ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Lance Armstrong was feeling just fine even after being beaten by a lanky teenager in a grueling 36-mile mountain bike race.
Better than fine, even. He’s more at ease now than he has been in a decade.
In his first interview since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency disciplined Armstrong with a lifetime ban from professional cycling and vacated his seven Tour de France titles, he said, “Nobody needs to cry for me. I’m going to be great.”
Armstrong couldn’t catch Keegan Swirbul at the Power of Four bike race Saturday, finishing nearly five minutes behind the hard-charging kid.
“It’s cool to get your butt kicked by a 16-year-old when you know he has a bright future,” Armstrong said, smiling.
For a few hours, Armstrong was back in his element — on a bike and in a race.
No controversies weighing him down, either.
The escape into the mountains around Aspen was almost refreshing. He took the time to enjoy a bright, blue day and soak in the scenery.
As for what lies ahead, Armstrong wasn’t thinking that far — only toward lunch. Armstrong chatted for a few minutes before saying, “OK, I’m going to go eat a cheeseburger.”
Before leaving, though, he posed for pictures with the throng of fans that gathered at the base of a ski lift to watch the racers finish.
Asked if there was anything he would to say to his fans, the ones who’ve supported him through the controversy, he said: “I think people understand that we’ve got a lot of stuff to do going forward. That’s what I’m focused on and I think people are supportive of that. It’s great to be out here.”
Decked out in black and gold and sporting a Livestrong emblem on his jersey, Armstrong tinkered with his bike and gave a kiss to girlfriend Anna Hansen before pedaling off. Hansen was waiting at the finish, too.
So were plenty of other members of the Armstrong entourage.
His busy weekend was supposed to include a trail marathon Sunday. But he told The Associated Press two hours later he was going to skip the race.
This competition simply took that much out of him. With good reason, given all the climbing the cyclists had to do.
And while Armstrong may be banned from cycling, it certainly hasn’t diminished his passion for competition.
Only now, these weekend races may have to suffice.
“It’s not so much about racing anymore for me,” Armstrong said. “For me, it’s more about staying fit and coming out here and enjoying one of the most beautiful parts of the world, on a beautiful day, on a very hard course. Some may say you’re a little sick to spend your free time doing stuff like this. I had a good time.”
So did Swirbul — beating his idol was the highlight of his burgeoning career.
Or so he thought. Then came this: Armstrong saying Swirbul was a rider to keep an eye on down the road. Swirbul beamed as he stood next to Armstrong.
Swirbul hardly had the heart to tell Armstrong that he won with only one gear — the rest going out early in the race.
“I’m so psyched right now,” said Swirbul, who turns 17 on Sept. 2. “I wanted to win this race so bad.”
“To beat the 7-time Tour champ,” he said, grinning.
To riders such as Swirbul, Armstrong will always be champion of those Tour de France titles, no matter what rulings are made.
“It’s just a bunch of bureaucrats causing trouble,” said Max Taam, who trains with Armstrong and finished third Saturday. “I think he’s just happy to move on and be out on his bike.”
Armstrong, who retired a year ago and turns 41 next month, said Thursday he would no longer challenge USADA and declined to exercise his last option by entering arbitration. He denied again that he took banned substances in his career, calling USADA’s investigation a “witch hunt” without any physical evidence.
USADA said its evidence came from more than a dozen witnesses “who agreed to testify and provide evidence about their firsthand experience and/or knowledge of the doping activity of those involved in the USPS conspiracy,” a reference to Armstrong’s former U.S. Postal Service cycling team.
The unidentified witnesses said they knew or had been told by Armstrong himself that he had “used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone” from before 1998 through 2005, and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and Human Growth Hormone through 1996, USADA said. Armstrong also allegedly handed out doping products and encouraged banned methods — and used “blood manipulation including EPO or blood transfusions” during his 2009 comeback race on the Tour de France.
USADA chief executive Travis Tygart described the investigation as a battle against a “win-at-all-cost culture,” adding that the International Cycling Union was “bound to recognize our decision and impose it.”
Fans defended Armstrong on Twitter, insisting his work with Livestrong trumps what he accomplished on a bike. His success helped sell millions of “Livestrong” yellow plastic bracelets as he promoted cancer awareness and research. He’s raised nearly $500 million since the Lance Armstrong Foundation started in 1997.
On Friday alone, the foundation said it received 400 donations that totaled around $75,000.
There were plenty of fans wearing Livestrong hats and shirts in the crowd, cheering when he finished.
“I’m focused on the future. I’ve got five great kids, a great lady in my life, a wonderful foundation that’s completely unaffected by any noise out there, and we’re going to continue to do our job,” Armstrong said. “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.”
As for the sport?
“There are a lot of good young guys. A lot of good young guys,” Armstrong said. “Cycling is going to be fine.”
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