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Comeback 'Kid' - Lance Armstrong Part 2
 
By Tim Lee
Date: 12/6/2009
Comeback 'Kid' - Lance Armstrong Part 2
 

Comeback 'Kid' - Lance Armstrong  Part 2
Armstrong finished his first event, the Tour Down Under, in 29th place and stated... ' it was good to blow out the cobwebs.' He looked much more in his element in the cooler and wetter Tour of California, finishing seventh and serving the first notice that this could indeed be a very serious comeback.


In good spirits at the start of stage 10 at the tour de France.
Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti  

The 'D' word
And then there is the issue of drugs. Of course there is, this is cycling after all... For the uninitiated and those who are ill-informed by only listening to mainstream press, there have been so many references to performance enhancing products when talking about Armstrong that it is now sadly par for the course. In their defense however, there has been an astonishing number of Armstrong's ex-team mates and closest rivals test positive for banned substances in the past, which naturally raises questions. A quick recap shows the names of Basso, Ullrich, Beloki, Pantani, Mancebo, Botero, Hamilton, Landis, Heras, Vinokourov, and Rumsas have all had their names sullied by either allegations or empirical proof that they have used banned products.

In the post Tour de France clean up this year, there were reports coming out of Denmark that Armstrong had suspicious blood markers at the French race. It was reported by laboratory scientists that the results Armstrong had published on his LIVESTRONG  website from the Tour showed anomalies in the form of both hemoglobin and hematocrit levels not dropping as much as would usually be expected and that his red blood cell count was actually lower than normal.

Moreover the small 'spikes' in the aforementioned markers seemed to correspond with tour rest days. While it was noted by several respected anti doping experts that blood manipulation was only one of numerous possible explanations, it was enough surely for alarm bells to ring? Add to this the fact that these levels could not be put down to Armstrong being a freak of nature because his Giro samples showed the expected characteristics.

While most riders would get straight on the phone to their lawyers and start the press rounds to counter the claims, Armstrong's rebuttal was as swift as it was easy. He tweeted a sarcastic acronym “How do you say SSDD in Danish?” which was largely thought to stand for 'same shit different day'. And that was it. Seemingly swept under the carpet as evidenced by there being no public follow up from any authority and no comment from the UCI. But then, why would they? It is mutually beneficial for all parties to maintain the status quo.

The same could be said for how easily Don Catlin's individual and independent anti doping program for Armstrong was quashed and forgotten, given that it was originally a cornerstone in Armstrong's early comeback plans to prove he was clean. That said however, he is part of the UCI's biological passport program and is still regarded as the most tested and heavily scrutinised athlete on the planet.

If there is one catch cry that keeps being repeated by the man himself, it's “Test me!”. On a tangent, wouldn't it be nice if the IOC just decided without notice to put all sports (yes, track and field, weightlifting, baseball, and football you would be included) on the biological passport system and serve penalties as harsh as cycling. Just imagine...


A few months later Lance finishes stage 15, the stage where Alberto took the yellow jersey. Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti  

Usually when rumblings begin to emerge, it is only a matter of time before the skeletons are found and it is game-on with the denials and pleas of ignorance. It may take months or it may take years, but sooner or later the truth usual emerges and the lies cannot sufficiently conceal it. In the case of Armstrong though, the myriad rumours and accusations have remained just that. On one hand there are good reasons for those in high places to use their influence and persuasive powers to help the greater good of the sport but in reality even this would surely not be enough given the amount of 'trolls', as Armstrong refers to them, that just cannot bring themselves to believe in miracles.

A friendly face
Armstrong has kept his reputation intact remarkably well, albeit with subtlety of a sledge hammer in some interviews and press conferences at times. Armstrong's repertoire of defense mechanisms ranges from brutal verbal assault (just ask Paul Kimmage who received a well deserved lashing at a tour of California press conference last February) and looks that could carve butter without it even making it hot, to witty and polished answers that leave experienced journalists speechless. His rapid retort is ever improving and he is most certainly a different man from the cocky world champion of 1993 who would often start his mouth before engaging his brain. This was most evident this year when on occasions he even appeared to be having fun when talking to the press. The word 'charming' had never before been used to describe a public Armstrong but that is what he served up, particularly in the less intense early season. For the first time in his career it was as if he wanted the press on his side. Why then?


Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong climb together on stage 16.
Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti  

The reasons for this have been the topic of much forum discussion but minimal comment from the man himself. Obviously the professional reasons for his comeback have an impact. For instance, during the Tour Down Under he was seen suited up and exchanging handshakes with Heads of State and even the Prime Minister more than wearing the clashing yellows and blues of his Astana team.

A hot headed temperament is not conducive to this. Then there is the potential future in Politics, which again would require much more tact and manicured responses than the previous bold assertions and counter accusations we had become accustomed to up until 2005. Finally there is the most obvious and sensible explanation that almost four years away from the sport, a new partner, and a fourth child could have mellowed the great man. Either way, he is coming across much more tame these days but still getting his message out with admirable impact.

The core numbers
Despite the wider reasons for the comeback, the backbone of it was returning to competition and pinning on a race number again. In number terms Armstrong finished his first event, the Tour Down Under, in 29th place and stated that he had made the correct choice to return and that it was good to blow out the cobwebs. He looked much more in his element in the cooler and wetter Tour of California, finishing seventh and serving the first notice that this could indeed be a very serious comeback.

