Lance Armstrong, the only man to win the Tour de France seven times, officially ended a comeback that failed to recapture the glory of that record-breaking run and instead was dogged by an ongoing federal investigation into allegations of performance-enhancing drug use and other improprieties during the height of his Tour success.
The 39-year-old Texan first retired in 2005 and said this time he means it.
“I can’t say I have any regrets. It’s been an excellent ride,” Armstrong told the Associated Press in an interview published Wednesday morning. “I really thought I was going to win another Tour.”
It certainly looked promising after an inspiring race through France in the 2009 Tour that seemed to wash away his four-year layoff. He finished a strong third and it was clear his competitive juices were back.
But last summer’s Tour was a different story. Riding for his new RadioShack team, he was plagued by crashes and bike problems and finished 23rd. Yet through it all, crowds greeted the banged-up Armstrong with cheers.
His retirement has as much to do with his growing responsibilities and family — that includes five children — as it does with the physical limitations time has imposed, he said.
In a formal statement, Armstrong said he would “devote myself full time to my family, to the fight against cancer and to leading the [Livestrong] foundation I established before I won my first Tour de France.”
In his final race, in Australia’s Tour Down Under last month, Armstrong finished 65th. But that didn’t matter because, without exception, Armstrong’s presence lifted any race into the spotlight.
Chris Horner, a member of the RadioShack team, has raced with and against Armstrong.
“There was the pure power, but no one talks much about how cunning he was tactically. His power output and the race tactics, he just overwhelmed everybody,” Horner said.
“The doping thing might trail him but it will never surpass what he’s done.”
RadioShack has no regrets sponsoring Armstrong.
“We’re tremendously proud that we’ve been able to partner with him in his final two seasons on the bike, and more importantly, generating nearly $6 million for Livestrong in the process,” said Lee Applbaum, RadioShack Corp chief marketing officer.
Pressure remains, however.
A federal grand jury in Los Angeles continues to hear evidence about the world of professional cycling after disgraced 2006 Tour champion Floyd Landis claimed Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs and taught others how to beat the testers. Armstrong has denied the allegations.
Landis, in a text message, told The Times he had no thoughts on Armstrong’s retirement, that “I’ve left cycling in search of the good in the world.”
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles declined to comment when asked about Armstrong’s retirement, and a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency official similarly said nothing when asked what role the years of constant testing and the ongoing criminal probe might have played in Armstrong’s decision.
The World Anti-Doping Code allows for such probes to continue amid an athlete’s retirement.
Armstrong has claimed to be the most-tested athlete on the planet. He came back clean every time, and vehemently denies ever using performance-enhancing drugs.
“I can’t control what goes on in regards to the investigation,” Armstrong told AP. “That’s why I hire people to help me with that. I try not to let it bother me and just keep rolling right along. I know what I know. I know what I do and I know what I did. That’s not going to change.”
Armstrong’s success story is unmatched. He rallied from a life-threatening bout with testicular cancer to win his first tour in 1999.
He then set about recalibrating both the popularity of his sport and how much influence athletes can wield for a cause — in his case, on behalf of cancer survivors.
“Sales of road bikes went through the roof and he personally revitalized road racing in this country,” said author Martin Dugard, who wrote the book “Chasing Lance.”
Bob Stapleton, manager of rival Team HTC-Highroad, knows the shadow cast by Armstrong is huge.
“This will be a painful process for Armstrong and his fans, no matter what questions people raise,” he said. “But there has to be real respect for what this guy did overall. You don’t have to like him — and many don’t — but … he has enormous respect from his peers. Guys who do the sport know how hard it is.
“Whatever comes of the investigation, I don’t think that will change the totality of the legacy of Armstrong.”
Author Dugard isn’t so sure.
“If he’s found guilty after vowing his innocence, after so many have made him a hero, it’d be as crushing as being told there is no Santa Claus,” he said. “He’s a symbol of hope and inspiration to so many. If he’s indicted, it’s the end of the innocence.”