Armstrong’s comeback: real deal or whim?
MONACO (AP) — This is what retirement ultimately might look like for Lance Armstrong: reminiscing about his Tour de France exploits to an audience of suits and evening dresses who paid $1,000 a plate to hear him and mingling with a couple of princes.
No wonder Armstrong got back into cycling. He isn’t quite ready to go gentle into the good night of cocktail engagements and perhaps – only he knows – a life in politics. He’s not yet finished with his bike.
So Armstrong – a rebel with a cause – rolled up in denim jeans and an open-collared black shirt to a fundraiser for his cancer foundation in Monaco on Thursday night, less than 48 hours before he embarks on the most hotly anticipated comeback to the most storied race in cycling.
Monaco’s Prince Albert II, a Jordanian prince and princess and the other 100 or so guests were dressed and perfumed to the nines. Armstrong apologized, telling them that in packing for the Tour he omitted a tie.
“This is what you get,” he said.
Before cutting out early to bank sleep for the hard roads ahead, skipping the lobster salad and roasted medallions of lamb, Armstrong did at least partly answer the burning question: What brought you back? Why, in the shadow of the casino that helped make Monaco both famous and wealthy, would you risk your Tour legacy by racing again at the possibly overripe age of 37?
Over the next three weeks, in a most unforgiving physical test, there is a genuine possibility that rivals 10 years his junior or more could reduce the once unbeatable Armstrong to an also-ran. The record of seven consecutive Tour wins that he built from 1999 to 2005, on the ashes of his own battle against cancer, could become an edifice to the rider Armstrong once was but no longer is.
Or, less likely, the 37-year-old Texan could win again. What a story that would be.
Either way, Armstrong figures, this is a gamble he’s already won. Measured in donations, pledges and support for the foundation which bears his name, Armstrong’s decision to return to cycling is already paying off. It brought him those guests to the fundraiser, where an Armstrong-autographed Tour yellow jersey, a signed wheel and other items auctioned for $53,000. His campaign against cancer is going global. Despite the recession, sales of Livestrong merchandise have hit new highs and donations to the foundation rose by 6 percent in the first quarter of 2009.
“Some people from the sporting side said this is about sport, this is about him wanting to win an eighth Tour, this is about him wanting to be on TV again, this is about him missing the spotlight. That’s not it at all,” Armstrong told his invitees.
“I have to say that I think we have already won,” he declared. “I have my own ideas and my own ambition, of course, but if we roll in third or fourth, I will unequivocally say that this has been a success.”
That Armstrong and the Tour now need each other again is one of the biggest paradoxes of his comeback. In 2005, their relationship seemed over.
Armstrong quit railing against the “cynics and the skeptics” who refused to believe that a cancer-survivor could be so dominant without taking banned drugs.
Those who run the Tour suggested he wouldn’t be missed. Many in cycling looked forward to a supposedly new and doubt-free era.
How misplaced those hopes proved.
After three subsequent Tours tarnished by doping scandals, even some of Armstrong’s rivals now see his return as good publicity.
“He has a lot of courage to do that,” said Bjarne Riis, who runs the Saxo Bank team. “We all have to thank him a lot for coming back.”
Racing again can’t erase the doping questions that hang over Armstrong’s exploits. The battle between those who believe in and those who doubt Armstrong has been fought to a standstill.
This time, Armstrong’s entourage has leaned on cycling’s powers for him to be tested as often as possible, preferably every three days. Armstrong has publicized the tests – about 34 by his count – in Twitter postings. He told cycling author John Wilcockson that one reason he’s back is to silence the skeptics, so his four kids don’t grow up “reading all these things about me and doping.”
Make no mistake, Armstrong will win this race if he can. He’s shed some 25 pounds, looks like his wiry former self and as if he’s enjoying the riding and being back with the boys in the peleton.
“Those of us who knew him well knew that ‘retire’ is not a word that is in his vocabulary,” said Doug Ulman, president of the Armstrong foundation.
Claiming success with his cancer campaign before the race has even begun gives Armstrong an out should his aging legs be unable to match his on-bike ambitions. Losing won’t matter so much as long as he helps teammate Alberto Contador, the 2007 champion, win again. Selfless dedication is a prized virtue in cycling and Armstrong could win fans by sacrificing himself for the Spaniard should he prove the stronger of the two. Armstrong has already laid ground for that possibility.
As always, he’s got his bases covered.

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