Lance: The comeback that nearly wasn’t

Lance Armstrong’s return to the podium of the Tour de France may have been the biggest story in cycling this year, but Johan Bruyneel says it nearly didn’t happen.

Lance Armstrong’s return to the podium of the Tour de France may have been the biggest story in cycling this year, but his team manager and close friend Johan Bruyneel told VeloNews it nearly didn’t happen.

At the RadioShack team’s pre-season camp in Tucson earlier this month, Armstrong said the broken collarbone he suffered at Vuelta Castilla y León in March nearly ended his comeback.

Asked if he’d enjoyed being back on the bike in 2009, Armstrong answered, “If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t be back. There were days that I didn’t enjoy. I had the first major crash of my career. Sitting on the side of the road in Spain, headed to an anonymous hospital, I didn’t enjoy that, and I wanted to never come back.

A grim Lance Armstrong, derailed in mid-comeback by a broken collarbone, needed some tough love from his old friend Johan Bruyneel to soldier on. Photo: AFP (file)

“But to be honest, it was a conversation I had with (Bruyneel), and he said, ‘You have no choice in this issue, you have to come back.’ Outside of that period, I did enjoy it.”

Asked to elaborate, Bruyneel said, “They were not easy conversations.”

After the crash at Castilla y León, Bruyneel said, Armstrong traveled to Bruyneel’s house in Madrid for dinner and a few bottles of wine. The following day, Bruyneel took Armstrong to the airport, to fly home for surgery in the U.S.

“The week after the surgery, first there was the recovery, then getting back on the bike and looking forward toward his only one chance to be competitive in the Tour, and that meant he had to start the Giro,” Bruyneel said. “That was not very bright to look at, and all of sudden I kind of felt like he went quiet. There was a certain distance I had not felt with him in a long time. I could also feel that the people around him started to be worried. I discovered that he was giving second thoughts to the comeback.

“At the same moment I was in the hospital with my wife, she was having a baby. I remember I had a few phone calls from the hospital with him, and at a certain moment, I could feel he was really down. I had a feeling he was ready to walk away. And I said, ‘You have no option. You cannot not do the comeback.’”

In addition to reiterating the importance of Armstrong’s Tour comeback to a revitalized Livestrong campaign, Bruyneel said he simply reminded Armstrong of one of his most famous phrases — “Pain is temporary, but quitting lasts forever.”

“That was only thing he had to hear,” Bruyneel said. “I said (quitting) is not what you stand for,” Bruyneel said. “I understand at a certain moment, you’re disappointed, you’re reconsidering, ‘Do I need to do this?’ No, you don’t need to do this. But at a certain moment when you go, when you make decision, you have to go until the end. That’s what I told him.”

Bruyneel said he and Armstrong have “a very special relationship.”

“We aren’t big talkers, we’re not always having long, deep conversations. Sometimes we don’t need a lot of words to understand each other,” he said. “I felt he really needed to hear something drastic. As in, ‘Okay, don’t even think about it, this is how it has to be.’ From that moment on he made his decision, he spoke with his people in Austin and told them, ‘I just spoke with Johan, and he said I have no choice, so I guess we’ll go forward.’

“From then on he started to feel better, we got into the Tour of Gila, it felt good, and then he got to the start of the Giro, and he felt good, and everything started to roll again. But if I think about that moment in Paris when he was standing on the podium, and think back to that conversation in the beginning of April, it was two different worlds.”