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Inside Cycling, with John Wilcockson – The audacity of Lance, Part III

After writing two columns about Lance Armstrong’s decision to return to elite-level racing — first looking at questions about his age and long lay-off, and last week examining his possible schedule to find top shape by next July’s Tour de France — I’ll devote this “Inside Cycling” column to the reactions his audacious plan has generated both within and outside the cycling community.

By John Wilcockson

Armstrong in New York. He got tougher questions in Las Vegas.

Armstrong in New York. He got tougher questions in Las Vegas.

Photo: Steve Frothingham

After writing two columns about Lance Armstrong’s decision to return to elite-level racing — first looking at questions about his age and long lay-off, and last week examining his possible schedule to find top shape by next July’s Tour de France — I’ll devote this “Inside Cycling” column to the reactions his audacious plan has generated both within and outside the cycling community.

Perhaps the “dilemma” people are expressing about his totally unexpected comeback is best expressed by Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme, who spoke to the Associated Press Thursday after a day spent at the Tour du Poitou-Charentes race in central France. “One cannot say that his comeback is good or bad news, but it really is news,” Prudhomme said. “It’s making noise everywhere. The fact that he is a star … means that this touches everyone. Whether people agree with it or not they have an opinion and, generally, a strong opinion.”

That theme was taken up in the Paris-based International Herald Tribune by reporter Christopher Clarey, who wrote this about Armstrong: “He remains a polarizing figure, irredeemably tainted for some, brilliantly backlit for others, with the divide looking suspiciously like the Atlantic Ocean. But there can be no doubting his persistence or his powerful and positive impact on those who combat cancer.”

That last fact seems to have been lost in the hoopla surrounding Armstrong’s appearances in New York Wednesday and Las Vegas Thursday to announce his plans for an initiative to help create new programs in combating cancer around the world — and publicize it by riding his bike in all five continents in 2009. What was also lost was the news that the Lance Armstrong Foundation is making an $8 million, five-year commitment to the Livestrong Global Cancer Awareness Campaign.

Armstrong’s plan is to get commitments from governments in the countries where he competes and/or trains in 2009 to establish programs like the $3 billion, 10-year Proposition 15 he campaigned for (and helped get approved by the voters) on a bus tour crisscrossing the state of Texas a year ago. Now he will crisscross the planet promoting cancer awareness and seeking to establish even larger, billion-dollar programs.

Interviewed by “The Early Show” on CBS before addressing the plenary session of the high-powered Clinton Global Initiative on Wednesday morning in midtown Manhattan, Armstrong said that his cancer initiative is “the No. 1 priority for me … and I think if you train seriously and race at the highest level it brings much more attention to it.”

He talked about this again a couple of hours later during his five-minute address to the heads of state at the CGI, alluding to the work U2 lead singer Bono does for the ONE Campaign, “When Bono goes to play a concert in Rio di Janeiro,” Armstrong said, “or plays a concert in New York City, he talks about critical issues.” And Armstrong later added, “I will have more impact as an active cyclist than a retired cyclist.”

But the very fact of Armstrong’s return has stirred a hornets’ nest of controversy. Writing in The Times of London, its chief sports correspondent Matt Dickinson discussed the conflict between the Texan’s work for cancer and his re-emergence from the so-called “EPO generation” of the past. “If I was … part of this [cancer] brotherhood of death-defiance, I would probably not want to know if Armstrong has been doping, even if a dossier of evidence was dumped on my desk. I would probably want to celebrate Armstrong’s return to next year’s Tour. But they will have to forgive the rest of us for wishing that we had seen the back of the Texan in a sporting context.”

Armstrong is well aware of the dichotomy between the opposing emotions he stirs up. In a 15-minute interview he gave Wednesday afternoon to the French newspaper L’Équipe — the journal that researched and published the August 2005 story that alleged six re-tested urine samples he gave during the ’99 Tour were positive for EPO — Armstrong was asked, “How do you intend to change an image that’s been so damaged since the revelations in L’Équipe?”

Armstrong was said to have hesitated before answering, “I believe that you can’t do anything against the facts, and for me it was proved in a very serious report that there was nothing [proved in the story]. Did you read it?” The reporter said he had and that the report didn’t say much.

“That’s what you think,” Armstrong continued. “But, in my generation, all those who finished second, third, fourth [at the Tour] are no longer part of this sport. That’s a fact. I won’t judge them, I don’t blame them…. When I look at the history books I see Lance Armstrong, seven Tours. All those victories, I guarantee you, I’m proud of them. Today I hear that the young generation is the cleanest in history. Honestly, that’s lacking in respect for the others, that’s forgetting Merckx, Hinault, LeMond, Indurain!”

Maybe Greg LeMond should have read those words before attending Armstrong’s press conference in Las Vegas on Thursday morning. VeloNews’ Neal Rogers has a
already reported how LeMond sat in the front row of the assembly of 200 journalists in a conference room of The Venetian and how Armstrong granted his long-time castigator the first question, and how the three-time Tour winner wanted to know whether anti-doping king Don Catlin would be monitoring the seven-time champion’s oxygen uptake, power output and VO2max because “a spike” in his wattage would be a better indicating of doping than conventional testing.

Also, Catlin could have pointed out that his testing of Armstrong’s blood and urine samples will be totally transparent, with the results posted on the livestrong.org Web site. Neither the Garmin nor the CSC team programs post results on their Web sites.

Garmin’s site states that this is to protect the riders’ privacy. Accredited members of the media can request team members’ blood-profile results but they have to submit a notarized letter and ID proving the request is authentic, and also send a second notarized letter from an accredited hematologist, stating that the scientist will evaluate the results for the journalist. Furthermore, the rider involved has to volunteer his results. Not exactly transparent.

But whatever the transparency of the Catlin/Armstrong program, there will still be doubting Thomases. In one of his interviews, Armstrong said, “I can understand why people look at [the riders who doped] and go, ‘Well, they were caught, and you weren’t?’ So there is a nice element here where I can come with … a completely comprehensive program and there will be no way to cheat.”

Commenting on this, British sportswriter Dickinson wrote: “[The Catlin plan] is a nice idea but probably about as fanciful as the thought that, at 37, Armstrong will come back as intimidatingly powerful as ever. Far from change minds, Armstrong’s return will cause further entrenchment between those who view him only as a hero and those who find that they can no longer believe. Trying to out-sprint the clouds of doubt is an exercise in futility.”

But whatever the arguments on either side of the divide, no one – not even Christian Prudhomme – can deny that Armstrong’s comeback is “making noise everywhere.”