T.J. Juskiewicz, the director of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, has likely spent more time with Lance Armstrong than anyone else in the state during the past seven years.

He introduced the famous cyclist to a huge rally in Newton back in 2006, and watched him slip away from the crowds on three return RAGBRAI visits to offer encouraging words to fellow cancer survivors and teams that raise money to combat the disease.

So it’s with mixed emotions that Juskiewicz watched his friend’s doping scandal unfold this week, when the famed bicyclist admitted to Oprah Winfrey he had used a host of banned drugs during his career. But on one point Juskiewicz­ is certain: Armstrong is welcome to return to RAGBRAI whenever he would like to come back. “If you just look at what he did for cycling, he took it to a whole different level. He made it cool,” Juskiewicz said Friday. “That can never be taken away.”

Juskiewicz spoke about Armstrong’s past — and possible future — with Iowa’s two-wheeled tradition. Here are some excerpts of that conversation:

Q: How did you first get to know Armstrong?

I got a phone call out of the blue from a guy named Doug Ulman, who is the president and CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. He just asked me a simple question: “What would you think if Lance Armstrong did RAGBRAI? I thought about two seconds on that and said, ‘Hey, that’d be pretty awesome.’ ”

I had a lot of phone conversations with Lance and his organization leading up to RAGBRAI, but our first face-to-face was just outside of Newton (in 2006). He came up and introduced himself, and we went off in a side room and chatted for a while and developed a nice friendship from that point.

Q: What was he like to work with?

He was awesome. You know, I heard all these stories that he’s a prima donna, and he’s this and that, but it was nothing like that at all.

He’s come on four different occasions. He came the first time and said, “I’m going to be back because this is what cycling in the United States is all about.” That first year, he got off the bike and told me point blank: “I’ll be here every year.” Now, he went back to cycling and all that, so things didn’t quite work out that he was here every year, but he’s been here four times and we’ve never paid him a dime to come.

Q: Do you remember when his fans went crazy when he showed up?

All the time. From that first time in in Newton, when he walked out on stage and there were 30,000 people out there holding up signs and Sports Illustrated covers and a sea of yellow everywhere, he was just blown away by that kind of crowd. He said, ‘I don’t get these crowds in Austin.’

Along the way, people that first year wanted a piece of him. But after he rode that first year and understood what RAGBRAI was all about, then he was not Lance Armstrong the World-Cyclist, he was Lance Armstrong, a guy who’s coming with his buddies to ride RAGBRAI for a couple of days. When he made that transformation, I think people on the ride really appreciated that. Instead of being this superstar, he was trying to be just another cyclist.

Q: When did you start to believe the allegations?

Well, I think it’s always been a lingering thought. I probably hung in there longer than most people. I wanted to believe that (what he said) was true. But when things started adding up, I think probably about a month ago, when some of his top teammates — especially (longtime friend George) Hincapie — came out and said, “Hey, you know there are some allegations here,” I think that was probably the red flag that was like, OK, I think it’s probably going down.

Q: Do you have a favorite memory of him?

I got to know him pretty well on the four years on RAGBRAI, and we spent some good quality time together. He also invited us down to Austin (Texas) to spend a day with him, and that was really cool. It was after the first ride and he said, ‘Why don’t you come down to Austin, and we’ll talk about cycling and we’ll talk about what we can do in the future.’ He was just a normal guy instead of this persona of a Tour de France champ.

He always made me feel like, ‘Hey, that’s my friend T.J.’ Just that alone, I mean, every time I’ve had conversations with him or saw him in a public setting, he would come over and see me. If I saw him at Interbike (an industry show) out in Las Vegas, he’d stop and get up and come over and talk to me. It was a cool relationship, and again, he liked RAGBRAI and he liked what we were doing. You know, he’s come four times and — who knows? — maybe he’ll be back again.

Q: Did RAGBRAI ever pay Armstrong’s foundation, or the other way around?

No. They never had an actual relationship with RAGBRAI, as far as being a sponsor or anything like that. He’s had a team that’s come out since that first year that’s raised money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. I think they raised, oh, $1 million over that time, which is fantastic.

I lost my mom to cancer when she was 55. So when the whole Livestrong movement came out, I mean, I’m still to this day wearing this yellow band. (Juskiewicz pulled the Livestrong bracelet from under his shirt cuff.) It’s got nothing to do with Lance. It’s got to do with my mom.

So to see that type of movement, I mean, that’s the person I know as Lance Armstrong — not the cyclist, not the one who’s getting vilified on the news.

If you think about, here was Lance Armstrong at the peak of his career, and he’s going over and doing events in Australia with million-dollar appearance fees, and here’s little old RAGBRAI in Iowa. He said, “You don’t need me to come to your event. Your event is massive. I want to be at your event.” To have that attitude, where he’s racking up appearance fees and sponsor fees, there was never one time where he said, “Can you help us out with this?”

He’s probably the only person in the world who flew from Paris, France, to Carroll, Ia., to make sure he lived up to his commitment to be on RAGBRAI.

So there’s probably a lot of people who are hurting and disappointed. And I’m certainly disappointed. I wanted to believe him. But you know, for what he’s done for RAGBRAI and for me personally, I probably think of him a little bit differently than some people today.

Q: What reactions have you heard from riders this week?

They’re all over the board. My buddies are kind of poking me or sending me photos of Lance and me from back many years ago. Or they’ll ask, “Are they going to do drug testing on RAGBRAI?” But people ask me, too, “Is Lance allowed to come back on RAGBRAI? He’s been banned from the marathons and the triathlons.” And I say absolutely. If we started judging everyone who wants to come on RAGBRAI, we’d be in trouble.

So one day if he decides, “Hey, I want to come back,” by all means. But RAGBRAI Nation is going to have to make that decision about how they react. That’s not up to me.





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