Lance Armstrong wanted to end his Tour de France career on a winning note. Instead, his chances of victory long since gone, he was denied even the dignified exit he must have hoped for yesterday when, as the final stage of his final Tour was getting under way, officials told him and his team-mates to stop riding and change their kit.
A former cancer sufferer who has his own foundation – Livestrong – to fight the illness, the 38-year-old American and his RadioShack squad had planned to wear special jerseys on the Champs Elysées to raise awareness for his campaign. The garments were snazzy, all-black affairs with a huge 28 to represent the 28 million people affected by cancer worldwide. But despite having the best of intentions, the team was told by the men in suits – the International Cycling Union (UCI) – that the jerseys could not be worn.
The stage start was delayed by a tense 20 minutes as officials argued with Armstrong's team about the change, pointing out that the jerseys lacked prior authorisation. A compromise allowed the riders to pedal through the warm-up zone wearing their Livestrong tops. But the situation then became ridiculous as the American and his team had to take off their gear in front of spectators in the town of Longjumeau outside Paris.
While Armstrong's change was not shown on television, his team-mates were filmed squatting on the pavement and roadside frantically getting changed while the rest of the bunch slowpedalled and laughed into their (perfectly legal) sleeves.
Armstrong, visibly annoyed by the dispute, then broke another rule. His usual jersey, fished out of a following car, did not have his identifying number glued to its back. He was forced to drop back to his team car to get a replacement. He rejoined the peloton with his race numbers flapping wildly in the wind - "as if," commented the Tour's official website, "he was a first-year junior starting his first race."
Armstrong is far from a rookie, however. Seven times a Tour winner after recovering from testicular cancer, he retired in 2005 but staged a staged a comeback last year, finishing a superb third overall at the age of 37. But his final Tour has gone badly askew. He has crashed four times – more than in his previous 12 Tours put together – and the resulting injuries from one bad fall in the Alps two weeks ago wrecked his challenge. Since then, he has barely been noticed in the bunch.
It would be hard if not impossible to find equivalents of such obsessive stickling in other sports – telling Michael Schumacher in his last Formula One race that he could not wear a different colour helmet, perhaps, or ruling that Tiger Woods could not use a different colour club.
Nor is the final stage of the Tour a serious racing affair, barring the last few laps of the Champs Elysées: in the first few kilometres, the overall winner, Alberto Contador, could be seen swigging a glass of champagne and firing a water-pistol while pedalling along.
The ban on Armstrong's jerseys seemed particularly insensitive, as one of French television's main commentators for the Tour, double winner Laurent Fignon, was diagnosed with cancer in 2009.
Despite undergoing treatment, Fignon has continued to provide race analysis this year, his shaven head, hoarse voice and intense, bespectacled stare a regular feature of the coverage.
The UCI initially announced a 6,200 Swiss franc (£3,800) fine, but later backpedalled somewhat, saying that it would be donated to a cancer charity.
Finding himself at the mercy of the Tour's rule enforcers over something so trival must have been hard to take for Armstrong, but at least he and his team had the last laugh, donning their black jerseys to receive their prize as the best Tour team and for their lap of honour on the Champs Elysées – where not even cycling's jobsworths could reach them.Reuse content