By Andrew Hood
Despite teasingly suggesting the contrary, logic says Lance Armstrong will be only in one place come July.
Everyone expects him to line up July 2 for the 19km time trial from Fromentine to Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile in France’s Vendee region for the start of the 92nd Tour de France.
After a history-making six consecutive victories, a run at the seventh seems a no-brainer, but Armstrong’s “will he or won’t he” has become cycling’s equivalent to “who shot JR?”
Everyone seems to have a theory, but no one really knows. Those close to the Texan, however, insist he’s truly undecided about whether he’ll race. A decision is expected perhaps as early as March.
Most of cycling’s intelligentsia scoff at the idea of Armstrong skipping the Tour. They say the Tour is the only race that matters to him and that Discovery Channel is single-mindedly preparing for a Tour onslaught, suggesting Armstrong has already made up his mind.
Armstrong’s two-year deal with Discovery Channel calls for him to race just one more Tour, leaving the window open for an intriguing opportunity to add a compelling finishing touch to his already remarkable cycling career.
The scenario is this: skip the 2005 Tour de France, let everyone else duke it out for the “Lance-less Tour,” then come back once again with guns-ablazin’ to try to win No. 7.
Sitting out of the Tour for a year would be incredibly risky. Maintaining the form, discipline and mental edge necessary to win would be hard to recapture after a year away. Armstrong will be 34 in September, matching him with the oldest post-war Tour champion if he could manage to win after stepping back a year.
Armstrong has a unique opportunity to cement his legacy. He could play the role of the ultimate king-maker and dictate the terms of departure.
Risky, yes, but it would be epic. Here’s why:
Good for Armstrong: Let Armstrong savor his stardom and step back from the pressure-cooker. Let him tackle the hour record, the classics and the world time trial championship. Let him earn some other laurels to quiet the critics who charge he can’t do anything beyond the Tour. Armstrong lives on motivation. What better motivation would it be to come back and kick everyone’s butt one more time?
Good for the Tour: Remember when Big Mig won five straight titles? The Tour was becoming – God forbid – boring for anyone who didn’t drink sangria. For a lot of fans who weren’t born in the USA, that’s what the Tour’s become lately. Armstrong’s methodic dismantling of his rivals has left the race almost routine. Of course, that’s no fault of Armstrong’s and no Tour is not without its drama. Imagine a Tour without Armstrong, now that’s going to be a nail-biter. And just think, Armstrong could watch it with the pleasure of knowing he’s coming back next year to show them who’s boss all over again.
Good for Discovery: Some say Armstrong’s flirtation with the hour record and the classics simply doesn’t carry the same weight as another appearance in the Tour. They’re wrong. As much as the French are loathe to admitting, Armstrong is so big that anything he does garners plenty of ink. And if he skipped the Tour, everyone in the world would write reams of copy just about that. Then they could fill the newspapers for another year about his imminent return. That’s a better return to a team sponsor than another Tour that will be over in five months.
Good for legacy: Great champions leave on their own terms. By sitting out, Armstrong could set the stage for an historic climax to his career. Anyone who wins without Armstrong at the start line would have an asterisk next to their maillot jaune, especially if Armstrong were coming back for more the next year. Even if he doesn’t win, a little humility would only add another layer to his myth. He owns the record with six straight Tours. Who’s ever going to touch that?
Good for story-book ending: Lance Armstrong has had a dream-like run in six consecutive Tour de France titles. Now he needs the perfect Hollywood ending to cap his remarkable professional career. Armstrong’s life has been full of overcoming obstacles, from his tough upbringing, the petulant world champion, the cancer patient, the comeback, the superstar. There’s talk of an Armstrong movie in the works. By defining the terms of his farewell – and then delivering – Armstrong’s story would have an ending fitting of the athlete. Now if that isn’t the perfect Hollywood ending, what is?