By Juliet Macur • New York Times News Service
The $10 million estate of Lance Armstrong’s dreams is hidden behind a tall, cream-colored wall of Texas limestone and a solid steel gate. Visitors pull into a circular driveway beneath a grand oak tree whose branches stretch toward a 7,806-square-foot Spanish colonial mansion.
The tree itself speaks of Armstrong’s famous will. It was once on the other side of the property, 50 yards west of this house. Armstrong wanted it at the front steps. The transplantation cost $200,000. His close friends joke that Armstrong, who is agnostic, engineered the project to prove he didn’t need God to move heaven and earth.
For nearly a decade, Armstrong and I have had a contentious relationship. Seven years have passed since his agent, Bill Stapleton, first threatened to sue me. Back then, I was just one of the many reporters Armstrong had tried to manipulate, charm or bully.
I’ve interviewed him one-on-one in five countries; on team buses that smelled of sweat-soaked Lycra at the Tour de France, in swanky New York City hotel rooms, in the backs of limousines, in soulless conference rooms; and for hours by telephone.
Now, in the spring of 2013, after his whole world has come crashing down and moving trucks are en route to dismantle his beloved estate, I had come to visit him at home in Austin, Texas, for the first time.
Yes, fine, come on out, he said. Troubled by endless obituaries of his celebrated (and now fraudulent) career, he wanted to ensure that I wrote “the true story.”
John Thomas Neal — a man who would come to know Armstrong better than anyone, better than even Armstrong himself — was an independently wealthy real estate investor and massage therapist, a husband and father, who worked as a soigneur in elite cycling. Soigneur is a French term meaning “one who cares for others.”
In cycling, that person gives the riders massages, prepares their lunches and water bottles, cleans their uniforms and transports their baggage. A fixer, nurturer and wise counselor, Neal had worked with professional athletes on the beach volleyball tour and with swimmers at the University of Texas. But his passion was cycling because he loved the sport and the travel.
Though he had a law degree, legal work didn’t satisfy him and he didn’t stick with it. Anyway, he could afford to quit because he had married into money. So in Austin, he volunteered to work with the athletes at the University of Texas. In time, he had made enough connections and had cultivated a reputation in the Olympic sports world for being so good at his job that he was hired as a soigneur for the Subaru-Montgomery professional cycling team. Eddie Borysewicz, a former U.S. Olympic cycling coach, was in charge of the team, owned by Thomas Weisel, an investment banker who would eventually own the U.S. Postal Service cycling team.
When he first signed on, Neal worked races only in the U.S. and hadn’t heard much about doping, except that performance-enhancing drug use among cyclists was prevalent in Europe.
He met Armstrong in 1989 at a Texas triathlon, after Borysewicz told him to look out for the budding cycling star. Armstrong’s all-out effort at the 1989 junior worlds in Moscow had caught Borysewicz’s eye. The coach convinced Armstrong to switch to cycling from triathlon because cycling was an Olympic sport.
Armstrong, perhaps the hottest up-and-coming cyclist in the world, later landed a spot with the Subaru-Montgomery team. By then, Neal and Armstrong knew each other well.
Nearly a dozen athletes in Austin — both men and women — still say they were closer to Neal than to their fathers. He brought them into his family and gave them stability. Armstrong was just the latest athlete in need. Neal also became close friends with Armstrong’s mother, Linda.
Armstrong was relocating to Austin from Plano because its hilly terrain was perfect for training. At a steeply discounted rate, Armstrong moved into an apartment complex owned by Neal. Near downtown — among tall trees, 20 paces from Neal’s office — it was a comfortable, safe place that Armstrong could call home. Later, Armstrong told The Dallas Morning News his apartment was “killer … s-o-o-o nice!” He and Neal met every day, sometimes several times a day, for massages and meals. It gave Neal satisfaction to know that he could have a positive impact on a teenager who needed some guidance.
