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He’s Back.
By Tom Demerly.

The rumors are true. CNN, Reuters and the Associated Press report that Lance Armstrong (37) will attempt to ride and win the 2009 Tour de France.

Armstrong returns from retirement amidst a flurry of suspicion surrounding the legitimacy of his previous 7 consecutive Tour de France victories. Did he dope? Books, newspaper articles and documentaries allege that he did. They argue that his victories were surrounded by a web of conspiracy and subterfuge as twisted as a “Jason Bourne” type thriller.

But none of the proof is conclusive. It is all circumstantial and anecdotal.

Armstrong has been vigorous in the defense of his victories. He has waged legal campaigns around the world against his accusers. He hasn’t always won the outcomes, but he also hasn’t been proven guilty. We have a system here in America; it’s innocent until proven guilty. So that is what we’re going with.

Armstrong’s return raises some obvious questions. Firstly, why would he come back? The press reports it is “…in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden.” That’s good. I doubt it is the entire reason.

Armstrong is fueled by anger. Some people are. It works for them. He is pissed about the rumors, the lawsuits, the accusations. I think he wants to prove he’s clean. I think he wants to go back to France, throw down with the world’s best cyclists at the world’s largest race and prove he can win clean. He will, by association, legitimize his previous 7 wins. Cancer may be the reason they are talking about in the press, and I’m certain the Cancer cause will benefit, but Armstrong’s most chronic malignancy is anger.

If I were the other guys in the Tour, I’d be concerned.

There is a lot to be ironed out here. Firstly, as this story hits the media, there has been no word from the Tour de France organization. They banned the Astana team from the last Tour de France and Astana is the team media outlets report Armstrong would ride for. I haven’t read a single report yet that says the Tour de France will allow Armstrong to ride.

Armstrong has to recover the exceptional form and fitness that won him 7 Tours de France. That won’t be easy, especially at 37. He has to have a team that is strong enough. And mostly, he has to have that trademark Texas luck that kept him from crashing behind Beloki, got him up off the pavement when he did crash after colliding with a fan and escape all the other countless brushes with happenstance that sabotage a Tour de France victory. Armstrong has to be fit, lucky and have a great team. Oh, and he has to be invited. Other than that, yeah, number eight is in the bag.

If Armstrong is successful in his comeback he will have done something else (in addition to the cancer recovery and seven consecutive wins) no other rider in Tour De France history has done. He would become the oldest winner. There has only been one occasion when a rider over 34 has won the Tour De France and there are a few asterisks associated with that win.

Firmin Lambot, a Belgian saddle maker turned pro cyclist, won the Tour de France in 1919 after its return following World War 1. The Tour was a shadow of its former and current self, with significant problems and changes to the course due to war torn roads and other snafus. Lambot only won after the famous incident when Eugene Christophe broke a fork in a crash and took his bicycle to a local blacksmith during the race to repair the broken fork himself. Rules at the time forbade outside assistance, so Christophe had to perform the repair entirely by himself. Popular lore says that a young boy had to pump the forge for Christophe to heat the fork and make repairs. Race officials said that since the boy "assisted" Christophe by pumping the forge in the blacksmith shop that Christophe had cheated. It's an interesting parallel to modern times: Suppose a rider won the Tour de France now using fortifications that aren't on a banned list because they are so new and so advanced- it would be a little like Christophe's assistance from the boy in 1919. Clearly, the question of cheating in the Tour de France is not a new issue. Lambot won the 1919 Tour de France at the age of 34, then the oldest rider to have done so. He went on to win again- benefiting from another mechanical mishap suffered by the race leader- in 1922. He was 36 years old in 1922, the oldest rider to ever win the Tour de France.

Since Lambot two other geriatric (in cycling terms) cyclists have distinguished themselves in the Tour de France. Joop Zoetemelk of The Netherlands is the oldest finisher at 41 when he had to petition the Tour de France committee for a waiver to the rule that no rider over 40 can compete. The venerable Russian, Viatcheslav Ekimov, former henchman to Armstrong, finished the 2006 Tour de France when he was 40 years old. Ekimov complete 15 Tours de France to Zoetemelk's all time record of 16 race finishes. Zoetmelk did win the Tour de France in 1980 at the age of 34. Ekimov never won The Tour but distinguished himself as a super domestique.

Armstrong hasn’t been proven guilty as a rider but cycling has been proven guilty as a sport again and again. It has been as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. Numerous riders have been ejected from the Tour de France for positive dope tests and violations of accountability rules. Those same riders have won other grand tours without a single positive test. Seems odd. Rider’s are doping, that is a fact.

If Armstrong returns and does win clean he will not only be responsible for raising awareness of cancer he will also become the Texas Sheriff who single handedly cleaned up the (image of) the sport in many people’s minds. Love him or hate him, that would be good.

While some cyclists are grumbling about Armstrong’s return it will benefit the sport by renewing attention to it. Armstrong invigorated cycling with his incredible recovery from cancer, his amazing victories, his brash and analytical approach and maybe even with the controversy. From Tour victory number five to number seven TV ratings for the Tour de France in the U.S. were solid; last year and the year before they sagged. It seemed that when Lance left the Tour de France the Tour de France left the consciousness of the American public. Ask anyone wearing a yellow bracelet to name an American who rode in the Tour de France last year or the year before and I wager they will have to think a moment even if they can conjure up a name.

I’m suspicious of Armstrong. His seven victories came so “easily” even though we all saw him suffer mightily. I think of other great champions, Merckx, Hinault, LeMond, Indurain and Anquetil. The most they could muster was a maximum of five victories. Team mates of Armstrong admitted to doping and have tested positive for doping. But not Armstrong. Despite the allegations he has somehow dodged the bullet of abject guilt. Maybe he didn’t dope. Nothing has been proven.

There are reasons why Armstrong may have won seven Tours de France when the other great champions were only able to win a maximum of five. Firstly, Armstrong concentrated exclusively on winning the Tour to the exclusion of all other cycling events. The other riders did not do that. Armstrong also benefited from technology that simply did not exist in the era of LeMond, Indurain, Hinault, Merckx and Anquetil. Armstrong’s team was organized specifically to ride for him in the Tour de France and his leadership was never in question. Armstrong also benefited from the counsel of Merckx, Hinault, Indurain and even his arch nemesis, Greg LeMond. There are compelling arguments for why Armstrong became the greatest ever Tour de France rider. Those arguments are the basis of my choice to believe even as I hold on to some of my cynicism.

I’d like to believe in Armstrong and since I can decide what I believe in, I am going to believe. I’m going to believe he was clean and is clean. I’m cynical, disbelieving even, but I’m selling myself on this story for now. I like a good story and I’m willing to have my cynical self proven wrong in exchange for one. If this works out, it will be a hell of a story. It is a long shot though. Some people survive cancer, no one survives aging and that is what Armstrong is doing.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this supposed “comeback”. The one question I don’t have about it is whether or not it will be interesting. That is a guarantee.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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