Armstrong in Aspen: ‘Nobody needs to cry for me’ | AspenTimes.com

Armstrong in Aspen: ‘Nobody needs to cry for me’

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – As a familiar figure in black and gold cycling garb negotiated the final switchback on Aspen Mountain’s Summer Road, the roars from a teeming Gondola Plaza intensified.

Public scrutiny and questions about his legacy abound, but on this sun-splashed Saturday in the Colorado high country, Lance Armstrong received a hero’s welcome.

After pedaling to a second-place finish in the grueling Power of Four mountain bike race – his first public appearance since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency handed down a lifetime professional cycling ban and stripped him of seven Tour de France titles – Armstrong was gracious and optimistic. He flashed an appreciative wave to the crowd and conversed with girlfriend Anna Hansen and his young children.

He was grinning broadly as a throng of reporters and camera crews swarmed him.

“I’m more at ease now than I have been in 10 years,” proclaimed the 40-year-old, who finished in 4 hours, 1 minute, 2 seconds – about five minutes behind 16-year-old Aspen High student Keegan Swirbul. “I don’t have anything to worry about. I’m focused on the future.

“Nobody needs to cry for me. I’m going to be great.”

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On Friday, USADA effectively erased 14 years of Armstrong’s storied career. Based on evidence obtained from multiple witnesses, the agency concluded that the celebrated athlete and cancer survivor had used the blood-booster EPO and testosterone from before 1998 through 2005.

“It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and athletes,” USADA’s chief executive, Travis Tygart, said in a statement. “It’s a heartbreaking example of win at all costs overtaking the fair and safe option. There’s no success in cheating to win.”

The International Cycling Union, the sport’s governing body, has yet to weigh in on the matter.

For his part, Armstrong has consistently and vehemently denied any wrongdoing. He has opted not to challenge the ban, one he deemed an ” unconstitutional witch hunt.”

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now,” Armstrong said in a statement Thursday night. “The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense.”

He reiterated those sentiments Saturday.

“I’ve got five great kids, a great lady in my life and a wonderful foundation that is completely unaffected by any noise out there,” Armstrong said. “We’re going to continue to do our job. The people like the people who are standing around here or on the course, they voiced their opinion in the last 48 hours and are going to support us.”

Others are reaching out, too. On Friday night, Doug Ulman, CEO of Armstrong’s Livestrong foundation, told ESPN that donations were up nearly 25 times as compared to Thursday.

A total of $78,000 was collected Friday, according to ESPN, and merchandise sales had nearly tripled – from $4,000 on Thursday to $11,000.

“I think people understand that we’ve got a lot of stuff to do going forward,” Armstrong said. “Like I said the other day, that’s what I’m focused on.”

Saturday, he was focused on trying to keep pace with Swirbul, a standout cross-country skier and mountain biker. Despite mechanical problems – Swirbul had just one gear at his disposal for the entire race, which crossed four ski areas and included 36 miles and 9,000 vertical feet – he kept pace with his idol.

After jockeying for the lead on Snowmass, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands, Swirbul decided to make his move on the grueling climb of Midnight Mine Road on the backside of Ajax.

“I knew I had to go there if I had any chance (to win),” Swirbul said. “It’s such a brutal race, but I felt really strong on the climb.”

The spindly teenager had amassed a cushion of a few minutes by the time he crested Ajax. He was poised on the challenging descent, which included a trip through Last Dollar – one of the ski area’s steepest sections – and was all alone as he reached Little Nell.

Armstrong was effusive in his praise of his occasional training partner.

“You need to remember this name,” he said, motioning toward Swirbul. “I don’t want to hype it too much – I know how that goes – but this kid’s got a lot of talent, and he’s got a big engine. I heard stories about him this summer in the town series … then I got all I wanted today.

“I’m old enough to be his dad. … It’s cool to get your butt kicked by a 16- or 17-year-old when you know he’s got a bright future.”

Added Swirbul, “I’ve wanted to race him my whole life, and I finally got the opportunity. It went perfectly. … It was really cool. I’ve never seen that many people.”

Swirbul texted Armstrong on Friday night to offer encouragement.

“It think (USADA’s ruling is) stupid,” Swirbul said. “He said he literally can’t win that battle with whoever he’s fighting. It’s unfortunate for him.”

Max Taam, an Ajax ski patroller who followed his win in last year’s Power of Four with a third-place result Saturday, agreed.

“It’s just a bunch of bureaucrats causing trouble,” he said with a chuckle. “He’s a great friend, I enjoy riding bikes with him and I’m glad to have him out here.

“I think he’s just happy to move on. Hopefully, this will be a good, new stage of his life.”

Armstrong seemed optimistic. He was looking forward to a post-race cheeseburger and a day off; he had planned to take part in Sunday’s Aspen Backcountry Marathon but decided against it.

“I thought a lot about that the second half of this bike ride today. I think I’m going to put my feet up tomorrow,” he joked. “We’ll go cheer people on.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com