2017 Triathlon Business International – Day 2, Lance Armstrong

Basketball… “Flat, Challenging” times in Tri … and Lance Armstrong:
“I went from the stars to the ground, seemingly overnight”

The Monday morning start of Day 2 at TBI began early, with a group workout at the local Dallas YMCA, put on by ACTIVE. Following an old-school basketball lay-up drill, Arch led participants through four, 7-minute “Tabata” sets and had us all sweating and dreading sitting on sore glutes later in the day, but smiling goofy endorphin-induced grins. (Only the first three sets were physical – the fourth set was a mental “Triku” writing exercise… we may – or may not – hear more about those submissions later in the conference.)

By 8:00 a.m. the breakfast crowd was ushered into the presentation hall for a few opening remarks by TBI President Richard AdlerCiting registration data, Adler pointed out 41% of this year’s TBE attendees are race producers, followed by those in the technology field, and manufacturers with 15% each. And then a large “other” category, that includes coaches, tri clubs, city representatives, advertising/marketing entities, sponsors… a good cross-section of the industry.

This year’s conference theme is “profitability and success in triathlon,” and Adler referenced data presented by Gary Roethenbaugh yesterday and reiterating the current “flat” triathlon climate makes for “challenging times.” However. The entire purpose of this conference is to collaborate and share ideas; TBI is, at its core, a “sounding board and connector of resources.”

And then a hush fell over the room as Lance Armstrong was ushered down the center aisle, red carpet style, haloed by a bright spotlight, led by Slowtwitch publisher Dan Empfield. As they walked Empfield referred to Armstrong as his “very good friend,” and Armstrong made reference to Empfield being his “first sponsor” (Empfield was Lance Armstrong’s first bike sponsor, with Quintana Roo, the bike brand Empfield founded).

Empfield opened the session with an air of caution and assertive direction, launching immediately into Armstrong’s The Forward Podcast, and skipping any preamble about the cycling world or doping or other obvious precursors. Admitting he is “very jealous” of Armstrong’s podcasts because “they are so good,” Empfield asked about:

  • Most recent guest (astrophysicist Neil Degrass Tyson – whom Armstrong pointed out is “Stephen Colbert‘s favorite guest”)
  • Toughest interviews (“Seal was very emotional and dark; he and I did the dance and it came off…“)
  • Favorite interview to date (Michael Morton – wrongfully convicted for killing his wife: “He is my favorite by far, so far. He went to prison for 26 years for a crime he didn’t commit. And then DNA evidence proved his innocence and he was exonerated. His views on the people who put him away – what he wanted to do to them – for 15 years he had a plan for every one of them. Shoot & bury. Burn. Drown… And then he found God. . . The guy is amazing. Really cool guy.

As Armstrong mentioned Sean Penn (whom he hangs out with in Aspen), biographer Hunter Thompson, Johnny Depp, Bo Jackson, Brett Favre (a “good friend”), Malcolm Gladwell (If he does a tri, “Who’s going to make the swim cap to go over that ‘fro of his?”) … Empfield points out, “These guys are all friends – you just call them up.” And later in the interview, regarding Armstrong’s residence in Aspen, “there’s a posse, and you’re in it.” Empfield continues, “You can hang with these people and talk with these people in a way a CNN interviewer couldn’t… I mean, a presidential historian and rock stars…”

Armstrong revealed his techniques for landing an interview with someone he finds compelling: “I grab coffee in the morning and read the newspaper. I see who’s in town… send a DM to a mutual acquaintance and get a cell phone number…” He goes on to point out how public most personal information is, saying, “You can find out about anybody’s life – start with Wikipedia, and then go to YouTube… There’s still some secrets out there, but very few.”

He also acknowledges the timing of his Forward podcast, saying, “I couldn’t have done this kind of platform five years ago. . . I went from the stars to the ground seemingly overnight, and all of my platforms went away. That was a humbling experience. The podcast is my first platform, my first offensive move, the first place I’ve gone back to to give people a place to go. . . I’m blown away at the success it’s had.”

