October 4, 2021

Exercise & Physical Health

#178 – Lance Armstrong: The rise, fall, and growth of a cycling legend

“That guy needed to die and a new guy needed to come around.” —Lance Armstrong

Read Time 46 minutes

Lance Armstrong is a legendary figure in professional cycling having won seven consecutive Tour de France titles but also a controversial figure facing scrutiny for the use of performance enhancing drugs. In this episode, Lance takes us through his meteoric rise to one of the most famous athletes in the world and his equally accelerated fall from grace. Lance describes how he persevered through his brutal diagnosis of testicular cancer before rattling off a historic run of seven consecutive Tour de France titles all while facing tremendous scrutiny for his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs such as EPO and cortisone. Lance opens up about his decision to come clean about his use of performance enhancing drugs, the remorse for how he treated other people during that time in his life, and the personal growth that’s helped him emerge on the other end of that. Finally, Lance recounts some of favorite stories from his cycling career, reflects on his legacy, and explains how he stays fit at age 50.



We discuss:

  • What everyone wants to know—yes and no questions [2:15];
  • Lance’s childhood and beginnings of a great athlete [4:15];
  • Lance’s realization that he had a knack for racing after his first pro race at age 15 [13:00];
  • The move to cycling full time and a desire to compete in the Olympics [16:30];
  • Metrics tracked early in Lance’s career and his time with Motorola team [20:00];
  • The grueling nature of the Tour de France and the beginnings of serious drug usage in cycling [27:00];
  • The impact of EPO on cycling performance [35:15];
  • Testicular cancer diagnosis—denial, torturous symptoms, and treatment [38:15]
  • Livestrong is born [50:45];
  • Return to cycling post-cancer and a crossroad in Lance’s career [53:45]
  • Lance’s rise to prominence in the late 90s and the growing use of EPO in the sport [1:00:00];
  • Racing in the early 2000’s, blood transfusions, and rivalry with Jan Ulrich [1:12:00];
  • Retirement in 2005 and a comeback in 2009 [1:22:45];
  • Lance’s decision to come clean and tell the truth [1:27:30];
  • Growth through downfall: learning from his mistakes and helping others after their own fall from grace [1:33:00];
  • Moving forward: Living his life, reflecting on his legacy, the state of Livestrong [1:42:30];
  • Turning back the clock: Advice Lance would give to his 15 year-old self [1:46:45];
  • Keeping fit at age 50 [1:51:00];
  • More.


Pre-show notes

“I realize that many people listening to this might think that they have their mind made up about Lance, and that’s understandable, but I do suggest that it might be worth spending the time to listen to this episode” – Peter Attia

  • There are really a number of issues here
    • The use of performance enhancing drugs during his time in the Tour de France
    • The lessons he learned as an individual; what he learned about himself and how he treated other people during that time in his life; and how he emerged on the other end of that
  • It’s a story about redemption, a rise, a fall, and a rise again
  • For Lance, being back in Austin, TX is surreal
    • For 30 years he’s seen it change as a cyclist; it’s a great city
    • Peter and his wife love it here too

“So I think cyclists see more stuff than most people. You’re always covering ground. You’re finding back roads. You get a sense for a town growing.” – Lance Armstrong


What everyone wants to know—yes and no questions [2:15]

“I think it’s just sometimes easier if we can get into some hard yes and no questions, just so that there’s no ambiguity about some of the really important stuff.” – Peter Attia

  • Is Dura Ace better than Campy Super Record?
    • Yes
  • Is the greatest innovation in time trialing the aerodynamic water bottle?
    • No
  • Is Edgar Allan Poe the greatest poet of the 19th century?
    • Sure
  • Are today’s clinchers as high performing as tubulars?
    • Yes
  • Is Alberto Contador the greatest cyclist of all time?
    • Absolutely not
  • Can you still ride up Alpe d’Huez in under 45 minutes?
    • Probably not
  • Is the 1985 Oakley pilot big ass sunglass the greatest shades of all time?
    • No
  • Is Pinarello the best bike on the market?
    • No
  • Is George Hincapie the best lieutenant you’ve ever had?
    • Absolutely
  • Was your grandfather the first man to ride his bike on the moon in 1969?
    • No


Lance’s childhood and beginnings of a great athlete [4:15]

Lace grew up in Plano, TX, a Northeast suburb of Dallas.

