Armstrong 'kind of unfocused on the Tour right now'

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

Lance Armstrong is at rest or at least as rested as he ever allows himself.

Two months have passed since the Texan won the toughest of his five straight Tour de France titles. In another two months, he begins training in earnest to win an unprecedented and even tougher sixth next July.

In the meantime, it's Armstrong's offseason, the only time you're as likely to catch him on four wheels driving the family car as two.

As of Thursday, he hadn't been on a bike in 10 days.

''I'm happy, but I'd prefer to slow down a little more. Then I'd be happy,'' Armstrong said, before pausing. ''Happier.''

The he added: ''I should probably steal a little more time for myself, but there's a lot going on.''

He's been tagging along to soccer practice, catching up with family and friends and doing work at his house in Austin, Texas, and in the community.

He tried golf, only to be reminded he still doesn't have the patience. He's done some motorcycling and surfing, but as far as daredevil fare, that's been it.

''I've been doing all kinds of things to mellow out,'' Armstrong said. Asked for further proof, he laughed. ''I've even started driving slower.''

Yet rest doesn't mean the same thing to him as it does to the rest of us. Armstrong has a new book coming out, appropriately titled, ''Every Second Counts,'' and beginning next month, while on a book tour, he will also be threading himself in and out of a 3,000-mile, weeklong relay race across America by 26 cyclists.

Each of their lives, like Armstrong's, has been touched by cancer. With the launch set for Oct. 11 in Los Angeles, and expectations that hundreds of survivors will join in for brief stretches of road en route to Washington, D.C., it is titled the ''Tour of Hope.''

In typically blunt fashion, Armstrong described it as ''a bunch of people riding their bike across the country who on paper shouldn't be riding their bikes across the country.''

It's his story, too, except the country he's been racing across the last five years is France, and he's done it faster than any rider ever.

When Armstrong began battling a deadly form of testicular cancer seven years ago, doctors first doubted he would survive, let alone recover completely and then go on to dominate sport's most grueling event.

Since that first victory in 1999, for all the changes in his life fame, fortune, the birth of three children and the breakup of his marriage this much has remained constant: Armstrong almost never turns down a chance to appear alongside other survivors. He calls it ''the obligation of the cured.''

''I made a commitment to myself when I started working my own way back,'' he said. ''It's an illness that needs success stories and someone to help tell them.''

Toward that end, next month will find him in Chicago attending a three-day meeting of his foundation, then in Las Vegas for Andre Agassi's charity gala, then back in Austin as the host of his own charity ride, and finally in France for a few days as officials unveil next year's course.

''And that's still the lull before the storm. I'm kind of unfocused on the Tour right now, but that will change end of November, early December, then January and every month after that will be for real.

''Maybe that's why,'' Armstrong said, ''I'm trying so hard to ignore it now.''

No one understands better what sacrifices lie ahead.

No sooner had Armstrong slipped into the leader's yellow jersey for the final time this summer, pulling up alongside Spanish legend Miguel Indurain as the only champion to string all five wins together, than questions about a sixth title began.

As if the challenge weren't daunting enough, Armstrong just turned 32 and though racers have won the Tour at that age and beyond, all the five-time winners logged their final victory before that telling birthday.

''I think I have the skills to do it again,'' Armstrong said, then caught himself. ''Maybe I shouldn't say 'think.' I hope I do.''

Like Indurain and Frenchman Bernard Hinault, he is that rare champion who can chew up the field in flat races or up and down mountains. And though he won just a single stage last year and the margin of victory was his narrowest ever 61 seconds over five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich Armstrong still bettered his own record for average speed to 25.383 mph.

Yet he also knows his history. As fierce as all the other five-time champions were, each was finally humbled, most often in the mountains, and perhaps none so memorably as Eddy ''The Cannibal'' Merckx.

The Belgian ran out of gas on the final climb up the Alps in 1975 and recalled afterward, ''Miracles don't exist in sports. It's always the strongest who wins.''

The last time the cycling world took its measure, that was still Armstrong. How much longer remains an intriguing guess.

''The clock and the calendar don't lie. Your age is your age and it takes its toll after a while. But I hope to defy it for another year,'' he said, ''and there's nothing set in stone that next year is my last year, either.''

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