Doug Ulman knew this day was coming, the day that Lance Armstrong would retire from cycling. In fact, Ulman, the CEO of Livestrong, had experienced it once before. A dry run, if you will. Back in 2005, Armstrong left the sport he’d dominated, winning seven Tour de France titles, and threw himself into working for his cancer foundation.
“A lot of people have been asking that question this week–what’s different this time?–but I’m not sure there is much of a difference,” Ulman told Fast Company today on the phone from Austin. “He’ll be more visible in the office [at Livestrong headquarters] than before. But he’s not one to sit at a desk and hang out.”
The first time Armstrong retired, he became a major advocate for Prop 15, a proposition to raise $3 billion in Texas for cancer research. He treated the campaign like another bike race. He and Ulman toured the state by bus, lobbied politicians and citizens alike, and emerged victorious. It was an enormous achievement in the cancer community, like nothing in any other state.
What’s different about Armstrong’s retirement this time, though, is that he’s now the subject of a federal investigation. It began last May when former U.S. Postal teammate Floyd Landis accused him of taking performance-enhancing drugs and selling bikes to buy drugs several years ago. Although Armstrong hasn’t been asked to appear before a grand jury, former teammates and associates have. Sports Illustrated recently published an in-depth investigative piece citing more accounts of Armstrong’s involvement with performance-enhancing drugs on his former team.
As we explored in our recent cover story on Livestrong, Armstrong’s foundation has managed to endure the disgraceful allegations against him over the years while becoming a respected and innovative force in cancer. The foundation, which no longer calls itself the Lance Armstrong Foundation, provides services to patients, lobbies policy makers, and operates as an entity separate from its high-profile founder.
Armstrong plans to resume working on Livestrong’s behalf in retirement. This morning, he and Ulman went for a five-mile run that doubled as a meeting. They strategized about a United Nations summit this fall addressing cancer and Livestrong’s role in getting a new tobacco tax on the ballot in California this summer. Not the ongoing investigation.
The situation is complicated for Livestrong, to say the least. “To have an ounce of attention on the investigation is frustrating,” Ulman says. “It’s a distraction from our mission.” As long as Armstrong isn’t charged with a crime, he continues to be an effective ambassador in cancer circles, where he remains the world’s best known survivor and advocate. But for now, the doping investigation lingers, even in retirement.