  • Pretty much straight north
  • It lives up to its name
  • Plano is Spanish for flat, plano; very flat, very windy
  • It’s another community like Austin that’s drastically changed
  • When Lance was a kid growing up in Plano he would leave the house and be out in the fields
  • He would head up into Allen; or go around Lake Lavon, or Frisco
    • Frisco is one of the fastest growing communities in America; There was only one building out there, and that was the global headquarters for EDS
    • People thought Ross Perot was nuts to build the EDS headquarters there
    • Lance’s Mom is still there, so just going back is crazy
  • He takes his bike everywhere
    • He’ll just kind of ride around and go past Dooley Elementary where he went to middle school, and he’ll go to his elementary school
    • He’ll just go by these places and just look at them through a 50 year old’s eyes.
  • Peter asks if going home is bittersweet, because he hates seeing where he grew up; the last time he looked at his elementary school it upset him so much
    • No; one is allowed to sort of hate where you grew up
    • I don’t want to live there, but it’s fine to go back and see Mom

Lance’s father

  • Peter asks about Lance’s birth father, Eddie Gunderson; did he ever see him after he left his mom when Lance was 2
    • Lance never saw him again and he passed away several years ago
    • From what he heard, his biological father died of a spider bite; maybe that led to some other complications
    • He never had a desire to sort of reconnect with him for most of my life
    • He might have a different view of that now
    • His biological father never reached out to him directly
    • After the first Tour (in ’99) the press interviewed him and his stories were just totally inappropriate, he made comments about my mom that far down the road
    • Eddie made disparaging comments about Lance’s mom
    • He wasn’t a road scholar
  • Lance was 3 or 4 when his mom met and then married Terry Armstrong
    • That’s where the name comes from; he wasn’t born Lance Armstrong

“Funny thing is my initials would have been LEG, if I would have stayed Lance Edward Gunderson” – Lance Armstrong

  • Peter remembers stories Lance has told in the past about Terry and  how strict he was; he asks if Lance thought of him as a father
    • Oh sure; as a five, six, seven-year-old kid, he didn’t know
    • He had his mother, he knew Terry wasn’t his biological father but they were a family and his mom seemed happy
    • He wasn’t violent, just strict
    • Every little thing could get Lance in trouble
    • If he left his drawer open it would be a big deal to Terry
      • For Lance, he wouldn’t care if his kid left a drawer open

Sports, swimming, triathlons, then cycling

  • At 12 years old, Lance played every Texas sport every kid does, but didn’t shine in any of those things
    • He wasn’t good at mainstream sports
  • His Mom put him in swimming
    • She knew her high energy kid needed something constructive to do; she was right
    • He didn’t know much about it but picked it up fast
    • He had a few friends on the swim team and so was open to try it
    • It was an age group team
  • There are different categories; the most serious is age group swimming That’s where Michael Phelps grew up swimming
    • On one end of the spectrum is country club summer leagues
    • One swims some laps, has a few meets, all the parents are there
    • There is high school swimming
    • Then, the most serious training is age group swimming
  • At 12 Lance didn’t know how to swim
    • He could have faked freestyle but didn’t know any strokes
    • He showed up and the coach stuck him with the six- and seven-year-olds
    • Thinking back, he never questioned it; he just stayed swimming
    • After a month of that, he moved over a lane and was with the 8-year-olds; then a month later he moved over again
    • He just kind of kept going across the pool until less than a year later, he was a legit swimmer
    • It’s still one of his great loves
  • Peter asks if he is swimming for both high school and age group competitions
    • Yes and no
    • He turned pro in triathlons at 15
  • His swim coach at the time, a total hardass but an amazing coach (Chris McCurdy)
    • One did not miss a workout
    • There were no excuses: holidays, family, doesn’t matter
  • His age group team was COPS (City of Plano Swimmers) which was, at the time, one of the best age group teams in the country
    • That was because McCurdy
  • Lance started traveling to triathlons and skipping workouts because he was on a ride or a run; McCurdy wasn’t having it at all
  • Peter asked if Lance gravitated to the mile in swimming
    • Lance is an endurance guy; he doesn’t have great fast twitch muscle
  • His 100 freestyle swim… the mile is 16 and a half of those; he doesn’t remember his time
    • In state championships one year, he got third
    • He was decent but wasn’t going to the Olympics
  • He would have swam in college if he stuck with just swimming
    • If you asked McCurdy, he thinks I could have gone far
  • Peter asks “When did you realize you also had a knack to run and bike?”
    • Lance was running right around the same time as swimming
    • Running track and cross-country in high school
    • Plano city champ at one point; it wouldn’t have been the mile, maybe the 1200
  • Back then, event timing was primitive
    • Timers had stopwatches, one per athlete and when you came across the line they’d ask your name
    • One time, Lance came across the line and the timer says, “What’s your name?”
    • He was going to Armstrong Middle School, so he said, “Armstrong”
    • The timer said, “I didn’t ask you what school you went to. I said what’s your name” Lance finally, after three or four go arounds, explained, “I’m Armstrong from Armstrong”
  • He was a decent runner.

