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By John Wilcockson
Whatever the reasons for Lance Armstrong deciding to make a comeback to the Tour de France after a three-year absence — whether to raise awareness of a worldwide cancer initiative, to lay to rest the decade-old doping accusations that still hound him or simply for the heck of it — he knows that the eyes of the world will be on him.
When Armstrong enters the start house at the 2009 Tour’s stage 1 time trial in Monaco next July 4, he will be under more scrutiny than at any point in his phenomenal life. That’s because when he began his historic comeback from cancer that culminated in victory at the ’99 Tour he was just another athlete in just another sport — for the American public, at least. Now, as an American sports icon after seven consecutive Tour championships, his near-messianic status in the cancer community and the tabloid celebrity he has acquired in the three years since he quit racing, Armstrong will be the focus of a huge media circus next summer.
And should he make this comeback even more remarkable than his first one by actually winning the Tour for a mind-jarring eighth time his fame will enter the stratosphere. But how realistic are Armstrong’s chances of achieving his audacious goal?
At 37, he would be the oldest Tour winner in history, a year older than 1922 champ Firmin Lambot of Belgium. But age doesn’t seem to be the biggest hurdle he has to overcome. There’s the obvious example of Frenchman Raymond Poulidor who finished second to the legendary Eddy Merckx in the 1974 Tour at age 38, and third two years later, at age 40, behind Lucien Van Impe and Joop Zoetemelk. Zoetemelk, of course, won the Tour at age 34, the world road championship at 38 and, in the 20th and final season of his career, the Amstel Gold Race at age 40.
Furthermore, there seems to be a return to the era of three decades ago when riders like Poulidor and Zoetemelk routinely raced into their late 30s. Just a month ago, 37-year-old Davide Rebellin took silver at the Olympic road race in Beijing; Tyler Hamilton, 36, just won the U.S. national road title; Levi Leipheimer, 35 next month, is contending for victory at the current Vuelta a España; Gilberto Simoni, 37, is still competitive in his 14th season of pro racing; and, in his 15th season, Erik Zabel, 38, has had 19 top-five finishes this year (including one win). Also, Dutch star Michael Boogerd, 36, is planning a comeback next year.
If Armstrong’s age is not necessarily a problem, maybe his three years out of elite-level competition will prove to be an insurmountable handicap. Riders do come back from layoffs. Many lost between three and five years of their racing careers because of World War II.
The most famous of these were Italian greats Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. At age 31, Bartali returned to win the 1946 Giro d’Italia, while Coppi, who was five years younger, won the Giro in 1947, seven years after his first Giro victory, Also, Bartali won the 1948 Tour, a record 10 years after his only other Tour victory.
More recently, David Millar returned from a two-year doping suspension at the 2006 Tour de France with no preparatory events and managed to finish the race, and two months later he won a time trial stage at the Vuelta. And 2006 Giro winner Ivan Basso, also out for two years with a doping suspension, is due to return to cycling next year.
In other sports, the most successful comeback was that of basketball legend Michael Jordan. He quit the sport after leading the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive NBA titles and came back 17 months later in 1995, at age 31, to help the Bulls win three more times. Boxing’s Muhammad Ali didn’t have the same success. After a two-year layoff, at age 39, he was soundly defeated in a world heavyweight championship bout by Larry Holmes in 1981.
Cycling is much more friendly to the body than weight-bearing sports like boxing and basketball, so a comeback should not be so difficult. But to aspire to the ultimate prize in arguably the world’s toughest endurance event, the Tour de France, is a very different proposition.
There have been mixed reactions from the cycling world about Armstrong’s chances of returning at the highest level and attempting to win the Tour,. The sport’s all-time great, Merckx, noted in L’Équipe that Armstrong “didn’t race an enormous amount” in his career and so is “certainly not worn out.” The five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault pointed out that Zoetemelk and Poulidor remained competitive at 40 because they never stopped racing. And two-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon said “the real problem” of a long layoff is the loss of “pure power” from the muscles.
The most recent French star, Laurent Jalabert, who will be 40 this year and since retiring has competed in marathons (a 2:55:39 at New York in 2005) and triathlons (a 9:19:00 at last year’s Hawaii Ironman), said it would be “very difficult” for Armstrong to rediscover his motivation and return to the “impeccable” daily regimen of a top athlete.
What many critics are forgetting is that just as Jordan dabbled in baseball during his retirement from basketball so Armstrong has maintained a reasonable level of fitness since his last pro bike race just over three years ago. He had to train for the three marathons he has run (a 2:59:36 and 2:46:43 at New York and a 2:50:58 at Boston); and he has ridden frequent charity bike rides, such as RAGBRAI in Iowa, to promote cancer awareness for the Lance Armstrong Foundation and his Livestrong brand. And with minimal intensive preparation, while still fulfilling his hectic schedule of cancer-related events all over the country, the Texan placed second to defending champ Dave Wiens in the seven-hour Leadville Trail 100 a month ago.
This week, Armstrong won a local 10-mile cross-country mountain bike race in Aspen on Thursday and he will compete as part of a three-man relay team in the inaugural 12 hours of Snowmass on Sunday. So, with five months remaining before the 2009 Amgen Tour of California, Armstrong looks to be on track to make a successful return to the peloton.
But will the seven-time Tour champ be able to improve his likely “competitive” condition in February to the “superhuman” fitness he will need next July to win the Tour? That’s a question that no one can answer today. Not even Lance “to win is everything” Armstrong can know that verdict. Even so, it’s a question I’ll try to address in my next “Inside Cycling” column.