Neal’s first impression was that the kid’s ego exceeded his talent. Armstrong was brash and ill-mannered, in desperate need of refinement. But the more he learned of Armstrong’s home life, the sorrier Neal began to feel for him. He was a boy without a reliable father. Linda Armstrong wrote in her 2005 autobiography that she was pleased that her son had found a responsible male role model, and that Neal had lent a sympathetic ear to her while she dealt with the rocky transition between marriages.
Neal soon recognized that Armstrong’s insecurities and anger were products of his broken family: He felt abandoned by his biological father and mistreated by his adoptive one. Armstrong didn’t like to be alone, so Neal often met him for breakfast at the Upper Crust Cafe, just down the street from Neal’s house, and for lunch at a sports bar called the Tavern. Armstrong ate dinner with the Neals, including their three children, several times a week. It was nothing fancy — sometimes just slow-cooked beans eaten with plastic utensils out of mismatched mugs, as if they were on a camping trip. But they were a family.
Frances, Neal’s wife, and Armstrong were the group’s jokers. They might chase each other around the dinner table. They might sing parts of “Ice Ice Baby” by the Dallas rapper Vanilla Ice, a song that then sat atop the music charts. One would sing, “Ice ice baby!” and the other would reply, “Too cold, too cold!” On some days, they would bring their show to the Neals’ motorboat, where they would spend the day swimming or water-skiing.
It was arguably the happiest, most uncomplicated time in Armstrong’s life. He no longer had to worry about his adoptive father, Terry Armstrong, whom he considered overbearing, and his mother’s current marital woes were 215 miles north on Interstate 35 in Plano. His world centered on Austin and Neal, who gladly opened his home or apartments to national team cyclists — like Armstrong’s future Postal Service teammates George Hincapie, Frankie Andreu, Chann McRae and Kevin Livingston — who wanted to train with Armstrong in the Texas Hill Country.
The day after Armstrong moved into his new apartment, the Neals saw him ride in Lago Vista, 35 miles from Austin. Armstrong did poorly and admitted to Neal that he’d been up late the night before, drinking at an Austin strip club named the Yellow Rose. Neal passed it off as his being just another rambunctious teenager testing his newfound freedom. In 1996, Neal was found to have multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the plasma cells that inhibits the production of healthy blood cells. Several months later, Armstrong discovered that he had testicular cancer. The two of them grew even closer while enduring chemotherapy together.
In the last two years of Neal’s life, from spring 2000 to fall 2002, in hopes of writing a book, he recorded 26 hours of audiotape. The tapes recreate and comment on the most exciting times of his life, primarily the years when the young Lance Edward Armstrong rose from obscurity to superstardom.
Neal, who died of cancer just after Armstrong had survived his bout with the disease, never finished the book. Long after his death, the tapes remained hidden in the bedroom closet of his son, Scott. Nobody in the family had listened to them, but I was given the tapes, along with permission to use Neal’s words in this book. While in Austin to transcribe the recordings, I met with Armstrong and asked him about his former best friend.
“J.T. Neal? Forget about that. Don’t go chasing that,” he told me.
He dismissed Neal’s importance, saying Neal hadn’t known anything about his doping because his drug use had started after they had grown apart. But in just a few hours, I was sitting in the Neal household, headphones on, listening to the first tape that Neal had recorded.
It brought Neal’s voice to life: “Today is the 12th of April, and this is the beginning of my recollections on Lance Armstrong …”
The young man
One call from Armstrong to Neal came before dawn in August 1991. Could Neal pick him up in San Marcos? Armstrong wasn’t stranded on the side of the road in the Texas outback. He had not blown out a tire on his bike in a marathon training ride. He was in jail.
The night before, 30 miles from Austin, Armstrong had partied with some women from Southwest Texas State University. As they frolicked in an outdoor Jacuzzi at one women’s apartment complex, they made so much noise that the police came. But that was only Armstrong’s first meeting with officers that night. The second was the big one. Pulled over for driving erratically, he thought he could talk his way out of trouble. So what if he had appeared drunk and refused to take a Breathalyzer test? He was sure the officer would be impressed when he told them who he was: the best young cyclist in the country.
