Sunday, October 19, 2008


Professional cycling hasn't had a great summer.

This year's Tour had the usual bag of idiots caught doping in some form or another. The dope de jour appears to have been an updated form of EPO called "CERA", a variant that the riders appear to have believed was untraceable. Unfortunately for Stefan Schumacher and now, sadly, Bernard Kohl of Gerolsteiner, Ricardo Riccò and Leonardo Piepoli of Saunier Duval, this wasn't true.The capture of Kohl, promising young rider, third overall and King of the Mountains, was especially infuriating.

And the big story - big not in the sense that it's new, just that it's news, is the supposed return of Lance Armstrong to professional cycling.

This doesn't surprise me particularly. Armstrong has always struck me as a man who feeds on winning. He's a predator, and he needs to be pulling down victims to feel successful. I have no idea what the man's personality is like other than that - fairly unpleasant in some ways, I suspect; most predators are - but he clearly missed and misses the adrenaline rush he gets from victory in the Big Show.

I have tremendous respect for the man. But I'm not sure this is such a good thing. My personal feeling is that he is likely to tarnish his past glories with images of present struggling. Professionally, the sport is beginning to develop new, xciting young riders like Alberto Contador. The re-emergence of Lance has the potential to push the clock back, and I'm not sure that's good for the sport. Whether or not Armstrong was doping, he represents a generation of cyclists saturated with doping, a peleton acculturated to and dependent on doping, and the sport needs to get past that.

The other thing is I don't believe that he is going to get anything other than, possibly, another fancy dish from an eighth Tour win. Because:

1. He's never going to shed the taint of the doping that dominated his generation of cyclists. All his famous opponents: Basso, Ullrich...they all turned out to be doping. Like I said: cycling in the Nineties and Oughts will be The EPO Years just like the baseball sluggers in the Nineties and Oughts will be The Steroid Generation. A win clean in 2009 won't change the minds of the people who thought that LA was doping in 2003.

2. He has nothing left to prove at the Tour. He's gone to that well enough times that he's shown he knows the way. The only question left is how much gas age has left in his tank. If he has the team, and stays injury-free, it's clear to me that he can win until age slows him below the times of the young GC hopefuls. Watching a great champion lose, not to a great challenger, but accumulated body strain and injuries is perhaps the saddest spectacle in sports.

The other aspect of a return is that the one huge question still hanging over LA until he takes some active step to challenge it is the singular association of Armstrong and the Tour. The rap on him has always been that he's a one-trick pony. After the cancer he seems to have ruthlessly abandoned his early successes in other aspects of the sport (like the World Championship and one-day races like La Flèche Wallonne) in pursuit of the Tour title. Post-'96 (the cancer year) his titles consist of the Tour de Suisse in 2001, The Tour of Georgia, two criteria at the Dauphiné Libéré and, of course, seven consecutive Tour wins, the most in history.

I think that if he chooses to race the Giro this year, or the Vuelta, attempts the Spring Classics - and rides well - he will earn some respect that many cycling fans have witheld from him these years past. After all, to many of us the thing that separated Armstrong from the real gods of the sport; men like Merckx, Coppi and Hinault...was success in all the aspects of professional cycling, the parts beyond stage racing.

This would be a brave thing for Armstrong even to attempt, given that time and age and wear MUST have ground him down from his peak. At 38 most riders are thinking about retirement, not thinking of growing in new directions.

If he returns, I hope he rides bravely and well, as befitting a great champion.

If he cannot, I hope he recognizes this quickly and makes his final exit from the sport. There is no shame in bowing to age; our bodies betray us all in the end. But to ignore the wisdom of maturity and the knowledge of your own body for your pursuit of vainglory...this is the last, the truest regret.

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