Peter Attia asks if he enjoyed training at that age

  • Lance loved it; he loved the structure
  • Coach McCurdy had this board
    • He must have laid awake every night and dreamed up these workouts; it was so detailed
  • Lance loved it; it was the most structure he had.
  • Running with the cross-country team also had structure
  • He had another great coach in track and cross-country named James Maize
    • James Maize was a world class 800-meter runner
    • He was actually the rabbit for the dream mile, and this guy ended up being Lance’s high school track and cross-country coach; he was awesome
    • He’d run with us; he drove a Porsche; kids were like, “Holy shit, our teacher. Who is this dude?”
  • At the time, cycling was just go pedal around, no structure, only group rides


Lance’s realization that he had a knack for racing after his first pro race at age 15 [13:00]

  • Peter asks when it became clear that Lance had a knack for triathlons
  • Was it the race everybody talks about where Lance (at age 15) was in the front with Mark Allen?
    • At the time, Mark Allen must have been one of the top three professional triathletes in the world
    • That was Lance’s first pro race, the President’s Triathlon in Dallas.
    • That would have been ’87
  • He did the President’s in ’86, out at Lake Lavon; it was a longer distance, and then they moved it over to Las Colinas, where the old Cowboys facility was in ’87, and they made it an Olympic distance
  • Lance was training with some guys, and they said, “Look, you should just turn pro and go try it”
    • He was 15 years old; he was swimming my ass off; he was a great swimmer
    • He came out at 15 and knew he was going to come out of the water with the leaders
    • He’s coming out of the water under 20 minutes easily
    • And then he hops on the bike; the bike section is around 55 minutes
      • This is pre-aero bars
    • Although, that might have been the year that Andrew MacNaughton flew away on the bike
      • He had the original Scott aero bars
    • Lance rode with Allen the whole time on the bike
    • These athletes all raced each other every weekend
  • Peter asks if Dave Scott was there too
    • Lance doesn’t remember
  • Peter remarks that Mike Pigg would have been there
    • Pigg would have been there
    • I’m sure Pigg was looking at Lance thinking, “Who the fuck is this person, this guy, this kid?”
  • A guy like Mark Allen, get off and run 32
  • Peter asks if Lance would run a 36 after that
    • No, probably 38 or 39
  • Lance thinks he ended up fifth or sixth, and thought “Okay, I can do this”

Peter asks if the bike is different compared to swimming and running?

{end of show notes preview}

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  1. Thanks for an exposure to the other side of Lance.
    Another episode where it is very obvious what Peter really likes and he more knowledgeable than even the Tour champion.
    It would be an interesting thought experiment to calculate the ratio of how much Peter talked in relationship to the guest. This happens frequently where he dominates the conversation.

  2. This was a very, very good podcast. I listened to the entire thing. This podcast was informative, revealing and the dialogue had an effortless flow.
    The questions asked were fair and direct, but thoughtful. And the answers given seemed honest and detailed. Overall just an excellent podcast, thanks to all involved for making this happen
    Dwight (from Gloucester MA)

  3. I’m still listening, but is Lance’s wristwatch discussed? What’s the brand? I know Dr Attia is a watch aficionado, so I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t come up.

  4. the windshield vs the rear view mirror; looking ahead vs reflecting back. What mental space should one allot to each? Not a digital problem; not a yes or a no. Rather is more analogue with varying emphasis: a complex ride along the curve of time past and present unfolding simultaneously with pauses at different points (double clicks) and jumps over others (too painful yet). Note to self: schedule therapy.

    • I was a huge fan of Lance before, during and after his cancer recovery. I bought into the super- human Lance. Having suffered one of the most public downfalls, he still shows he is a survivor. Perhaps his growth is most evident by not knowing or caring what time he could for this or that (unlike Peter), and that he is even still alive, where many others who suffered similar downfalls are not. Happy to think of him now, seemingly at peace, just getting on his mountain bike and doing what he does best.

  5. 10 x 100m Free on 1min15sec is pretty amazing at 50 years old.
    Did I hear this right?

  6. Just listened to this episode, one of the very best on behalf of both the host and the guest. This is why I religiously listen to your podcast, Peter.

  7. We all have a right to redemption. Lance acknowledged a lot of his behavior and in a bigger picture can’t be blamed for systemic corruption alone. His current personal relationships are a testimony to that. And his ability to NOT CARE anymore about certain things. What a story and not sure if your average person would have the capacity to handle all that was thrown in his life with sanity. Best of luck.

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