When Lance Armstrong chills out, he chills with determined focus. As he walks into a Soho gallery for the opening of “Stages,” a traveling benefit art exhibition for his cancer foundation LiveStrong, it’s as if he’s surrounded by layers of progressively weakening force fields: one for press, one for fans, one for cancer-fighters, one for artists he respects, and one for bros. And tonight, it quickly becomes clear, is all about the bros.
Big hugs and backslaps go to Nike president Mark Parker, who first turned Armstrong on to art, and to Armstrong’s sometime workout buddy Jamie O’Shea, who curated the show. All of the pieces in it had to use the color yellow, just like his ubiquitous wristbands. Then Tom Sachs blazes into the room to start serving shots off his piece, Lance’s Tequila Bike for Girls—a bike outfitted with limes, a battery-operated “tequila-delivery system,” and tea bags, in reference to Armstrong’s single testicle. (His nickname is Juan Pelota, a Spanglish pun meaning “one ball.”)
As the cameras gather around, Armstrong jokes loudly to Sachs, “Are you sure these are clean? I don’t want to get swine flu,” then gamely picks up a shot glass labeled PUSSY (the others are ASS, TITS, and BJ), smiles, and throws one back. Photo op over, he’s out the door, headed for dinner at gallerist Jeffrey Deitch’s home across the street.
Earlier—before the opening but after a bike ride to Piermont and back—Armstrong had set aside exactly seventeen minutes to give me a personal tour of the exhibition. “That piece over there, Shep did for a close friend of his who had breast cancer,” he said, pointing to a Shepard Fairey painting. “She’s doing great today.” He moved to a large black-and-yellow silk screen: “This is Christopher Wool, who’s a good friend of mine. He called and said, ‘Dude, I’ve never done anything with yellow!’ I don’t know if you’ve seen his pieces, but they’re typically black-and-white stencils. Oh, and he’s a rock climber.”
A giddy fan of everything on display, and friends with most of the artists, Armstrong still has his favorites: the Ed Ruscha painting reading “Vital to the Core,” which he bought, a Cai Guo-Qiang made with gunpowder, and of course, Sachs’s bike. “In Paris, Tom and I christened that baby!” he said, explaining that he’d gone straight from the finish line of the 2009 Tour de France, in which he placed third, to downing tequila at the Paris “Stages” opening.
Armstrong’s art collecting started after he retired in 2005 and found himself with free time and some home decorating to do. Parker introduced him to O’Shea and the two began visiting studios and fairs, like Art Basel. As a buyer, he’s a gallerist’s dream: unpretentious, with a childlike desire to snatch up everything he likes. So, what’s hanging above his couch? “Uh, I have a lot of couches,” Armstrong said, laughing. “Is that a weird answer? I just put a new Kehinde Wiley above one of my couches in Austin last week. The Brazilian series. Young kid in shorts and a tank top.”
“Stages” came out of an alliance of bros and beers at a concert in Austin. The thought was to create not just the art show but a series of artist-designed Trek bikes that Armstrong would ride in races during his comeback, and then auction. “It’s a little bittersweet for me,” he said, explaining that he’s kept nearly all of his bikes over the years. Plus, these are cool. “Obviously, the Hirst bike is just a monster,” he said of the one covered in dead butterfly wings that he’d ridden along the Champs-Élysées this summer. (It went for $500,000.) Also up for bid: “the form-fucker” by KAWS, which Armstrong crashed during the Vuelta Ciclista a Castilla y León when he broke his collarbone (it sold for $160,000), and “the Stolen Bike”—decorated with the numbers 1,274 and 27.5, the number of days of his retirement and the number of people, in millions, who died of cancer during that time—that disappeared during the Tour of California. “I put it on my Twitter. You know, ‘APB on my bike,’ ” he said. “And we got it back. He got three years.”
Armstrong listens well and laughs in all the right places, but much sooner than I expect, I’m being told by his people that we’re not talking efficiently enough. See, here’s his weekend schedule: flying into town, riding 50 miles, Mayor Bloomberg photo op, doing this media crap, going to the opening, dinner with the artists. The next day: a jog with some of his 2.2 million Twitter followers, a flight back to Austin, trick-or-treating with his four kids (he was going to go as a bottle of mustard), and watching the World Series on TV. Then Sunday: back to New York for the auction at Sotheby’s, which raised $1.3 million.
The force field is rising, and Armstrong’s required time to relax and not talk to unnecessary people is nigh. We chat just once more, at the auction, when he asks whether I had a shot of tequila off Sachs’s bike, then walks away, seemingly disappointed that I didn’t.