Well, it appears it is official, Lance Armstrong, the uncontested best Tour de France rider ever with 7 tour victories has announced his intention to return to the sport with the goal of competing in the 2009 Tour de France.
According to Armstrong spokesman, Mark Higgins, Lance isn’t racing to “win second”. I know Lance and I don’t think he would race for second. Lance hates losing more than any person I have ever known. And as someone that has spent the better part of my life in very competitive environments from the pressure cooker of the Olympic Training Center for four years to the world of venture capital funded high-tech start-ups I have been around some of the toughest competitors you can imagine.
Some pundits are already suggesting that Lance can’t win and that it is possible that he won’t even be the protected leader of his likely team, Astana – I suggest that these pundits need to brush up on their Lance history. He won the tour just a year after nearly dying of cancer. Hardly the sort of preparation that one would call ideal for optimal performance.
They say that 37 is an impossible age at which to win the tour citing the statistic that the oldest winner in tour history was 34 and he won the race before the second world war. They forget that Joop Zoetemelk, a Dutch rider, finished 2nd in the tour during his 38th year and that in this same year Joop also won the Amstel Gold Race and the World Professional Road Championships – not too bad for a guy that would have been eligible to race in the “Master’s” category here in the states!
Frankly I don’t think that Lance would make this decision in a cavalier fashion. Most likely he did so in consultation with his coach, Chris Carmichael and maybe his doctors (whomever they are at this time). My guess would be that it wasn’t just talking either that yielded the decision. Lance probably did some pretty heavy duty physiological testing and found that his own biological capabilities are still better than any other current cyclist.
I can’t imagine that Lance would put his record on the block so casually. After all, the athlete that retires at the top of his game (and stays out of the sport from then on) is vanishingly rare. I’m sure there are many folks like me out there who hope that if Lance is going to be in the TDF starthouse in July of 09 that he has every reason to expect to do what he has done in every one of his last tours; dominate from start to finish.
In many respects the tour may well be easier than in prior years. Depending upon the riders still serving out suspensions for doping violations Lance may face a field as compromised as the one that we watched in the most recent edition, a race I’d characterize as a shadow of the races Lance had won in years past. In fact I could hardly reconcile this past year’s tour with a professional event at all. The caliber of the top riders has been so reduced due to the doping penalties doled out seemingly en mass.
At least I hope that Lance has been so careful in his decision-making. Nothing is sadder than to watch a great champion come back to the sport that made him famous and see the same individual humbled by age, by younger athletes, and by the human weakness of wanting just once more to stand in the limelight of that white shining moment and know what it feels like to be number one at something just one last time.
Good Luck, Lance, and God Speed. If you’re going to go for it please let us see the Lance we remember and not one we wish we could forget.