Had he been a quarterback, maybe the ploy would have worked. But a Texas police officer could not care less about a guy’s boasting about his prowess on a bike. No, it was off to the county lockup.
Neal, always concerned about Armstrong’s drinking and driving, picked him up from the San Marcos jail the next day. Months later, upon receiving a notice that his driver’s license could be suspended, Armstrong forwarded it to Neal. On the envelope, he wrote: “J.T. — This came today?? Have a great Xmas! Lance.” Now acting as his lawyer as well as his friend, Neal helped Armstrong beat the charges and keep his license.
In turn, Neal received from Armstrong something rare and precious: Armstrong’s trust.
Armstrong sent him postcards from training trips and races — such as a note dated Aug. 16, 1991, from Wein-und Ferienort Bischoffingen, Germany. “J.T. — Hows it going? Well, Germany is very nice. As you probably know the worlds are a little over a week away and Im nervous as hell. At least I’m riding good now! Wish you were here! The boys say ‘hello.’ Lance”
Neal loved that the national team riders and American pro cyclists knew who he was. Some even called him for advice. In Hincapie’s case: I was stopped by customs with a suitcase filled with EPO and other drugs, what should I do? Some of them, like Armstrong and Hincapie, were open with him about their drug use. Whether Neal was complicit in any of their doping is unclear. He said, though, that soigneurs in the United States had a different job from those in Europe, where an intimate knowledge of pharmaceuticals had long been required. Neal learned that from soigneurs who had worked overseas.
According to Neal, Armstrong relied on shots and intravenous drips for recovery and prerace boosts of energy. On the eve of the road race at the 1992 Olympics, fellow cyclist Timm Peddie walked into Armstrong’s hotel room and saw Neal and a gaggle of USA Cycling officials standing around Armstrong as he lay on a bed, hooked to an IV.
Peddie was astonished at the openness of the procedure. Everyone there stared at the unexpected guest until Peddie left as quickly as he had come in. He wasn’t sure what he had seen. Maybe a blood transfusion? An infusion of electrolytes or proteins? He only knew that he had never received an IV before a race. Armstrong was, evidently, special.
At Christmas 1993, the year Armstrong won a world championship and a million-dollar bonus, Armstrong thanked Neal with several gifts. One was an autographed national champion’s rainbow jersey. In black marker, he signed it: “J.T. I’m very fortunate that our paths have crossed. You’re truly my righthand man! Not to mention my best friend! Lance Armstrong.”
He gave Neal a Rolex watch inscribed “To J.T. From LANCE ARMSTRONG.”
Neal accepted the watch as a symbol of Armstrong’s gratitude, even his love. For a number of years, Neal wore it with pride — until the day came that he decided to never put it on his wrist again.
Throughout the 1990s, Neal was Armstrong’s main soigneur at some domestic races and at national team training camps. But in Europe and at the big races, the honor of rubbing down Armstrong went to John Hendershot.
Among soigneurs in the European peloton (another French word, one that refers to professional riders generally as well as the pack during a race), Hendershot was at once the cool kid and the calculating elder. Other soigneurs envied the money he made and the cachet that came with the cash. Wherever he walked — through race crowds or at home in Belgium — people turned to catch a glimpse. Teams wanted him. Armstrong wanted him. Neal said he was “like a god to me” and called him “the best soigneur that ever was.”
Hendershot, an American who lived in Belgium to be closer to the main cycling circuit, was a massage therapist, physical therapist and miracle worker. His laying-on of hands would bring an exhausted, aching rider to life. Eating at Hendershot’s direction, sleeping according to his advice, a rider began each morning reborn. He came with all the secrets of a soigneur and an unexpected skill developed over the years. In Neal’s words, Hendershot took to cycling’s drug culture “like a duck to water.” But his enthusiasm for and skills in chemistry would be remembered as his special talent.
Before speaking to me last year, Hendershot — who had retired from the sport in 1996, shortly after Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis — had never told his story to a reporter. After all the years of silence, he seemed relieved to finally share it.
