Armstrong's latest comeback was less than spectacular, writes Jim Litke, but he should be judged on his contribution to cycling.
Lance Armstrong leaves a legacy at the end of a career
Lance Armstrong could never stand still. For all his other outsized traits, that restlessness still defines him. It propelled him to revolutionise a sport, become its greatest champion and a hero to cancer survivors worldwide. That same impulse is what drove him to get back on his bike barely two years ago and risk it all.
Back then, Armstrong was retired with his legacy largely intact, still every bit as powerful and public a figure as he desired. He dated starlets, swapped text messages with the pop star Bono, testified before US lawmakers and linked arms with the former American president Bill Clinton to announce an ambitious global initiative to combat the disease that nearly killed him 15 years earlier. Yet Sunday saw Armstrong shuffle off to the background at the Tour de France, standing quietly aside as the yellow jersey he wore seven years in a row was stretched across the slim shoulders of Alberto Contador, the 27-year-old Spaniard.
Seeing his one-time teammate and rival atop the podium for the second consecutive year certainly hurt. Armstrong finished third to Contador in 2009, in his first comeback ride after a layoff that stretched back to 2005. This time around, he was plagued by cobblestones and flat tyres, caught up in crashes and no longer a factor even before the midway point of the race. He eventually faded to 23rd, almost 40 minutes behind the winner.
The sting of this defeat could linger even longer because of a federal investigation launched earlier this year following accusations of doping by Floyd Landis, another former teammate, that one or more of Armstrong's seven tour titles were achieved by doping. "In 10 years, when I look back on the 2010 Tour, it won't be the memory that I have," Armstrong said earlier on Sunday, before the final stage run-in to Paris.
"Obviously, I won't have a yellow jersey to remember - I'll remember the team, digging deep to win the team [competition] ... I'll remember having my son here for a week at the Tour. I'll remember the bad luck, certainly, the crashes. "But that," Armstrong added, referring to Landis's allegations against him and others, "won't be the thing that I'll take away." Armstrong has never shied away from attention. He is perhaps the most frequently tested athlete on the planet and has never come back positive. But he learned early on that would not be enough to keep suspicion at bay.
But, whether as plaintiff or defendant, Armstrong has won every court case he has fought, and pushed back hard against attempts to nail him by French anti-doping authorities, several damaging books and even questions about some of his associates - notably the Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, whom he quietly dropped soon after. Yet the ongoing investigation, making headlines as he struggled to stay in the race, has put both that record and his legacy in jeopardy. Even Armstrong acknowledged as much.
"Legacies won't ever be written the same now, like they were before - in this era of 24-7 news and media, and blogs and speculation and the constant need for attention from the media," he said. "If Frank Sinatra lived today, he'd have a much more difficult time being Frank Sinatra." Armstrong was already a world-class triathlete at 15, even before cancer and arguably the toughest training regimen ever transformed him into something as close to a machine as humanly possible.
During his run, Armstrong also boasted the most money, best team, support staff and state-of-the-art equipment. He might jet down to train on the moonscapes of Tenerife, up to the tip of L'Alpe d'Huez, or rent a wind tunnel to find out if the material on the back of his jersey bunched up too much - ridges mean more resistance to wind. Those innovations changed cycling forever. "It was a very traditional sport, very old school, almost relaxed," he said.
"We just wiped it all clean and said, 'We're going to analyse every little thing.'" As Armstrong walks away for the second time, he is determined not to let the controversies define him. "I gave up fighting that a long time ago," he said. "It's not going to stop me from running my foundation. It won't stop me from being a good father to my kids. It won't stop me from doing whatever I want to do with my life."