— After being retired for three years, Lance Armstrong has returned to professional cycling. In July, he’ll attempt to break his own record by winning an eighth Tour de France. As Armstrong currently trains for the first scheduled race of his comeback, Australia’s Tour Down Under, in January, his longtime trainer and coach Chris Carmichael spoke via phone to go “In Depth.”
Graham Bensinger: Upon Lance retiring, what did you think the chances were of him coming back?
Chris Carmichael: Well, I didn’t think he was going to come back at all. When he retired in 2005, he was just mentally drained. I think the seven straight tour victories took a lot out of him. He was definitely ready to step away from the sport and I thought he was stepping away for good.
GB: I guess seven Tour de France titles can do that to you. How was Colorado’s Leadville 100?
CC: Good. Lance trained hard and that’s really where he fell back in love with cycling. It wasn’t like he just woke up and said, “Geez, I’m gonna want to come back and start racing again and try to win the Tour [de France] an eighth time.” It slowly evolved over some time. There are a few things that fell perfectly in place. One, he started training for Leadville. At that same time, the Tour was going on and there was really no outstanding rider. Carlos Sastre won and he’s a deserving winner, but there was nobody that Lance felt like was taking over his throne. The guys that were up there were all athletes that he faced in his career and weren’t his great challengers. The Beijing Olympics were also going on where he saw Dara Torres make an incredible comeback and have a fantastic performance. Plus, Michael Phelps’ outstanding performance… All of these things were slowly sinking in his head. I think he also realizes that he can spread his Livestrong initiative globally and it can have a much greater impact from an awareness standpoint if he’s an active athlete. Everything came together at the right time to kind of create this perfect storm for him to return to professional cycling.
GB: When did Lance even first bring up the possibility of a return to you?
CC: It was probably at the beginning of July or so. He said something nonchalantly on a training ride. “Hey, what if we keep going after Leadville?” I thought he meant doing another ultra-endurance mountain bike race because the Leadville 100 is a 100 mile ultra-endurance mountain bike race. I said, “I think there’s one in British Columbia,” and he stopped me saying, “No, no. I’m talking about… what if we go back to the Tour?” I’m like, “Huh. Are you serious?” He said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Then, there was more discussion around it each day.
GB: When he finally made the decision that competing in the 2009 Tour de France is indeed what he wanted to do, what was your reaction?
CC: Initially, I was pretty hesitant. I said, "Let’s look at all the downside of this and the potential upside." There’s a lot more downside. That’s what I was telling him. I said, "I just don’t think it is a good idea." I sent him a follow-up email about it. The following time we were together he said, “Look, I appreciate your opinion, but I’m going to do this.” It was my responsibility for me to give him my straight-from-the-gut answer without it being sugar-coated and then he decides on what he wants to do. Once he made that decision, I got excited because it’s pretty cool.
GB: Let’s give this some context. I was just listening to an interview we did a couple years back. You said Lance is a good friend and a great athlete, but he’s very intense. So how much does his decision to come back affect your life?
CC: It affects it quite a bit. I end up spending three or four months out of the year with him. It’s a big commitment on my part. From Lance’s retirement, I had yet to fill that void of working with another elite athlete. I’ve had three kids and was enjoying time with my family. I was a little nervous about telling my wife. It took me about a week to kind of get up the courage before telling her. She was very supportive and very excited.
GB: Aside from cancer research and raising awareness, why do you think Lance wants to come back?
CC: He wants to win. He thinks he can win. Also, his Livestrong initiative. Then, I think he has kind of gotten a bum rap. Three years after his retirement, a lot of people were taking potshots at him saying there was this "black" generation of athletes that were dopers and Lance got lumped into that although he was never found positive or ever had a positive drug control or anything that would establish that. Even all the way up to the television network Versus airing these commercials about taking back the Tour de France. They didn’t include Lance, but it could have easily been perceived that way. Lance’s victories were clean and they were legitimate, but he felt slighted. If he comes back and wins the Tour after three years retired and 37 years old, having a very aggressive independent drug control program in place that’s transparent with all his blood and urine tests on the web for everyone to see, that sends a pretty strong message.
GB: With Lance having been out of the sport now for several years, how much of a disadvantage do you think he’s at?
CC: It’s not really his age that I’m concerned about as much as he’s been three years removed from elite competition. That’s the aspect that will be his challenge.
GB: Many people have said it’d be great to see Lance finish in the top five at the Tour de France. Something tells me he doesn’t feel the same. If he does not win, how much do you think that will bother him?
CC: Well, let me tell you. Lance is not going back to the Tour de France to finish second. It’s obviously a very big challenge and he recognizes that, but his standard is winning.
GB: Since Lance has decided to come back, what do you recall from that first day of serious training?
CC: It wasn’t like there was a first day. He just kept going from Leadville. In his training from Leadville, I recall how quickly he adapts to training. He basically had a good, solid three weeks of training for Leadville and he improved dramatically from the start of training to right before the race. I’ve always noticed how quickly he responds to training and what huge improvements can be seen.
GB: You’ve said what really separates Lance from the other professional cyclists is that there are a lot of cyclists that will train as hard as Lance for a single day, but Lance is at it 24/7 365 days a year. That’s the type of athlete he is. Explain that.
CC: The relentless consistency that I’ve seen in Lance. It’s his ability day-in-and-day-out to just drive and look for success and asking the very most of himself. It’s eating right so much so that he weighs the food that he eats to make sure that he’s not taking in more than he expended. It’s his dedication to technology and getting in the wind tunnel two to three times per year. He looks at all the different aspects: pedal cadence, specific heart rate, climbing. Not just during the cycling season, it’s during the offseason, too. I have yet to see somebody else who can carry that intensity 24/7 365 days a year.
I’ll give you a good story. One time, we’re doing a reconnaissance of all the Tour de France stages. Lance would go out and ride every stage of the Tour de France. One day, he was riding over four mountain passes in the Pyrenees, a very brutal stage. It was the end of April, it was cold, and there was snow on the top of these passes. It was going to be about 130 miles in the saddle. It had amounted to about seven-and-a-half hours of riding that day. We finished on the top of this big mountain. After seven-and-a-half hours of riding, we finished the 10-mile climb to the top. I thought Lance was done. He said, “Look, Chris, I didn’t get this. I didn’t get the last climb. After seven-and-a-half hours and 130 miles in the saddle, he turned around and descended down and rode that last climb again up to the finish. It ended up being close to nine hours in the saddle. I’ve never seen anything like that and that’s what I mean. That level of intensity I haven’t seen repeated by anybody.