Lance Armstrong is a man clearly burdened with a need to prove himself. He wants to demonstrate that he has the talent and the endurance to once again compete at cycling’s highest level. He wants to dispel once and for all the rumours and suggestions that his successes were achieved with the aid of systematic doping. But can he realistically prove anything at all by returning to the sport in 2009?
Raising awareness of cancer
Ostensibly, Armstrong’s return to the sport is intended to raise awareness of cancer – through his Livestrong charity – but that there’s more to his return than this is clear. He will compete for the Astana team alongside 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, and has committed to entering both the Giro d’Italia and Le Tour – the first time he has ridden both – telling his website “I’m committed to riding for the best guy”. The idea of Armstrong competing as a support rider, however, as a super domestique, seems at odds with his personality. Armstrong will be desperate to win. His identity, his legend, is rooted in an unshakeable belief in his ability to win, and with that belief he has won cycling’s blue riband event , the Tour de France, an unprecedented 7 times.
Perhaps his biggest victory though was against testicular cancer, with which he was diagnosed and offered a poor prognosis in 1996. After successfully battling the disease, which required surgery on his brain and on his testicles, he returned to cycling in 1998, and in 1999 won the first of his 7 tours. None of the greats before him – Fausto Coppi, Eddie Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain – had won this number of tours, nor had they suffered the same personal trauma, yet Armstrong’s achievements are viewed through suspicious eyes in Europe, cycling’s heartland.
Deference and suffering
The Tour de France is a cycling purist’s wet dream – epic, beautiful, staggeringly hard and steeped in history – and the rider’s role in it must be one of deference and suffering. Armstrong may have suffered in more ways than most, but he was absolutely ruthless in the way in which he dispatched with his opponents. The teams with which he won, first US Postal then Discovery, were methodically assembled to bring Armstrong victory in le Tour. On brutal climbs his domestiques, the workers of the team, would force a crushing pace at the front of the peloton, stamping out any attacks and providing a platform from which a relatively fresh Armstrong could spring to take victory. But Armstrong was a soloist too, a rider of formidable time trialling talent who was as good against the clock as he was in a straight duel on the road.
Suspicions of doping
Armstrong’s first mistake though was that he made himself the focus, not the Tour itself. He surrounded himself with bodyguards to block out the public, and his icy demeanour made him appear distant and aloof. It was perhaps because of this – and his astonishing level of success – that rumours began to emerge that Armstrong had been using performance enhancing drugs. In 2005 French sports daily L’Equipe reported that samples of Armstrong’s urine from the 1999 tour had contained traces of the blood booster EPO, and although Armstrong was cleared, the suspicion that he had used doping products was never far away.
Comments attributed to former colleagues and doctors, and the sheer number of Armstrong’s competitors subsequently found guilty of doping, added further weight to these suspicions. After all, if Armstrong beat men, themselves supreme athletes, who were using drugs to boost their strength and endurance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that he may have been using them too. In an advert for Nike, with whom Armstrong has long been associated, Armstrong angrily addressed his doubters, saying: “Everybody wants to know what I'm on. What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?"
No concrete proof
The fact remains, though, that there is yet to be any concrete proof in support of the claims of drug taking, which brings us back to Armstrong’s return to cycling, and most importantly his return to le Tour. Should Armstrong win in 2009, what will it tell us about the nature of his 7 tour victories between 1999 and 2005? The answer, surely, is nothing at all, and if he fails to win it will be no more revealing about his past exploits, telling us only that at 37 he is no longer a good enough athlete to win one of the most challenging sport events on the planet.
Ultimately, all Armstrong’s return to the sport really tells us is that he is a man still very much in love with competition, and with cycling. Sheryl Crow, Ashley Olsen and Kate Hudson may have come and gone, but his enduring love affair with a sport that has at times treated him harshly has not.
Tim Krabbé, in his iconic cycling novel The Rider says: “The greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering”. Perhaps Lance Armstrong is merely returning one last time to pay homage to the scene of his greatest sporting victories. He has certainly suffered enough for one man.