There’s a modest 1,100-square-foot home in East Austin that dates back to 1924 with creaky wooden floors and an if-these-walls-could-talk vibe. It once was home to a palm-reading psychic.
Out back, there’s a 288-square-foot shed, built six years ago and completely hidden from drivers on Cesar Chavez Street. That’s where you’ll find Lance Armstrong, the world’s best-known cyclist. And he’s talking up a storm.
“The Tour, being the commercial whores that they are …” Armstrong says, starting a rant about the Tour de France on his podcast “Stages.” He’s sitting directly across from longtime Austin radio personality JB Hager and is being watched by as many as 1,800 people on Facebook Live.
There’s nary a publicist in sight, not that there’d be anywhere to hide in this cramped, converted man cave anyway. Had Armstrong said that 10 or 20 years ago, there’d be a peloton out to get him.
“Oh, there would have been 12 people,” Armstrong said. “Twelve people paying your bills, giving you a bunch of money. Now, you have to be responsible and try to be smart about it. But I can say whatever I want to say.”
And do whatever he wants. Armstrong participated in a documentary spoof about cycling now airing on HBO titled “Tour de Pharmacy.” It’s full of adults-only material, but Armstrong’s parts mostly involve poking fun at himself. No way he’d have done this years ago.
Generally nowadays, “I say pretty much anything,” he said. “I do need to be careful with that, but I need to be myself.”
The beauty of a podcast is that it can be anything. Armstrong started “The Forward” last June and has interviewed some of the most intriguing names around — from Seal to Neil deGrasse Tyson to Lyle Lovett to Mack Brown. Podcasts with Bo Jackson and Brett Favre were about 90 minutes each.
“He is different from the guy I interviewed and had on my show countless times and (had) ridden with over the years,” Hager said. “The guard and the filter were always up, and now there’s no filter. People are finding that he’s a pretty regular dude and pretty funny.”
Armstrong created his spinoff podcast “Stages” in conjunction with the Tour de France practically on a whim. On Friday, it ranked fourth among sports podcasts on iTunes, ahead of Bill Simmons and Colin Cowherd.
Some will never listen to another word this man, now with graying hair at age 45, ever says. Armstrong gets that. But some can’t get enough. While he was taping Friday’s episode, people connected to cycling were texting and emailing him with kind words or thoughts about Stage 13, won by a Frenchman on Bastille Day, no less.
Social media are the curated life we want others to see. Thus, the internet seems like a perfect place for Armstrong to reconstruct his own narrative. But that’s not how he sees it.
“All I will say is that it’s a platform,” Armstrong said. “For 20 years, I had cycling and cancer as my platform.”
Armstrong said there were a lot of self-inflicted mistakes, and those platforms were taken away. “A person without a platform is totally ineffective. You can’t do anything,” he said.
He doesn’t spend much time on the podcast discussing the upcoming federal civil case brought by the U.S. Postal Service, once his primary sponsor. The government is trying to collect $100 million for perceived lost promotional value after he admitted doping while riding for USPS.
In a 37-page opinion released in February, U.S. District Judge Casey Cooper wrote that the Postal Service received “substantial” benefits with Armstrong during his seven Tour victories. But when it comes to possible fraud, “determination of damages must … be left to a jury” the judge concluded.
Armstrong’s attorney Elliott Peters told the Washington Post in February that “the government may now proceed to a trial that, as a practical matter, it cannot win.”
On Friday, Armstrong said: “You know, I very rarely think about it. You asked me about it, but I haven’t thought about it at all today. And I didn’t think about it when I went to bed last night. It’s not anything I think about right now. However, it is happening. The stakes are high, and it’s going to trial Nov. 6.
“I’m in a position where I have to fight the case. I can’t settle the case,” he said. “The law supports 100 percent our side of the case. I believe in my lawyers, I believe in the law and our position, so I’m going to go fight the case. It’s going to be four weeks in D.C. The entire month of November.”
And Armstrong knows it’ll be a madhouse.
“Perfect,” he said.
Is that was Armstrong wants?
“Of course, yeah,” he said. “It’s not a righteous case. The Postal Service was not damaged. If the case was about me and the mistakes I’ve made, who was a nice guy, who was a bad guy, and who was a liar or not, that would be brutal for four weeks. This case has nothing to do with that. It’s about one thing: damages.”
Nobody’s going to jail over this. Civil cases result in financial penalties, nothing more. Armstrong certainly doesn’t act like someone worried about the mortgage.
“My own Spidey-sense polling is that most people don’t think they were damaged,” Armstrong said. “I hear it all the time.
“I mean, does Jell-O think they were damaged by Bill Cosby? Does Subway think they were damaged by Jared? But anything can happen. I love my lawyers. They’re strong, and I will say Judge Cooper, I think he’s been really fair. Overall, he’s been extremely fair.”
Armstrong isn’t clamoring for anyone to embrace this older, mature version of himself. He isn’t shouting hey-look-at-me from the rooftops. Yes, there’s a huge court battle looming. But otherwise, he’s content to keep working on the podcast and see what comes next.
Take him. Leave him. Chances are, your mind is already made up.
“At this point, what’s going to happen?” Armstrong said. “What are you going to do me? I’ve survived two really extreme situations in my life. I know who my friends are, and I know who aren’t my friends.”
He doted on his five healthy children and his fiancée, Anna Hansen. The two have been together for a decade, but he finally made it official in May.
“I’m moving forward,” Armstrong said. “The podcast isn’t called ‘Forward’ for nothing. I am moving forward. I’m not going to be in a neutral or reverse position. Ever.”