Profile: Lance Armstrong's coach Chris Carmichael

COLORADO SPRINGS, Co. -- The thought came suddenly enough to startle him, and Chris Carmichael affixed the scene before him with a glow he will remember forever.

Lance Armstrong had just won his fifth Tour de France title last year, and Carmichael, his coach, was among those milling around in a special family-and-friends area in Paris near the finish line.

"It was a cool, sunny day, 65-70 degrees," Carmichael said. "You're right on the Champs-Elysees, in Paris. There's all these museums around, and Lance is on the podium, and they're playing the national anthem and the flag's going up.

"And you look around and just say, 'God, you know, I coach a guy who's won this race five times.' It just was like, this is a golden moment. There's just something about it. It all came together and made me realize how special it was. It was just unbelievable, and how lucky I was to have the opportunity.

"It also allowed me to look back and go, 'You know what? This is busting my butt.' It's been a lot of work. It felt good.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time I don't think about it. I am too busy. You just live."

Carmichael is living large these days. Not only is he coaching Armstrong, who has managed to reach icon status despite racing in a sport most of America ignores, but he also is head and founder of Carmichael Training Systems, a coaching and training company which he founded out of his house in 1999.

Last year, it produced $4 million in revenue and has expanded from its Colorado Springs base to Aspen and Philadelphia. More than cycling, CTS trains adult athletes in triathlon, running and swimming.

Armstrong is going for a history-making sixth-straight Tour title this year. He is favored, despite a book detailing recent new doping allegations, advancing age (32), increasing vulnerability and a sense the end of his era is near.

Carmichael is in France to coach and monitor Armstrong's progress every day of the near-monthlong tour.

Through it all, Carmichael has barely stopped to take a breath. A week before his departure, Carmichael arrives at his mountain home, up a heavily rutted dirt road in Cheyenne Canyon.

His wife, Paige, and son Connor, 2 (Carmichael also has a daughter, Anna, 10), and a chocolate lab puppy await. It's not yet 7 p.m., but Carmichael is wiped out, his eyes bloodshot.

Over a glass of wine, he marvels at his day that began at 7:30 a.m. with a National Public Radio interview, included meetings, an on-camera interview with NBC News for the 2004 Olympics, a phone call from Outdoor Life Network and a CTS presentation that drew more than 100 recreational athletes into the company's red-brick headquarters on South Sierra Madre.

Carmichael's pace is frenetic, but he rarely appears hurried. He has become a walking cycling conglomerate, switching gears from project to project.

It's not only about Lance.

The day before, Carmichael spoke of his new book, due out in late July, called Food for Fitness. It's something of an anti-Atkins- diet book, a year-round guide for active people.

He's annoyed by this whole Atkins fad, a diet he says is not suited for the millions who exercise regularly. With a grin, he produces photos to be used in a coming magazine story that give the impression he's buried up to his neck in pasta. Bring on the carbs.

"That's the fuel of choice," he said.

Carmichael began coaching Armstrong in 1990, when Armstrong was a headstrong teenager racing for USA Cycling.

Carmichael once coached Jim Rutberg, who has worked for CTS since 1999.

"He's very passionate about everything he does," Rutberg said. "He's emphatic about the point he's making ... It's more of making you realize how important it is to you."

Carmichael wasn't always a coach. He was a member of the 1984 Olympic team. He was also part of the first all-U.S. Tour de France team in 1986, a young group of brash Americans trying to crash a famously European party.

They didn't win, of course, but a barrier had been broken.

Even then, "Chris understood the history of it, how big it was," said Ron Kiefel, a member of the 7-Eleven team racing the Tour and now vice president of Wheat Ridge Cyclery near Denver.

"I didn't understand it," Kiefel said. "You knew it was a big event, but not until you got out there. He learned a lot. We all learned as we went along."

Carmichael grew up in Miami, where he started racing at age 9 and worked in a local bike shop as a young teenager, riding with cyclists 18 and older. He also raced with Cubans for whom cycling was part of life.

Carmichael was known as a wiry, tenacious racer, good on hills, who got the most from his talent.

"Chris was the kind of guy who worked hard," Kiefel said. "He would go out there and take his shots. He wasn't necessarily the fastest sprinter ... He had to use tactics and other strengths to beat the guy."

But what shaped him as a coach was an accident. In December 1986, when Carmichael was 24, he suffered a horribly broken leg in a freak back-country skiing accident on California's Mount Shasta.

With some friends, Carmichael was getting ready to make some telemark turns when he toppled, falling over a rock. He landed in such a way as to split his femur up the middle of the bone from the knee and had another break higher up his leg.

By the time rescuers reached him 10 hours later, Carmichael's right leg was the size of two. More dangerous, he was in respiratory distress from fat embolisms dislodged from the broken bone that traveled to his lungs. Another lodged in his brain.

"They could have easily killed you," Carmichael said. "I didn't know why I was having trouble breathing."

He arrived at the hospital two hours later, where his blood- oxygen saturation level was critically low. The next day, Carmichael was startled to see his parents, along with his brother and sister, at his bedside. His father and mother were doctors. Carmichael's father told him later he didn't think his son would survive.

Doctors say he'll have arthritis in his knee. Today, his right leg is an inch shorter and he takes an anti-inflammatory daily. He still hikes and bikes.

Carmichael returned to cycling, but he was never the same. He underwent three knee surgeries in the next three years before retiring from racing.

The injury "got me into coaching," he said. "It allowed me to look at the process of training, overcoming adversity. I had a personal experience to draw on."

That experience was key when Armstrong overcame testicular cancer, then embarked on his Tour triumphs. Carmichael has also helped develop a training program for Montreal Canadiens star Saku Koivu in his return from cancer.

He worries about cycling's future in the United States when Armstrong and his generation -- Tyler Hamilton, Christian Vande Velde, Bobby Julich, among others -- retire.

"The real problem in youth sports these days, and I see it now, is (the thinking) 'We need to find the next Lance Armstrong,'" Carmichael said. "That's the totally wrong message. We should make it fun. It should be about inclusion."

Too bad it's unlikely Carmichael will direct those grassroots efforts.

David Ware, who knew Carmichael from his teen years and raced with him, remembers an offseason when Carmichael decided to find restaurant work in Manhattan.

"He filled out 60 job applications in a day," Ware said. "I just remember thinking, 'God, that's overkill.'"

But that fit with a Carmichael tendency that serves him well today, Ware said.

"If you've got a problem, just smother it. Put everything you've got into it and solve it."

Said Ware: "He's one of those people who are so normal and congenial, you don't get a sense he's so organized and such a determined guy."

Should Armstrong win the Tour again, Carmichael will have had a hand in making cycling history. Then it's on to the next thing.

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