Armstrong officially off bike: ‘Retirement 2.0’

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That was 1996. A year later, he set up the Livestrong Foundation and raised $10,000. In the intervening years, Armstrong used his story, his celebrity and hard work to sell millions of those ubiquitous plastic yellow wrist bracelets and enlist lawmakers in Texas and global policymakers on the scale of Bill Clinton in the cause.

By the end of last year, despite tough economic times, the foundation had raised nearly $400 million total. But the real heavy lifting may just be beginning.

After lobbying successfully for a Texas state constitutional amendment to provide $3 billion for cancer research over a 10-year period, Armstrong now has his sights set on California. This summer, he’ll work with legislators there to draw up and put on the ballot a measure mandating a cigarette tax with the proceeds to fund further research. Come September, Armstrong will also plead his case before a United Nations General Assembly special session on non-communicable diseases that he provided much of the impetus for.

“We knew we’d be able to have some impact, but we didn’t know we’d pick up so much momentum,” he said.

That’s how Armstrong broke through nearly every barrier the sport had erected over a century and more — by leading with his chin. He spilled blood on the roads, came back from crashes and more than once, crossed the finish line of a stage race draped over his handlebars like a man hanging on for life instead of an unbreakable machine.

One thing that never changed, though, was how Armstrong’s withering gaze controlled the pack of riders around him. He doled out favors, like stage wins, or withheld them as the mood struck him. He could command the peloton to speed up to chase a breakaway rider or slow down with an ease the old-time cycling bosses — respectfully called patrons — would have envied.

That was just one reason Armstrong leaves the sport with nearly as many enemies as friends.

“A lot of that has been overanalyzed and inaccurately portrayed, but it’s part and parcel of cycling. It’s how cycling operates,” Armstrong said. “There’s too much infighting, jealousy and bitterness within the sport, so everybody tries to pick apart a person or a spectacular performance.

“And some of it,” he added, “we bring on ourselves.”

Cycling made Armstrong wealthy several times over, and many of the sponsors he brought into the sport continue to use him as a pitchman. A second career in politics someday does not seem out of the question.

“I don’t think so. I get asked that question a lot. It’s a job. It’s probably many times a thankless job. … If I were to run for any kind of office, it’s impossible or very difficult to run right down the middle,” he said.

“I would have to immediately alienate half of our constituents: ‘Wait a minute, we thought this guy was a Republican. Wait a minute, we thought he was a Democrat.’ I think the effect there would be a negative effect for the foundation. For now, absolutely not on my radar.”

Armstrong will be at this year’s tour, bringing the oldest of his five kids, 11-year-old Luke, back to the race this summer. He may even climb into a team car to do reconnaissance work for some of the Radio Shack riders he used to race alongside.

One thing Armstrong vowed not to do was spend much time reliving his accomplishments on the bike.

“In 10 years time,” he said, “if I’m sitting around saying, ‘I was so strong on L’Alpe d’Huez in 2001,’ then I got a problem.”

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