm always looking for new talent for our network," said Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks, U.S., who calls Armstrong a "hero" and his accomplishments "miraculous."

Discovery's mid-June announcement coincided with the release of a controversial book alleging Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs. The situation wasn't ideal from a corporate standpoint, but Campbell said he was impressed by Armstrong's demeanor under media questioning that day.

"I thought he handled a tough and delicate situation professionally and classily," Campbell said.

Armstrong seems comfortable in front of the camera and by extension, countless viewers.

It wasn't always so.

His agent, Bill Stapleton, recalls a time not long ago when Armstrong had to be hounded to give motivational speeches to corporate groups, despite five- and six-figure fees.

In the past few years, Armstrong has spent time with politicians, physicians and academics skilled at delivering messages. He toured post-9/11 Manhattan with then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former President Bill Clinton and attended the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics with President George W. Bush.

Armstrong has walked Capitol Hill to lobby for cancer legislation and serves on the President's Cancer Panel, a three-member fact-finding group that holds several town-hall style meetings a year to gather testimony and research results.

At one of those meetings in Birmingham, Ala., last fall, Armstrong listened attentively, chin in hand, to narrative after narrative from cancer survivors. Some people had a point to get across. Some people just wanted to be in the same room with him.

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