Sporting comebacks are fraught with danger. They can go one of two ways. You can either enhance or tarnish a reputation, and more often than not it is the latter rather than the former.
Much interest surrounds Lance Armstrong’s comeback. The myth is that it is his “comeback”, as if it is his first and only. Far from it. It is not even his second. It is Lance Armstrong’s third comeback to professional cycling.
He’s answered the critics before. No one was willing to sign him when he first came back from life-threatening cancer. Those in the know felt he wasn’t worth the investment, to the average punter he was just another cycling no-name.
Again, nothing could be further from the truth. He is a former world champion. He won that title as a 21-year-old in 1993, beating Miguel Indurain, who in that season completed three consecutive Tour de France wins on his way to five straight. Armstrong also claimed separate stage wins in the 1993 and 1995 Tours.
Upon his return post his illness the Texan struggled. He quit the sport during a cold, wet stage of the Paris-Nice early in 1998. He went and played golf and just generally lay around. But a training camp with Chris Carmichael, his coach and mentor, rekindled his love for cycling. He trained in the cold and rain and thrived in it. This is what made his return so special and his performances subsequent can be explained in this context.
There are those who questioned his performances during the extraordinary run of seven straight Tour de France wins. The French instantly suspected illegal substance use. How can a cancer survivor do this, they asked?
Armstrong is a phenomenal physical specimen. People forget he was a world champion prior to his illness. His VO2 max, a lung capacity test, was extraordinary. It was in the same realm as the “freak” Spaniard Indurain, who reportedly had a resting heart-rate of 28 beats per minute. But Armstrong’s physical capacities were only a small part of his success.
What few recognise is his mental strength. Anyone who has read his autobiography will have realised that he is a stubborn man. A man who hated to be proved wrong. When someone said he couldn’t, he did everything in his power to prove that he could. He was determined to beat cancer when he had no right to. People laughed at him on his return when he talked about being a tour rider, having been a bullish, strong, bulky single-day classic rider prior to his illness.
They questioned him even after he won the prologue and then the stage eight individual time-trial in Metz during the 1999 Tour. But it was the icy cold, wet, stage nine two days later to Sestrieres where Armstrong slay his demons. In conditions that had forced him to quit a year earlier, he thrived. He punched out a punishing pace up an evil climb in devilish conditions to put nearly a minute and half into his rivals and stamp his authority on the world’s toughest bike race.
This type of performance cannot be simply explained by his extraordinary physical attributes or his scientific training regime. It is pure mental strength.
He spoke in his autobiography of the pain of chemotherapy. He lay in his hospital bed, in the fetal position for weeks at a time, vomiting, nauseous and unable to sleep because of the near-unbearable pain of the “poison” that was being dripped through his veins, eating away at both cancerous and healthy cells, basically burning him from the inside out. To endure that, to walk away from a stage of cancer that would’ve killed most, gave Armstrong not only the gift of life but a feeling of invincibility. It makes the monstrous Alpine passes seem like molehills and he would prove it time again during his reign as the king of the Tour de France.
He was simply tougher than his opponents. In 2000, the peloton suffered on the ascension on Mont Ventoux, a mountain which has claimed the life of professional cyclist Tom Simpson when his heart, assisted by foreign substances, quite literally exploded. The late Marco Pantani, the 1998 Tour winner attacked time and again eventually breaking clear. With pain written across his sun-beaten face he suffered with every pedal stroke in the same manner as his opponents down the mountain. But Armstrong, after conceding a lead larger than anticipated danced on his pedals with an expressionless face, eclipsed the gap in no time and crossed the line sitting comfortably on Pantani’s wheel to prove that no one could outlast him, no one would suffer easier.
Armstrong’s coup de grace came in 2004. His win in 2003, the toughest of his five saw him join Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Indurain as the only men to claim five Tours. In 2004 he was gunning for six and did it in the most emphatic fashion. Armstrong won five stages on his way to a six minute overall victory. He claimed three stages in a row including a time trial up Alpe d’Huez but his best was saved for the next day. After the final climb of the day into Le Grand-Bornand all the “heads of state” in the peloton were together for the final two kilometers over a flat plateau. 1km from the line Andreas Kloden broke from Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, and Floyd Llandis. Phil Liggett, cycling’s premier commentator, proclaimed Kloden the stage winner but Armstrong again put the pain of the day aside to chase Kloden down in an extraordinary show of strength.
That was his gift. There were stages throughout his winning streak where he could arrogantly stare into his opponent’s eyes and read the pain on their faces before riding away with ease. His ability to withstand pain was ironically cruel and unusual punishment for his opponents.
Seven Tour victories seemed enough when he called it quits in 2005. So why has he returned? What purpose does it serve?
His brand new bike gives us a clue. Adorned on the frame are two numbers. 1274 and 27.5. Today is the 1274th day since his last race, which was a procession for the outgoing king along the Champs-Elysees in Paris in 2005. 27.5 million are the number of estimated lives lost to cancer in that time. Armstrong proclaims that cancer is a bigger tragedy than terrorism, a bold statement given the world’s current climate. He mentioned that the 3000 lives lost on September 11, 2001 made the world stand still, yet 27.5 million in 1274 days is a figure unpublished, unnoticed.
Armstrong’s return may well be different to any other. He is one of the greatest stories in sport. But previously his preparations for his Tour de France wins have begun privately in January and his appearances prior to July were calculated and rare. He has never ridden the Giro d’Italia. He will this year. In 2009 he has gladly come to Australia for the first time. Winning is not his priority.
Although he has joked that he spent the last three years drinking and sitting on his backside it is blatantly untrue. He will not disgrace himself. He will prepare as he has in the past, meticulously and thoroughly. But he will not be driven by anger and pain. He will not be so single-minded and determined to win at all costs. He is on a promotional tour. He concedes that from a sporting perspective his comeback may come with a price, a tarnished reputation from a cycling legacy standpoint. But he says the social benefits in terms of cancer awareness and fundraising far out-way the cost of losing the odd bike race and adding some losses to his extraordinary winning record.
More than any of his achievements on the bike this will be his legacy. Whatever you think of the man or the cyclist, his “Livestrong” brand is doing more for any cause in the world than any other. What he does on the bike is irrelevant. He is still one of sport’s greatest champions.