Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Coming Back Is Like Riding A Bike

Lance Armstrong announced that he was officially coming out of retirement and that he is going to win the Tour de France. The "elite" in cycling this year were "domestiques," or supporting cast, when Armstrong was cycling. Granted that is the nature of things, but he still thinks that Carlos Sastre's impressive and decisive climb up Alpe D'Huez wasn't impressive enough and he wants to take another crack at winning.

I am all for Armstrong's return. The man is among the greatest athletes, greatest competitors, and greatest stories on the planet, and maybe more importantly, the French absolutely hate him. During his seven-year run at the top of the Tour de France, he was constantly harangued by the French media and called a cheater despite never having tested positive for any banned substance. Allegedly a French newspaper found a b-sample if his and it tested positive for blood doping substances, but the claim was never supported, nor looked into. Sour grapes.

Another reason I am for Armstrong returning is that apparently he plans to do it for free. He doesn't want a salary. He wants to win, and he wants to raise money and attention for a cure for cancer (not necessarily in that order). So what team wouldn't want him?

Astana, who was not allowed to ride in the 2008 Tour because former members of the team had been dopers, is the strongest team in the world so Armstrong would be well supported there. They also employ some of his old teammates and his good friend and former manager/strategist Johan Bruyneel. But cycling is unlike most sports: it is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. The other eight guys on a team are really only there to protect their star and get him the overall win in the end...not necessarily the daily stage wins. Armstrong would not automatically be the star on Astana, which already boasts one Tour de France champion and no less than four reasonable favorites (guys who would be The Man if on many other teams).

Armstong would be a great fit on either of the two American teams who rode in the 2008 Tour. Team Garmin/Chipotle (as in handheld GPS/Tacos) already has a legitimate #1 man, American Christian Vandevelde, who rode in Armstrong's shadow before and would not likely want to give up his spot at the top of the pile too easily. However, the who the #1 man is is generally determined on the roads, not on the team bus.

Team Columbia (as in the clothing company, not the nation) has Armstrong's old brother-in-arms Georgie Hincapie and no true elite #1 man. They do have plenty of very good support riders and that is what Armstrong needs most. But the reason that they are the most perfect fit, besides the blue jerseys that became his signature with USPS and Discovery (when he wasn't in yellow), is that the team was founded on the sole principle of competing cleanly. They were originally called Team High Road to illustrate that point before gaining major sponsorship right before the 2008 Tour de France.

Armstrong would have to go through the sport's doping program that says he must be tested randomly, any time, any day, for six months before being allowed to come out of retirement. But the first people who knew that he was planning to pull a Favre was the sport's anti-doping people...he announced his intentions to them before the media, so I don't think peeing in a cup 50 or 60 times is much of a concern.

Another wrinkle to the 2009 Tour de France that will almost certainly be the most watched Tour in history is the fact that disgraced American Floyd Landis will be eligible to ride in it after his two year ban will have expired. I still feel that Landis was innocent of the charges levied against him but a dramatic storyline will be if a team will take a shot at hiring him, if he was able to keep his form and competitive edge, and if his replacement hip will allow him to ride on form.

If that wasn't enough, American former Olympic road racing gold medalist, Tyler Hamilton, who was also previously suspended for doping, won the U.S. National road racing championships last month and will almost certainly be looking for a higher profile team to ride on next season.

I think Armstrong will ride again next summer. I think he will have teams knocking down his door trying to sign him (imagine the literally free publicity for signing the greatest athlete in the sport's history to a free contract). I think the major sponsors who walked away from the sport last year are probably scrambling to find a team whose backs they can slaps their names on. I think the organizers will "Lance-proof" the race like they tried over and over to do before. I think there will be at least two, and maybe three Americans on the stage on the Champs Elyse. And I think Armstrong's hair may be a little grayer, but his jersey in Paris will be just as yellow as it always was.

And as a final, unrelated note: what was Shawne Merriman's dumbest career move? Taking steroids and getting caught a few years ago, or not having major reconstructive surgery to fix the two torn tendons in his knee in February like four doctors told him to do and instead waiting so he could play poorly in week one (and lose) and then decide to have the surgery, thus missing the entire season. I can't imagine having to root for a guy this stupid. Thank God I can't stand the Chargers.


stevieleigh said...


That was one of the finest written pieces on all-things-cycling-that-are-happening-right-now that I believe I have read. Well done!

Your color reference to gray hair and yellow jerseys was a masterful turn of phrase.

To me, this will be the Tour that we thought we were getting in 2006...right up until the day prior when Basso and Ullrich were booted.

2009's Tour boasts an equally exciting potential line-up (without Ullrich, unfortunately): Basso, Landis, Contador, Armstrong, Levi and the boys who refuse to attack but somehow hang on in Menchov and Cadel.

I'd love to see the big climbers and the chicken all race together as well.

Alas, the world is not perfect but thank you for writing such a perfect blog.

Scott T. Bergen said...

Thanks for the great compliments! I appreciate it. I had forgotten that Ivan Basso was coming back too. Too bad Jan and Vinokourov won't be around.

And an update: although every website on earth seems to say that Astana doesn't want Lance, their manager Johan Bruyneel doesn't seem to give a damn - he wants him: "He won't have a problem finding a team. But it's clear that the relationship we have means that I can't allow him to go to another team. For me it would be nice to be a part of this."