It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. When Lance Armstrong announced he was coming out of retirement in September of 2008, many presumed he would take up his career where he left off—winning the Tour de France.
Popular speculation was that Johan Bruyneel’s protege, Alberto Contador, by dint of his young age could conceivably rack up a longer streak of wins at the Tour de France than Armstrong. And if there’s anyone who hates to be beaten, it’s Mellow Johnny.
Some took a more cynical view. At the point of Armstrong’s retirement, Team Tailwinds, the company behind the US Postal and Discovery Channel Team was facing a fair amount of investigation related to doping. Dissolving the formation took the heat off all involved. And with the investigations into the various scandals sufficiently exhausted, Armstrong returned to the sport with a seemingly fresh start.
But 2009 wasn’t 2005. Armstrong was accustomed to being boss, getting his way—and was willing to use whatever tricks it took such as intimidation or outright firing to get his way. The peloton has more than a few riders who got crossed up with Armstrong and saw their careers suffer for it. Anyone remember Chad Gerlach?
But Alberto Contador didn’t step aside. With three Grand Tour victories under his belt, it’s not surprising. By any reasonable standard, Contador had come of age and was within his right to believe that Armstrong had had his time and should stay retired.
History is full of examples of wars in which one side fought by conventional means while the other battled back by guerilla tactics. It’s what the American colonists did during the Revolutionary War, what the Vietnamese did during the Vietnam War and what the insurgents are doing in Irag and Afghanistan. Guerilla tactics are the object lesson of the story of David and Goliath.
Armstrong always liked to portray himself as David in his matchups against Jan Ullrich, but with Alberto Contador, he was the proverbial Goliath: slow to adapt and inadequately defended. While Armstrong appreciated Contador’s physical strength, he underestimated the Spaniard’s force of will. Contador is certainly not the first rider to go rogue within a team in a bid to win the Tour, but he is arguably the rider who had to fight the hardest to do so and succeed.
Of course, Armstrong fans reacted to his third place with a “not bad” and waited for the 2010 Tour like a bunch of fanboys waiting for the next Spiderman film. The Lance would be back and he would whoop some ‘Murkin-style ass.
What he didn’t count on was that his return to the pro peloton would coincide with Floyd Landis’ snub by same. The crazy math going on inside of Landis’ brain believes light speed travel is totally doable and that the U.S. government was behind the fall of Troy. Most of us learned long ago not to mess with crazy. What Armstrong didn’t know was that Landis was at the breaking point. How could he? And while he didn’t go looking to lock horns with Landis, his return to the ProTour seems to have been read by Landis as insult to injury. It’s fair to wonder if Landis’ e-mail screed would have taken place if Big Tex was still banging one of the Olsen twins and surfing with Matthew McConaughey; after all, what else could have squarely placed a bullseye on Armstrong than his resumption of the very thing Landis wanted most and was being denied.
And while Landis may seem to be crazier than Amy Winehouse, bat-shit crazy doesn’t preclude what he says from being true.
Running high is media speculation that Armstrong’s crash-filled spring and summer is as a result of distracted riding. Conventional wisdom is that he’s so preoccupied with Landis’ allegations and defending himself that his mind just isn’t in the game. No matter what the cause, at this Tour de France, we seem to have seen an old Armstrong, not the old Armstrong.
The latest twist in this unfolding saga is Armstrong’s retention of Brian D. Daly as his defense attorney. Daly, a former federal prosecutor is an ideal choice for a vigorous defense. He is intimately familiar with the techniques and strategies used by prosecutors, and while that is certainly useful, the long list of ex-teammates who have been subpoenaed and are alleged to have agreed to cooperate with the investigation could be … well, let’s just say that throwing one very good attorney at this problem could be like trying to hold back flood waters with a stop sign.
Complicating matters is Greg LeMond, who seems eager to step from the wings. What LeMond can contribute to these proceedings beyond a he said/he said mudslinging with Armstrong is unknown at best and even somewhat doubtful at worst. But it is LeMond’s participation that has brought about what is one of the ugliest statements Armstrong has made.
He told France 2, “We will have the opportunity to tell the truth to the authorities, and Greg LeMond will tell the truth about 1989 I hope.”
So far as I can find, this is the closest Lance Armstrong has ever come to calling another rider out as a doper. For a guy who has been notoriously mum on the activities of other riders, even those convicted of doping, it seems oddly incongruous that he would suggest that LeMond has a hidden doping past.
The moment we choose to believe a rider is clean we make a leap of faith. However, unlike the irrational leap necessary to believe in God, the demise of Greg LeMond’s career coincides neatly with the rise of EPO.
LeMond’s attitude toward doping has always seemed so Boy Scout, in part because his career has been marked by betrayals perpetrated due to his naivete, that considering whether or not he doped smacks of thinking Pete Townshend took up guitar just to get chicks.
LeMond’s victory in the 1989 Tour de France was very likely the next-to-last Tour de France won by a clean athlete.
It’s ironic that the one cyclist Armstrong would seem to suggest doped is one who could easily be accepted as clean.
Stranger still is the fact that Armstrong’s comeback may ultimately do more to damage his legacy than strengthen it.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International