The Spring races suggested otherwise. A DNF in Milan-San Remo must have been concerning. Not finishing a sprinter's race won by a first timer surely had the Armstrong camp worried but perhaps not as worried as when, on stage three of the Vuelta Castilla y Leon, a crash and subsequent fractured clavicle and ensuing operation had the potential to derail the whole season. Such was the amount riding on Armstrong being successful (let alone getting through the season) it was joked at the time that planet Earth temporarily ceased revolving around its axis in the interim until details were known.

To everyone's astonishment Armstrong started the Giro as per his original plan but was grossly under-prepared and predictably looked god uncomfortable for the first week, where there was a summit finish on stage four. Slowly though he pulled himself inside out to finish a very credible 12th overall.


Stage 17: Race leaders Armstrong, Contador and Andy Schleck climb the Araches.
Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti  

The big one however, would be how Armstrong's season was judged. The Tour de France made his name and now he would be risking it all again to see if he could still show he had what it took. We know now that he finished third, behind two of the brightest prospects for the foreseeable future and in front of the whole of the 2008 podium. A truly remarkable result given the circumstances.

OK, he did not win the race but standing on the Parisian podium meant that even his detractors could not call his comeback a failure or flop on a sporting level. Then, even before his undignified and as yet insufficiently explained exit from the Tour of Ireland, the whole "will he or won't he" debate started. This of course referred to whether or not Armstrong will be stronger or not next year.

While on the subject of numbers though, it is noteworthy to discuss the financial sums associated with this season-long epic. Armstrong made a clear point of telling the media that he was not actually on Astana's payroll and was in fact riding for 'free'. “Because I want to and I enjoy it” and “I'm having fun” were regular comments from the Texan when probed about his income. Perhaps less spoken about were his lavish sponsorship arrangements and decadent appearance fees at most races. Two million euros was a commonly touted figure regarding his Giro starting fee. That said, the media attention and sponsor interest he generated would be a number with many zeros trailing it. He managed to establish government funding for cancer research and treatment in most countries he attended, and the awareness he raised for cancer worldwide is absolutely immeasurable, so really his salary is of secondary importance in the big scheme of things.


Finishing the climb of Ventoux... Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti  

The Astana situation and beyond
Much has already been written about the clash within the Astana team during the Tour. Having the most successful Tour rider of all time and the current most dominant stage racer on the same team- and quite obviously coming from hugely different worlds- was always going to have the potential to turn ugly. The united front they presented pre-Tour slowly unraveled with each time gain or loss and in the aftermath since July all sorts of tales, both tall and true, have emerged to paint a picture of an incredibly strained relationship where the strongest athlete appeared to have had to use every ounce of his physical ability to keep the strongest personality from dominating the show. The aforementioned political speaking skills were used to perfection to the point where it appeared that a lot of Contador's verbal content could be interpreted as bickering or whinging. Thus in typical Contador fashion, his legs did most of the talking.

For all of his considerable public support of Alberto Contador, which to be honest appeared quite genuine and almost humbling at times, Armstrong used all of his influence to gently and strategically attack the only facet of Contador that he could beat. The mental game. The Texan perhaps did not count on this spurring the Spaniard on to drive home his superiority on the bike, but Contador later admitted that that it was in fact a lot easier than the times he spent off the bike. Contador was made to feel sequestered in his own team, a team that he had led the previous season with terrific success. But as stated earlier, Armstrong is not a one man show and it became obvious that team management and even some riders were siding with the American.

A fact that has since been reiterated as Armstrong announced he was leaving Astana and establishing a new team, The Shack. It is perhaps a sign of his immense power that Armstrong always wins in one way or another. He could not beat Contador at the Tour on the bike but he has effectively drained the majority of the Spaniard's resources by recruiting them from Astana to his new team. This stretches from from management to directors, riders, and several ancillary staff.


Podium 2009 tour de France: Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong  Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti  

With one year left to his contract, Contador has no reasonable option other than to stay with the team. In another stroke of luck (good or bad depending on which side you are on) Lance's closest confidant Johan Bruyneel was also in this position but was allowed to transfer and leave the sinking ship.

Furthermore, the man credited with creating the Astana team in 2006 has returned from a doping ban and as such was allowed the luxury of walking straight back into the team and riding the Vuelta for them. As a head figure of the team and with his links to the Astana's financial backers, Alexander Vinokourov will naturally demand a leadership role. This presents Contador with a carbon copy situation of one year ago when it was revealed that Lance was coming back. So, although he 'only' came third in the Tour, it appears Armstrong already has an early advantage over Contador in the battle for supremacy at the 2010 Tour de France. That in itself speaks volumes about Armstrong's evolution from merely a great rider to the most powerful figure in world cycling.


On the podium at the tour de France... 12th (11th actually) in the Giro, 3rd in le tour, not a bad year for a 37 year old rider, more than a few younger riders would love to do as well, comeback or not. Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti  

Clearly, everyone has a varying opinion about how Armstrong has handled this year back with cleats on his feet and it is obvious at this point that there is no right or wrong answer because there is quality to be considered as much as quantity in this ongoing episode that is as subjective as it is objective. What cannot be ignored is the immense impact that the return has had on all fronts- Lance has changed, new cancer initiatives have emerged, team line ups are reshuffling, race organisers and governing bodies are in a frenzy, and sponsors and media personnel are reconsidering what they thought they already knew. Does Lance actually ever have time to sleep???

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