Lance Armstrong’s feet look like hunks of flank steak pounded into patties with a mallet. They are red. Raw. Toes fat and swollen, nails thick and cracked, the skin around them peeling off in callused sheets. These feet have traveled tens of thousands of miles, pedaling epic stretches of the Alps; running across hard, crusty Texas clay; and, most famously, most triumphantly, escorting a magnum of champagne down the Champs-Élysées. Seven times. Today, though, they are taking it easy. Kneading tufts of fluffy white shag carpet. Bouncing along to the beat of the Foo Fighters’ acoustic rock bellowing from a pair of portable iPod speakers.
Armstrong retired last year at the enviable age of 33, and he wears it well. Compact in the chest, all wiry muscle and veins in his legs and arms, residually tanned from years of all-weather training, he still looks as if he could conquer a 2,000-mile road race and devour a couple of Frenchmen on his way up the hill.
But his demeanor? Somewhere way south of intense. The eviscerating stare and aura of intimidation that carried him to seven straight Tour de France victories got lost somewhere in the Margaritaville afterglow of his athletic sunset years. The reason his feet are on display is that earlier today he wore a pair of flip-flops to a business meeting. All that’s missing to complete the Shady Acres feel is a pair of Bermuda shorts and a golf cart.
In a penthouse hotel suite overlooking an abnormally smog-free Los Angeles skyline, Armstrong is clearly at peace with all the comforts that winning has laid before him. Ivory sheets are piled on the bed, discarded sushi litters the counter of his kitchenette, and a few strewn beer bottles dot the living area. It’s telling that his bicycle, the trademark of the most famous chemo-to-king story in sports history, leans against a wall. An afterthought, really, ridden for maybe 15 miles today on a whim.
“I don’t miss it,” he says, grabbing the bike’s front wheel and giving it a spin. “I was afraid that I’d miss the thrill. But I’m so sure that I don’t want to end up second or third that I was happy to walk away.”
And you’d like to believe him. But the kind of competitive overdrive that compels a 15-year-old triathlete to become a superhuman beast on two wheels doesn’t just leave your system once the last hurrah fades out. After living at sports’ apex for nearly a decade, Lance Armstrong is learning what life is like for mere mortals.
His crusade to amp up government dollars for cancer research has proved teeth-gratingly slow in a political landscape preoccupied with war. Open season has been declared on his personal life ever since the collapse of his very public relationship with Sheryl Crow earlier this year; now this all-American warrior stands defenseless against the telephoto lenses and 150-point headlines. Who’s he leaving Hyde with? Did he drop Sheryl because she had cancer? Are he and Matthew McConaughey riding bareback on a bicycle built for two? Even his past glories are under assault, raising the unnerving possibility that he wasn’t quite as superhuman as he seemed. Armstrong’s friend and former teammate Floyd Landis tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and the New York Times just unearthed two more teammates who’ve admitted to doping. Rumors of his own rule-breaking stick to Armstrong like bleu, blanc, et rouge asterisks. As if to rub a little Epsom salt into his own wounds, he’s even training for the New York City Marathon, a race he’s clearly going to get creamed in—if that barking hip flexor will even allow him past the starting line.