For most of a decade, in the 1980s and ’90s, Hendershot sat in his makeshift laboratory, preparing for races. There he mixed, matched and mashed up drugs, always with one goal in mind: to make riders go faster.
The mad scientist conjured up what he called “weird concoctions” of substances like ephedrine, nicotine, highly concentrated caffeine, drugs that widen blood vessels, blood thinners and testosterone, often trying to find creative ways to give a rider an extra physical boost during a race. He’d pour the mix into tiny bottles and hand them to riders at the starting line. Other times, he’d inject them with it. He wasn’t alone in this endeavor. Soigneurs all across Europe made homemade blends of potentially dangerous mixes and first drank or injected those potions into themselves. They were their own lab rats.
Hendershot, who had no formal medical or scientific training, knew a concoction was way off when he felt his heart beating so fast and so loud, it sounded like a runaway freight train. That wouldn’t work for riders under extreme physical stress. He wanted “amped up,” but not to the point of a heart attack.
It wasn’t long before Hendershot tried his potions and pills on the riders, including Armstrong. When Armstrong turned professional after the 1992 Olympics, he signed a contract with Motorola, one of the two major American teams. Because Armstrong wanted the best soigneur, he was immediately paired with Hendershot. It was a match made in doping heaven. Both soigneur and rider were willing to go to the brink of danger.
“What we did was tread the fine line of dropping dead on your bike and winning,” Hendershot said.
Hendershot said the riders on his teams had a choice about using drugs. They could “grab the ring or not.” He said he didn’t know a single professional cyclist who hadn’t at least dabbled in doping. The sport was simply too difficult — and many times impossible, as was the three-week Tour de France — for riders who didn’t rely on pharmaceutical help.
When Armstrong arrived at Motorola in 1992, a system that facilitated riders’ drug use was firmly in place on the team — and most likely in the entire sport. Hendershot said he would take a list of drugs and bogus prescriptions for them to his local pharmacist in Hulste, Belgium, to get them filled and to obtain other drugs, too.
Cycling has been one of Belgium’s most popular sports for generations, and the pharmacist didn’t question Hendershot’s request for such large quantities of drugs. In exchange, Hendershot would give the pharmacist a signed team jersey or all-access passes to big races. Then he would leave with bags filled with the blood booster EPO, human growth hormone, blood thinners, amphetamines, cortisone, painkillers and testosterone, a particularly popular drug he’d hand to riders “like candy.”
By 1993, Armstrong was using all of those substances, as did many riders on the team, Hendershot said. He remembered Armstrong’s attitude as being, “This is the stuff I take, this is part of what I do,” and Armstrong joined the team’s program without hesitation because everyone else seemed to be doing it.
“It was like eating team dinner,” Hendershot said, adding that he had a hunch that virtually every person knew — doctors, soigneurs, riders, team managers, mechanics. He called the drug use casual and said he never had to hide any of it. After injecting the riders at a team hotel, he’d toss a trash bag filled with syringes and empty vials into the garbage can.
Although Hendershot said he never administered EPO or growth hormone to Armstrong, he did give them to other riders on the team and said he was aware that Armstrong was using those drugs. Hendershot said his wife had driven a stash of those two drugs from Belgium to one of the team’s 1995 training camps in southern France.
Hendershot said all those riders probably believed they were doing no wrong by doping. The definition of cheating was flexible in a sport replete with pharmacology: It’s not cheating if everybody is doing it. Armstrong believed that to be the dead-solid truth. For him, there was no hesitation, no second-guessing, no rationalizing.
As Hendershot had done, Armstrong grabbed the ring.
It’s June 2013, and Armstrong doesn’t want to move, he has to. His sponsors have abandoned him, taking away an estimated $75 million in future earnings. He would owe more than $135 million if he lost every lawsuit in which he is a defendant. To “slow the burn rate,” as he calls it, he has stopped renting a penthouse near Central Park in Manhattan and a house in Marfa, Texas. Next to go is this Austin estate, traded for a much more modest abode near downtown.
