Thursday, 9 July 2009

Why I Believe Lance Armstrong is in the 2009 Tour de France

Many people have asked why Lance Armstrong, Texan seven-times consecutive winner of the Tour de France decided to come back and race this year not having been in the competition since 2005. Armstrong dominated the race 1999-2005 and at times had a cool demeanour, partly because as he became more successful he faced questions from the media, especially in France, who felt that he could only have succeeded with the use of drugs. You have to remember that in this era leading racers in the competition were eliminated when it was found they had been taking drugs. However, despite all the numerous tests Armstrong came through that with a clean bill of health. Armstrong is also renowned for the fact that he survived an aggressive cancer which started in his testicles but spread to his lungs and brain. He has established the LiveStrong charity and a foundation to help people with cancer. When Armstrong, aged 37, returned to the Tour de France this year on the Astana team based in Kazakhstan, people were surprised. He has the second position on the team to Alberto Contador, the winner of the 2007 Tour de France, seen as a very possible candidate for victory in 2009. Contador was unable to ride in the 2008 Tour de France because Astana were blocked due to connections of the former team management and cyclists from the team with drugs, notably the team leader Alexandre Vinokourov ejected from the 2007 race for doping.

Now, it is very unlikely that anyone will ever equal let alone surpass Armstrong's record in the Tour de France and many people worried that coming back after 4 years away from the race and 3.5 years out of profiessional cycling he would end up humiliating himself. Given by the end of the fifth stage he was 0.22 seconds away from holding the leader's yellow jersey, I think has blown away any such concerns. Perhaps 29th in the Tour Down Under, 7th in Tour of California and 2nd in the Tour of the Gila with a 3rd place in the Team Time Trial for Astana in the Giro d'Italia were hardly astounding results at the highest level, but they show that Armstrong is not unfit. The clear factor as seen on Stage 3 of the Tour de France was that Armstrong is experienced. He could always read the field well and the tactics he pulled in the mountains in the years of his victories were as vital as his stamina. This is what made Armstrong, though at times rather irritable (though we had not experienced Cadel Evans taking that to a new height then), was he was far more exciting to watch than the morose Miguel Indurain, winner of the Tour 1991-5 who just hammered out a pace. The break in the field on Stage 3 was not expected, but Armstrong saw it and went with it; Contador, perhaps lacks the experience, or maybe the sixth sense, that Armstrong has.

One interesting fact is, that with seven of the nine Astana riders currently in the top 10 of the riders in the race, how much less success my least favourite rider, Cadel Evans, would have had last year when Astana, particularly Contador was absent. I think Evans simply got lucky. I was glad he did not win last year, but I think that he should not even have got as close as he did. The man is incredibly self-centred and arrogant and gives professional cyclists a bad name. I know they can be terse but in his desire to be a diva he has stepped into the realm of rude and has put himself on the same level as the worst of boxers and football players. He is rapidly disappearing from the upper levels of the General Classification and in my view, all for the good. I trust this year with the race back to a proper standard, he will not come close to the 2nd position he held in 2007 and 2008.

To some extent I feel Armstrong has been sincere he saying he did not come to the Tour this year to win. I feel he has been surprised by his success, but now senses it might be possible to win again. However, we have yet to see the mountain stages in which Contador excels. Hopefully he will listen to Armstrong about playing the field and do so in the way that allowed Armstrong to blow away his close opponents in previous years. The thing that I believe that brought Armstrong to this race was not the chance of another win, but sheer enjoyment. I am sure that he is pleased that Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara is wearing the yellow jersey still. Obvously riders will keep an eye on Armstrong but not to the extent that they would have done if he had also been in yellow. What brings us back to watching the Tour year after year, people standing by the roadside for hours, waiting for days for a few minutes of a passing cavalcade? It is enjoyment of the event and the Tour de France is the most prestigious of cycling's events. I think Armstrong enjoys simply taking part, riding those roads, being mixed up in all of day's events. Though not all the pressure is off him, and he is getting more than he perhaps might have hoped for, it is certainly less than when he was winning yellow year after year, so he can enjoy the event to a much greater extent and share his vast expertise with the next generation like Contador, only 26.

I think we can see something that there was a similar motive for German rider, Erik Zabel, a sprinter who was still riding in last year's Tour de France at the age of 38, having won the green points jersey every year 1996-2001 and by 2008 still coming 3rd in that competition. Zabel is now a technical advisor to Team Columbia HTC on which British sprint marvel, Mark Cavendish (who has already won 2 stages this year and managed 4 in total last year) rides. These men love the sport and are going to be at the heart of it as long as they can. For Armstrong it is not a sad swansong, rather he can participate in an event he loves without everyone spoiling it for him by targeting him day after day. Well, that was the theory. His experience and clear enduring strength may make things more complex for him in the next fortnight.

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