Austin: The Texas city that Lance Armstrong built

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You can barely move in Austin, Texas, without bumping into something connected to Lance Armstrong. Tim Walker visits the cyclist’s home city to test opinion on his fall from grace – and his forthcoming date with Oprah

As rainclouds threatened to unburden themselves on Texas on Tuesday, the Lance Armstrong Bikeway was uncharacteristically empty. Like the man who gave it its name, the six-mile route runs right through the heart of Austin.

Just a few miles around a bend in the Colorado River is Armstrong’s 8,000 sq ft home, from which, this week, he will grant his first interview since the doping scandal engulfed him last October.

That conversation, with Oprah Winfrey, will be broadcast on US television next Thursday evening, and streamed worldwide simultaneously. But while cycling fans everywhere are waiting to learn whether Armstrong will continue to deny the charges against him, or hold up his hands and confess, nowhere is the downfall of the sport’s greatest star more keenly felt than in his home town.

Armstrong, now 41, first moved to the capital of the Lone Star state from the Dallas suburbs when he was 18. He was diagnosed with cancer there at 25, married there at 26, had his first child there at 29. The city’s rise has run in parallel with his own. Richard Parker, a journalist and Austin native, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in October that “No one has embodied the rise of Austin better than Lance Armstrong, who went from a local cycling star to an international super-athlete in roughly the same span of years that Austin went from sleepy to sleek and hip”.

Forbes ranked Austin the fastest-growing city in American for the last two years in a row. Its population grew by more than 50 per cent between 2000 and 2010. Recession refugees from the coasts have flocked here to find work: the city created 21,000 jobs in 2011 alone. Austin is now home to two world-famous music festivals, a thriving local film industry, and major firms such as Whole Foods and Apple, which plans to build a $304m operations centre there. In November, the city hosted the US Grand Prix. Armstrong, however, was out of town, vacationing in Hawaii.

His absence was in stark contrast to the high profile he once maintained in the city. At a victory rally after his sixth Tour de France win in 2004, he told the local crowd, “This is the greatest home town in the world. I think it’s the best place to be a citizen. It’s the best place to be a bike rider. It’s the best place to raise your children.” Soon afterward, he opened Six Lounge, a bar in the warehouse district named after that victory, which was followed by his seventh and last a year later.

Other celebrities may have embraced Austin and made it their home – Willie Nelson, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey – but none is woven so tightly into the fabric of the city. In 2008, Armstrong established an 18,000 sq ft bike shop downtown. (Its name, Mellow Johnny’s, is a play on the French “maillot jaune”, meaning “yellow jersey”; the name of the adjoining coffee shop, Juan Pelota, is a play on “pelota”, the Spanish word for ball, as in “one ball”.) At the time, the building was surrounded by warehouses; five years on, it is dwarfed by 40-something-storey condo buildings and a brand new federal courthouse.

Inside, the store is still decorated with large photographs of Armstrong’s Tour heroics and framed yellow jerseys, not to mention racks of Lance and LiveStrong merchandise. Craig Staley, Mellow Johnny’s general manager and one of Armstrong’s business partners, knew the fallen star when the two were bike-mad teenagers in Dallas. The scandal, he said, “has definitely affected our business. A lot of people had their minds made up about Lance before October. But the severity of the report and the lifetime ban made some others decide they were no longer supporters. We have an online store, and we ship a lot of jerseys and T-shirts all over the world. That business has slowed down.”

Staley remains convinced, however, that Armstrong’s eventual legacy will be a positive one. “There are a lot of haters out there who are mad at him. But the number of people he has inspired and helped overshadows what he has done as a professional athlete. I think people will come to respect and appreciate what he has been able to do, even if it wasn’t all on the up-and-up.”

Testament to those non-sporting achievements is Armstrong’s cancer charity, LiveStrong, whose headquarters back on to railway lines among the low-rises of less well-off east Austin. The 30,000 sq ft former paper warehouse was given an eco-friendly makeover and won awards after it was opened in 2009. The building and its status have done much to encourage the area’s regeneration.

In its 15 years, the charity has raised more than $500m to support cancer patients, and donations are even said to have gone up since the doping allegations emerged. Armstrong remains its biggest donor, having given $7m of his own fortune to LiveStrong. Yet he resigned as chairman in October, the same month LiveStrong officially changed its name from the Lance Armstrong Foundation and removed his yellow Tour jerseys from display in the building’s atrium.

Dashiell Collins, 27, moved to Austin from California in 2008 and worked as an intern for LiveStrong. He had a grandmother and an aunt who both died of cancer. “I know that what LiveStrong is doing is a lot more important than what Lance did on a bike in France between 1999 and 2005,” Collins said. “But when the [US Anti-Doping Agency] report came out, there was a big sense of disappointment in Austin. He’s the home-town hero, and it’s tough to keep your faith in a hero when there’s such damning evidence against him.”

Armstrong helped make his adopted city synonymous with cycling, and in 2007 signed a letter demanding the city’s engineers and urban planners improve Austin’s cycling master plan. Mellow Johnny’s is behind a proposed bike-share system which expects to see around 500 public bicycles introduced to the city centre by mid-2013. “We’ve leveraged Lance’s brand and the Mellow Johnny’s brand to make that happen,” Staley explained.

A new, 7ft-wide bike lane through downtown is set to link up to the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, which connects the city’s west and east sides. Questions over the bikeway’s future were recently quashed by the mayor, Lee Leffingwell, who said he had no plans to change its name. (Armstrong endorsed Leffingwell’s 2012 candidacy.) “I am proud of my friendship with Lance Armstrong,” Leffingwell said following the USADA report. “Lance is not only a friend to me, but also a friend to Austin, and a friend and hero to millions of cancer survivors around the globe”

Yet the doping scandal has undoubtedly dented the city’s self-image. Armstrong was recently named “Bum Steer of the Year 2013” by the Austin-based magazine Texas Monthly. Nobody else in the magazine’s 40-year history, wrote its editor Jake Silverstein, has gone from “wearing a halo only to reappear wearing our institutional dunce cap”.

And while he may have been the poster boy for Austin’s economic and cultural boom, the city was also aware of Armstrong’s darker side long before the world at large. “Well before the doping scandal broke,” Richard Parker told The Independent, “there were always very mixed opinions locally about him as a public figure.” Parker went on: “Austin is at a crossroads where all popular places find themselves at some point: you go down one road and you become a great city; go down another and you destroy all the things that made it special.”

Head to head: Austin vs Armstrong

Austin:

In numbers Population 820,611.  13th biggest city in US.

Back story Area first settled 11,000 years ago.

Named after Incorporated under the name Waterloo before it was changed in honour of Stephen F Austin, the founder of Texas

Famous links Birthplace of Ethan Hawke, actor; Ben Crenshaw, golfer; Tom Ford, fashion designer

Miscellaneous Now known for its alternative arts scene and the South by Southwest music festival.

Lance Armstrong:

In numbers Won seven successive Tours de France. Raised $470m via his Livestrong charity. Now has 0 Tour titles to his name

Back story Born in Plano, Texas, in 1971, turned pro in 1992. Diagnosed with cancer in 1996. Retired 2011. Charged with doping in 2012.

Named after Lance Rentzel, a Dallas Cowboys wide receiver.

Famous links Was engaged to Sheryl Crow. Founded a second charity, Athletes for Hope, with Muhammad Ali and Andre Agassi. Best friends with actor Matthew McConaughey

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