His former sponsors — including Oakley, Trek Bicycle Corp., RadioShack and Nike — have left him scrambling for money. He considers them traitors. He says Trek’s revenue was $100 million when he signed with the company and reached $1 billion in 2013.
“Who’s responsible for that?” he asks, before cursing and saying, “Right here.” He pokes himself in the chest with his right index finger. “I’m sorry, but that is true. Without me, none of that happens.”
After his sponsors cast him aside, he tossed their gear. There’s a chance you could catch a glimpse of one of his Dallas friends wearing Armstrong’s custom-made yellow Nike sneakers, with “Lance” embroidered in small yellow block letters on the black tongues. A Goodwill outlet in Austin is supplied with his Nike clothes and Oakley sunglasses. The movers will have to contend with whatever brand-name gear is left in his garage: black Livestrong Nike caps, black Nike duffel bags with bright yellow swooshes, Oakley lenses and frames and a box of caps suggesting “Yes on Prop 15,” a 2007 Texas bond plan for cancer research, prevention and education supported by Armstrong.
Armstrong loves this house. He loves its open spaces and floor-to-ceiling windows. He loves the lush landscaped yard where his children play soccer, and the crystalline pool (a “negative-edge pool, not an infinity pool, get it right,” he said). Behind the house are rows of towering Italian cypresses.
He moved here in 2006 after winning a record seventh Tour de France. He once said the place was his safe house — inside it, “nobody’s going to mess with me.” Having eluded continual attempts to expose his doping, he could take a left down the main hallway, then a quick right, and disappear into his walk-in wine closet to grab a bottle of Tignanello and toast his good luck.
Seven years ago, he told his three children from his failed marriage — Luke, Grace and Isabelle — that they would graduate from high school while living in the house by the big oak tree. He owed them that. They had followed him from Texas to France to Spain countless times. At last they could plant some roots. “I promise,” he said. “Dad’s not moving again.”
But now the movers are coming. It’s June 6, 2013, five years before Luke’s expected graduation. The next morning, a line of black trucks will pull into his driveway and out will spill workers in black short-sleeve shirts. The atmosphere is funereal. A week earlier, the movers emptied the 1,633-square-foot guesthouse.
I return the next day to see those workers clear the main house. They take Armstrong’s Tour trophies from their illuminated shelves, cover them with green bubble wrap and place them in blue boxes. In a box marked .64, one mover places a silver frame containing a 5x7 photograph of Armstrong’s 2005 Discovery Channel team sitting at a dinner table after his seventh and final Tour victory. He, his teammates and his longtime team manager Johan Bruyneel are holding up seven fingers. A yellow rubber Livestrong bracelet hangs from each man’s wrist. A table is littered with half-empty wineglasses. A former life.
Box 64 goes onto the truck with the rest. I follow the movers into the media room. Wearing white cotton gloves, they take down the seven yellow Tour leader’s jerseys framed above the couch.
In the dark before dawn, Armstrong left the big house for good. At 4:15 a.m. on June 7, 2013, with his girlfriend, Anna Hansen, and his five children, he drove to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for a commercial flight to Hawaii, where they would remain for the first part of the summer.
Armstrong tells me he didn’t look back at the house he had built. He says sentiment has never been his thing. The move means only that part of his life has ended and another will begin. That’s all it is, he says.
Several days later, only two of his possessions remained on his estate. One couldn’t fit in the moving truck: a 1970 black Pontiac GTO convertible given to him by the singer Sheryl Crow, with whom he had a very public romance that ended when he pedaled away just before she got cancer. The car, with its evocations of another Armstrong failure, carries a price tag of $70,000.
And, finally, left over in the living room of the guesthouse was a fully assembled drum kit. Just another piece of the man’s discarded life. Oh beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly, I thought while I looked at the set, lyrics from “Streets of Laredo,” a song I know from my time working in Texas.
Take me to the valley, and lay the sod o’er me,
For I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.