Cycling: Can Lance Armstrong ride high again?
The world's most celebrated cyclist yesterday gave his strongest performance of a troubled comeback. Fellow riders and insiders tell Alasdair Fotheringham what they think he can achieve now
Wednesday 20 May 2009
The story of Lance Armstrong's comeback has not been one of freewheeling, straightforward success. Since he announced his return to cycling in September 2008, following a retirement that lasted more than three years, there have been more than a few bumps in the road.
Injury has been part of his problems. In March he broke his collar bone after falling in the first stage of a road race in Spain. That put him out for five weeks. All eyes are on the Tour de France which begins at the start of July. And right now the Giro d'Italia is proving interesting for some unexpected reasons. Armstrong has been vocal in protesting as the riders in his Astana team have gone unpaid for two months following problems with their sponsor. He has also ruffled feathers in Italy after being one of the leaders in a "go-slow" protest over riders' safety. And then there's the not insubstantial task of maintaining contact with the favourites in the mountains of northern Italy.
Yet Armstrong refuses to rule himself out of winning an eighth Tour de France this summer – at the age of 37. Yesterday over the Alpine climbs of the latest stage of the Giro came a glimpse of the competitor of old – he finished less than a minute behind the winner, race leader Danilo Di Luca – and, as he showed in Sunday's protests in Milan, he remains cycling's patron. The omens are good, very good.
So those in the know are starting to ask if the Texan could once again dominate the sport in July? Or launch his own team, if necessary? Or even end up buying the Tour de France itself?
From former team-mates to Tour de France winners, the conclusion is that for Armstrong, even after more three years away from racing, the sky is still the limit.
Great Britain's leading sprinter, Cavendish has raced with Armstrong in the Tour of California and the Milan-San Remo. He is now riding the Giro and has won one individual stage.
Lance Armstrong is Lance Armstrong – he's capable of achieving anything. I've seen how he races, I've seen what he can do, and I think he's even capable of winning the Tour de France for an eighth time this July if he puts his mind to it.
I'm not usually starstruck, but I was when I met Lance Armstrong in Las Vegas last year. We talk now and he sent me a text message congratulating me after I won Milan-San Remo. He's a super nice guy. He's all American but he's got a sense of humour.
The only drawback Armstrong has got is his team, whether it'll be united behind him. It could be a bit problematic. But he's still the rider everyone knew for the last 15 years as the rest of the younger riders were growing up. Personally, and whatever happens in the next few months, I think he's the greatest rider of the last generation and one of the greatest riders of all time. Whatever he achieves, that will not change."
A team-mate of Armstrong's for four years, Barry is riding the Giro for, Columbia-Highroad. Also a writer, his latest book is Inside the Postal Bus, my ride with Lance Armstrong (Velopress)
Whichever bike race you go to, you can quickly sense the mixture of respect, awe and even fear the riders have for Lance Armstrong.
At the Tour of California, his second race back, he and his team-mates would always mass at the front, right from the word go. They were in charge. As for Armstrong, he would usually be swinging along at the back of that group of Astana riders, just behind the tip of the bunch.
It's the nicest place to be in, and other guys would normally try to push whoever's in that position out of it. But when it was Lance, nobody even dared go close.
Curiously, when he started racing this time round he didn't seem anywhere near like the rider he was before he retired. He didn't have the same aura of confidence, project the same sense that he could do anything. But funnily most riders didn't seem to notice. He still inspired awe.
Certainly in the Tour de France it's going to be interesting. I'm sure he's going to try and win it. His strongest point in his favour is that he has the experience of doing it before, what his team called "the template" for winning the Tour. However, other things have changed. Before, even for top team-mates of Lance's like [triple Tour of Spain winner] Roberto Heras or [double Giro winner] Paolo Savoldelli, if there was the slightest sign they wanted to question the team hierarchy they knew they wouldn't be riding. They'd be out.
Now there's a couple of other riders on his team who could do something. [Team manager] Johan Bruyneel will have his work cut out to cope with that situation. Furthermore, it's not Lance's team anymore. The team existed before he came back. He doesn't own it – yet.
The veteran Spanish pro raced regularly against Armstrong before his first retirement. Calvente took part in the Tour of Castille and Leon in March, where Armstrong crashed out and broke his collarbone.
I've been racing for nearly a decade now and I've never seen anything like what Lance Armstrong has managed to achieve in his comeback: the crowds, the media, the whole atmosphere he creates is incredible.
In Spain, in one day's racing, he attracted more people than even [Spanish five-times Tour de France winner] Miguel Indurain used to do. You couldn't move at the start for people.
It wasn't just the fans. Half my team-mates wanted to go and ask him for autographs or have their photo taken with him. But they were too nervous.
I was the only one there who had ridden with Armstrong before he retired, and I could see there was no difference. He looks exactly the same, physically. So if he wants to go for the Tour, I think he could get it.
I just can't understand how that crash happened. He'd been with his team-mates all day close to the front, and when he went down, he was somewhere in the middle. Inexplicable.
But he's back now, which is what matters. Long-term, they say he's going to form his own team and he might even try to buy the Tour – no bad thing in my opinion and both entirely possible. The French have too much power. Armstrong would split that up.
Contador won the Tour in 2007 and the Giro last year. Rated the best stage racer in the world, his aim this summer is the same as his team-mate Armstrong – to win the Tour again.
I can't make too many predictions, but from what I've seen, I do know for sure that Armstrong is on the way up.
He had a good race in New Mexico and he was clearly motivated to get back into condition after falling off in the Tour of Castille and Leon.
For the Tour de France though, the Tour of Italy is the ideal race for him to polish up his condition. Really, though, the Giro is just one step for Lance. The big one is the Tour. As for how far Lance can go there, it's certainly possible he could be stronger than me, and if he is, I'm prepared to work for him.
But the hierarchy inside Astana is something we're deciding as the race goes on. If we get to the big climbs like Mont Ventoux, and we still don't know who's leader for the Tour, the team will be in big trouble.
The winner of the Tour last year, Sastre is Spain's most consistent stage racer of modern times.
Lance has won a lot of stages in the Tour de France before, but the stage to Alpe d'Huez in 2001 was the one that most impressed me. He managed to fool the entire opposition completely all the way over two mountains to the foot of the Alpe, he made them think he was having a rough day. Then having lulled them into complacency, he went for a killer attack. Amazing.
But as for Armstrong now? I neither trust him nor distrust him. I'm just more interested in what I can do.
A former journalist and TV commentator, Prudhomme has been the director of the Tour of France since 2007.
When I learned Armstrong was coming back, I was completely taken aback. Then, when we met up in November, I realised that he couldn't imagine a return to the sport without the Tour de France. But after each phase of the Armstrong comeback, firstly after the Tour Down Under in Australia, then the Tour of California and now in the Giro, on a sporting level we've only learned a little more.
So in that sense the pages of the Armstrong comeback story have been turning very slowly. But in terms of what he's achieved in the public consciousness, the pages couldn't have turned faster. From the moment he announced his comeback, it's been absolutely massive. It's got to the point that that nothing surrounding Lance Armstrong is rational any more, it's all so overplayed.
That's going to have one major consequence for us: in a year where there's no Olympics or World Cup, the Tour is going to be the sporting event of the summer for many sports fans. And Lance will be at the centre of it.
As for the impact he'll have in France, it'll be huge. It already is, in fact. I'll give you an example – what the mayor of the town of Manosque said to me during a race in March: whether the people love him or hate him, whether they like him or dislike him, they'll all come to the Tour because they want to see the beast.
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