When asked about the “corporatization” of sport, making big business out of triathlon or other endurance sports, he was clear, saying whether it’s Ironman or New York Road Runners or the Boston Marathon, “we still have millions willing to pay to play.” But. ASO/Tour de France is “much more evil” than Wanda Sports. “The business model of pro cycling is 100 years old and not sustainable. There is turmoil there. They want to control as much as they can and cast a shadow over all the other events. The Tour is too big – but they are the only one, and the only thing people care about.”

“I wish there were more players and riders who had a bigger voice in pro cycling.”

Armstrong’s latest venture, WEDU Sport, was touched on but not well defined. According to the trademark application, WEDU will incorporate monitoring & tracking (“Computer software and computer application software related to tracking, monitoring, planning, compliance and motivation”), clothing, and “athletic competitions, triathlon events, athletic coaching services.”

When Empfield asked about the new brand, Armstrong provided an explanation for the name, saying, “WEDU is an answer to a question: Who does 100X100’s in the pool or runs Rim2Rim? Who wants to do that? Who would be crazy enough to do that? The answer is WEDU. That is the brand. There is space for more events in the endurance world. Also, monitoring and tracking – GPS, Strava, wearables – allowing athletes to train better, smarter, and injury free.”

Later in the interview he added on the subject of WEDU: “We’ll provide events, content, and training. Similar to Endurance Nation – we’ll sell plans. And WEDU may be an app.”

And what about that subject of doping? Empfield raised the subject, and Armstrong elaborated, saying first, “It will never change.” He said there will always be cheaters Whether traditional doping, or course cutting, or mechanical doping with engines. He did an obstacle course race, and when he missed an obstacle he had to do 180 burpees. “I did all 180 burpees,” he said. “But how many people really do them? It’s the honor system. If they have to do 30 burpees, how many do 30? No one. They do 22.”

What about just letting letting drug testing go – just “chilling” – and letting athletes do what they will do? “Just chilling is not an option,” Armstrong insists. “I don’t have a lot of credibility on this.” (crowd chuckles) “You laugh, but it’s true. Should we test athletes? I’m probably not the guy to ask. But if it’s my kids, I say test them.”

And, on the future of triathlon: “Who knows? Who would have thought there would be the Tough Mudder and events like that? We just don’t know… You never know what the next event is. What will provide relevance and motivation? For Type A motivated people, what are you going to give them in ten years?”

He speaks about the return of his Aspen mountain bike race in 2017 (the 2016 event ended up being “a party at my house” since he missed the permitting deadline), his preference for century rides over Gran Fondo’s, because they are untimed and easier to permit, and “alternative” events in general. He then adds, solemnly, “I want all of the ships to rise.”

Also: Jimmy Buffett & Margaritaville. “When you stay there, he is making money off of you from the minute you wake up until you go to bed. From music to blenders to everything… I really respect what he’s done with his brand.”

Finally: Empfield circles back to the Forward podcast. He notes that listeners are asked to rate the show, one star to five. “There are no 2s, 3s or 4s. Only 1s and 5s. Is this a metaphor for how people view you?” Armstrong responds, “I was an asshole for a very long time. I understand that.”

As Armstrong left the room (for 1.5 hrs of post-appearance interviews in the outer hallway), the TBI sessions continued with discussions covering the Future of Triathlon (“Triathlon has plateaued. But it’s stable. Flat is the new ‘up’.” – Chuck Menke); Sponsorships; Diversity in Triathlon moderated by Sara Gross (“Diversity brings innovation, and that’s what triathlon needs now”); and the USAT State of the Union address by Rob Urbach (which began with, “Do you remember the first time you made love?”). Late afternoon sessions allowed participants to choose between topics including Working with Municipalities, Retailer Relationships, Understanding Millennials, and Triathlon Teams.

The Ron Smith Reception and Awards Celebration filled the evening, with winners announced in multiple categories. Be sure to check out 303Triathlon’s twitter feed for all the details on the day’s presentations and events.