Chapter One He of the Double Door
Each morning, even in winter, the European continent looks as if it is simmering over a cookfire. Not one big fire, but a thousand tiny blazes exhaling threads of smoke and steam until everything is bathed in a white-gray haze. The haze rolls over the countryside, concealing borders, filling hollows, flowing over the steeples of the thousand sleepy villages that float in and out of view like so many ghost towns, half-dissolved in the heat of the modern world.
Over the simmering haze, screaming eastward at five hundred miles an hour, came a silvery white Gulfstream aircraft, with its wings turned up at their tips like a fighter jet. Inside its sleek cocoon, Lance Armstrong was peering down into the mist, trying to spot the trolls.
That's what Armstrong called them, the sneaky lowlifes who tried to snare him, to pull him down into the muck. The landscape was crawling with them. A month ago, a troll had swiped his Visa card and gone on a spree at JC Penney's ("They must not have known which Armstrong they had," he said). Then, a couple days later, some troll had jimmied his way into a cabin on one of his properties outside Austin, and had set up camp there. Dozens of media trolls were whispering that Armstrong was too old, too distracted, washed up. An Italian troll named Filippo Simeoni - a cyclist, no less - was suing him for libel. The biggest trolls were David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, journalists who were writing a book claiming that Armstrong may have used performance-enhancing drugs. Trolls were down there in the mist, creeping around, grasping at him with hairy fingers, daring him to fight. All of which made Armstrong happy.
"Fucking trolls!" he said when he watched Walsh, Simeoni, or any of the others on the liquid-crystal display of his handheld personal organizer, which sent him constant updates on their activities. "Little fucking goddamn trolls!"
Well, perhaps "happy" is the wrong word. "Enlivened" is more like it. Others might have been tempted to ignore the trolls, or at least pretend to ignore them, but not Armstrong. He watched them obsessively, getting ready to fight, to go to battle, to take the bastards on. Armstrong is fascinating for many reasons, but mostly because he's our purest embodiment of the fundamental human act - to impose the will on the uncaring world - an act that compels our attention because it seems so simple and yet is secretly magical. Because at its core, will is about belief, and with Armstrong we can see the belief happening.
It's etched on his face, in that narrow-eyed expression Armstrong's friends warily refer to as The Look. His is the latest rendition of the gunfighter's squint, a look made more powerful because the weapon Armstrong brandishes is no more or less than himself. He is a living fable, the man who had cancer and who came back to win the hardest athletic event on the planet five times. He's been fighting from the start, starting out as Lance Edward Gunderson, the willful son of a seventeen-year-old mother in Plano, Texas. He fights to survive, to win, and also to show us his force, and he has been successful enough that his face, like that of Joe DiMaggio in the forties or the Mercury astronauts in the sixties, has become America's face, a hero who embodies many people's best idea of what they want to be.
What Armstrong wants to be? That's a tougher question.
You can attempt to find out by asking him, to which he'll respond that he wants to (1) be a good dad, (2) fight cancer, and (3) ride his bike. Or you can examine the causes into which he channels his energy: the tens of millions of dollars raised by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Or you can add up his business interests: the $19 million in annual endorsements and his part-ownership of his cycling team. Or you can peruse the family drama: his fatherless childhood, his intense bond with his mother, his refusal to meet his birth father. Or you can look at the topography of his relationships; the walled kingdom of close friends and business associates; the warm, endless expanse of acquaintances; the icy archipelagoes filled with former friends who have been, as one puts it, excommunicated. Or you can look at the range of emotion he inspires. There are not many people whose mailbox regularly receives both death threats and calls for his beatification.
"People find this hard to believe, but he's not a happy-go-lucky, Mr. Smiley, save-the-world-from-cancer type of person," said John Korioth, nicknamed College, who is one of Armstrong's closest friends. "I look on it as almost an animalistic thing. In sports or business or anywhere there's always the question of who's the alpha, who's the meanest, who's the toughest? And it's Lance. Always Lance."
"It is simple, no?" said Armstrong's longtime trainer, Dr. Ferrari, smiling. "Lance wishes to swallow the world."
Two thousand years ago, Greek storytellers told of young commoners who ventured alive into the kingdom of the dead. They survived with the aid of magical helpers, then returned in a kind of second birth to perform a triumphant act, bringing their teaching to the rest of humanity. One was called Dithyrambos, or "He of the Double Door."
Funny thing is, the Greeks were a little fuzzier about endings. Without the escape hatch of "happily ever after," their death-venturing heroes tended to fade into obscurity, or sulk as the world refused to hear their teachings. Now, flying to Spain, Armstrong was embarking on his attempt to break one of the more legendary marks in sport. His first step, as it happened, was also one of the trickiest. He had to be calm ...