Lance Armstrong’s ‘return’ to pro cycling: The Stages podcast

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When Outside Magazine reached out to Lance Armstrong before the 2017 Tour de France, they asked him to write a blog of analysis and insight for every stage of the event, now in its 104th edition. But Armstrong couldn’t commit to writing a piece for every stage of the 21-day Grand Tour. Instead, he presented a different idea – similar, but more dynamic and casual. A podcast, called, fittingly, “Stages.”

“They asked me to do a daily blog,” Armstrong told CyclingTips Sunday in Boulder, Colorado. “I said well, that’s a lot of time. I’m doing this podcast – maybe there’s a way that they can work together. I’ve had a long relationship with them [Outside]. It’s been up and down, but it seems to be a lot better now.”

This isn’t Armstrong’s first podcast. Last year he started a weekly series, “The Forward,” in which he interviews people from “sports, business, music, and more.”

Armstrong’s Forward podcast covers diverse topics and has included guest figures such as Malcolm Gladwell, Bo Jackson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brett Favre.

Most often, Armstrong’s guests are unrelated to the sport of cycling, the exceptions being friends and former teammates George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde, and most recently, Anne Hed, CEO of iconic wheel manufacturer and longtime sponsor HED Cycling.

“It’s like I’ve gone out of my way to avoid cycling on The Forward. It’s titled ‘The Forward,’ not ‘The Past.’ Having said that, my relationship with the sport and the industry and the bicycle — the device — has changed in the past year.” Armstrong told Bicycling earlier this month.

Following a BBC interview in 2015,  The Forward presents Armstrong’s latest voluntary foray back into the public eye after his highly publicized 2013 admission to using performance enhancing drugs during all seven of his historic and controversial Tour de France wins.

And now, the Stages podcast marks Armstrong’s first engagement back into the sport that, three years ago, almost completely exiled him.

Armstrong appeared Sunday for a post-race recording of Stages at Vecchio’s Bicicletteria, a long-standing Boulder bike shop. His partner Anna Hansen and co-host JB Hager accompanied him. Hager agreed to co-host the podcast until the final week of the Tour, when Hincapie will take over.

“I did a radio morning show in Austin for 20 years,” Hager explained. “I’ve interviewed [Armstrong] 20-plus times over the years. He knows I’m gonna say the right things. There is a comfort level and a chemistry. I’ve done radio for ever. I wasn’t sure how how our chemistry was gonna be. After years of doing interviews, you find sometimes it’s a little easier, sometimes it’s not. He is a different person. And he’s been doing his own podcast for over a year so he’s got his own comfort level he can bring to the table.”

On returning to cycling

Armstrong has never withheld his opinions. It’s exactly that which draws many to his Tour de France commentary.

In regard to the purported “queen stage” on Sunday, Armstrong had choice words. “Can we just talk about how stupid this stage was? It couldn’t be the queen stage. The climb was neutralized by the descent. I disagree with that type of finish. Yet again, the Tour loses one of its big names [Richie Porte] due to course choices.”

Despite the turnover in key figures, the Tour de France, in its essence, is a very similar race to its form during Armstrong’s reign. The dynamic elements of a Grand Tour haven’t changed. There are still wet descents to navigate, tactics to construe, mountains to ascend, and jerseys to win.

And so, Armstrong’s participation in 13 Tours has produced experience and acumen, especially when analyzing the race from an outsider’s perspective.

But his presence isn’t completely welcome; Armstrong has his share of critics. Outside, which is running a daily blog post with excerpts from the podcast, took a chance when reaching out to the ostracized ex-pro. They knew there’d be controversy.

“We all felt Armstrong’s experience as a veteran rider would make him an insightful analyst of the Tour for our readers,” Outside editor Christopher Keyes told CyclingTips. “That was our simple calculation, and so far he’s totally delivered. Alex Rodriguez’s history of using PEDs haven’t prevented him from becoming an outstanding analyst for Major League Baseball. In that same sense, we don’t think Armstrong’s own past transgressions erase the value he brings in talking publicly about cycling.”

Sunday’s Tour stage was chaotic, filled with race-ending injuries and upset. Armstrong’s insight, though brief, was broad and intuitive. Topics discussed included BMC’s tactic of sending Nicolas Roche into the day’s large breakaway, Fabio Aru’s controversial attack in the face of Chris Froome’s mechanical on Mont du Chat, and Astana’s actions within the last 10 kilometers of the stage as Aru and Jakob Fuglsang desperately pulled the breakaway up to Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) with Froome in tow.

“It was interesting, on TV, Paul Sherwen, Bob Roll, and Christian [Vande Velde] all supported [Aru’s attack],” Armstrong said. “I don’t agree with that. To do it so blatantly – one thing for sure is you can’t get away with anything now. So many camera angles. It was so ironic how it all came back together in the end, it was all forgotten.”

It may be too soon for all to be forgotten when it comes to the more sordid details of Armstrong’s career, but there certainly appears to be an audience for his race commentary.

During the second week of the Tour, Stages was featured on the homepage of the iTunes store’s podcast in the “New and Noteworthy” category and was ranked third in the “Sports and Recreation” category, right above The Ringer’s podcast hosted by Bill Simmons.

Perhaps the name, Stages, has more than one meaning, as the podcast has all the markings of another stage of Armstrong’s tour of redemption.

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