The chase is on again
The statement wasn’t as absurd as it sounded. A journalist here, looking over the crowd that had gathered, said to Lance Armstrong, “It looks as if Jesus Christ is going to cycle.”
“I’ve been called a lot of things in my life,” Armstrong replied, “but not Jesus Christ. And I don’t know that he rode, either. He can do a lot of things, apparently, but I don’t know that he rode.”
Armstrong is back, and with a vengeance.
The man who closed his unparalleled career in 2005 is back to the cycling peloton and spoke for 65 minutes in a wide-ranging news conference on everything from doping to impending fatherhood, from riding bicycles with presidents to wanting to ride with soon-to-be presidents (Barack Obama, Armstrong would like to hear from you), from surviving cancer to how he will attack the meandering roads of South Australia in this week’s Tour Down Under. Armstrong is 37 now, still with an edge to him.
Taylor Phinney, the up-and-coming American cyclist who competed in his first Olympics in the Beijing Games, knows what this means.
“Lance likes to have a lot of fun training,” Phinney, 18, said. “But when he needs to go fast, he goes fast and that’s that.”
In the years Armstrong has been away, cycling has become a sport teetering on a series of doping cases, as one cyclist after another admitted guilt or was found guilty, including 2006 Tour de France champion Floyd Landis, another American.
So it was unexpected when Armstrong, who battled doping suspicions and accusations partly because he seemed to win so effortlessly, announced last fall that he would return. Very few pro cyclists compete at the elite level in their late 30s, let alone after a 3 1/2 -year layoff.
Armstrong’s plans include the Amgen Tour of California next month; the Giro d’Italia in May, considered the second-most-prestigious event on the calendar; and the Tour de France in July. His Astana team -- Armstrong says he is taking no salary -- is led by 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and 2008 Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer.
Armstrong’s story is well known. After recovering from testicular cancer that had spread to his brain, he began devouring cycling’s most revered event, the Tour de France, by, as he put it, training better, preparing better, being a better athlete, being a better survivor. Cancer patients worldwide grabbed on to Armstrong’s story and cheered.
There were doubters though, especially in Europe. Armstrong was dominating a sport that was awash in doping issues and that would, after his retirement, be badly damaged by drug scandals, resonating most sharply in Germany.
“There is hostility in Germany against cycling,” a German reporter said to Armstrong. “There’s no television anymore; sponsors are gone; major races have vanished. What comment do you have when there are some not very happy with your comeback?”
As Tour Down Under officials shook their heads, Armstrong controlled the room.
“I understand part of it, what’s happened,” he said. “People have invested emotions into the athlete and into events and they feel betrayed. When you feel there’s been a bad deal on your investment, you pull out. Like any financial arrangement or emotional arrangement, they’re pulling out emotionally and financially.
“I’m not going to Germany and quite honestly I don’t care if the Tour de France is going to Germany. I spoke to the head of the European broadcasting union, who is a German, and I said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but I’m racing.’ This is a reality. Certain countries and cultures are opposed to it, then I ride around Adelaide and there’s a completely different opinion. Hot and cold. I’m prepared to ride through the hot ones and the cold ones, and I’m going to keep riding.”
The embrace of Armstrong so far in Australia has been all warm. Teams were presented to fans Sunday night, a tradition where racers are seen without their racing helmets or their squinty scowls. They were introduced by veteran announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, and among 133 competitors Armstrong was the sole cyclist accompanied by extra security, even though the only sounds were cheers.
Richard Banesborough, a 69-year-old retiree from Sydney, was pressed up against a barricade at a corner where he knew Armstrong would ride off after the introductions.
“I am a huge fan,” Banesborough said. “I believe the sport will benefit from Armstrong’s comeback. I think any fair person will say that Armstrong has never been proven to have done anything but win races. To say anything else would be wrong.”
Mike Turtur, the Tour Down Under race director, said having Armstrong in the field has been nothing but beneficial.
When asked about reports that Armstrong is getting a $1-million appearance fee, Turtur, though not confirming the amount, said Armstrong had already earned his keep. Last year about 4,500 riders paid to participate in a fun ride associated with the race. This year it’s 7,100. Last year 700 people paid to attend a private dinner associated with the race. This year it’s 2,000. Last year 212 media credentials were issued. This year it’s 400.
“We are way ahead,” Turtur said.
George Hincapie, another veteran U.S. cyclist who rode as Armstrong’s most loyal lieutenant during that Tour de France championship reign, stood outside the media workroom at an Adelaide hotel Saturday. He stared at a series of bulletin boards all covered in newspaper articles that had either “Lance” or “Armstrong” in the headlines.
Hincapie took out his camera. “I’ve got to get a picture of this,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. How can this not be good for the sport?”
Why return now? Armstrong’s answer: “I want to take the message around the world, to talk about the global burden of cancer.” He points to his bike, which has two numbers painted on it. “The bike says it all. The 1,274 is the number of days since I last raced a pro bike race, and in those days 27.5 million people have died from this disease. That’s a staggering number.
“But this is also me being a pro athlete,” he said. “Regardless of the passion for my cancer cause, bike racing is a hard sport, one of the hardest in the world. You still have to have the passion and will to do this.”
Although some riders criticized Armstrong’s decision to return, suggesting that his presence will only give life to new doping suspicions, Hincapie pointed to that bulletin board.
“The guy transcends the sport,” Hincapie said. “He connects with people at a level way above just cycling. If he competes like I think he will, all the eyes will be on all of us this summer. If you want to make a name, beat him.”
Spaniard Oscar Pereiro, who was awarded the 2006 Tour de France title after Landis failed a doping test, said he had only one thought when he first heard about Armstrong’s planned return: “I didn’t really believe it.”
Pereiro, who crashed out of the 2008 Tour de France and is making his own comeback here, believes Armstrong’s legacy could be tarnished if he’s not successful, calling his return “a very brave move.”
The oldest winner of the Tour de France was a 36-year-old Frenchman, Firmin Lambot, and that was in 1922. Since 1964 only four winners have been older than 30. One of them was Armstrong, who was 33 when he won in 2005. But don’t go calling Armstrong old.
“Maybe there’s a little more stiffness, soreness in the morning,” he said. “But I recover well. I don’t want to say I feel the same as I did in my early 30s, but I’m not far off and, mentally, too, that’s a key, and my mind feels very young.”
He hesitates to set racing goals, though. At one point Armstrong said he had no particular ambitions for this Tour Down Under, which begins Tuesday, other than to avoid being dropped on the first day, but later said if the opportunity to attack became apparent, “of course I would take it.”
Sherwen, a former professional racer himself, said there was a simpler reason Armstrong has returned to cycling.
“He’s been missing something,” Sherwen said. “The family of the peloton. The camaraderie. I truly believe Lance is just happy to be back, whether he wins or not. That’s a different Lance. But we’ll see if that lasts. Because he also doesn’t like to lose.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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