With just his stubbled face in shot he issued a pretty informal statement: “Hey everybody. I know there have been a lot of reports in the media today about a possible return to racing. I just wanted to let you know that after long talks with my kids, the rest of my family, a close group of friends, I have decided to return to professional cycling in 2009.”
After three years away when he had done little more than feature in gossip columns, date celebrities and hang out with movie stars, Armstrong had decided to come back to the sport that he had left when on top.
His official reason for returning was the fight against cancer. He announced that he would hold major ‘cancer summits’ wherever his schedule took him, including in Paris after the 2009 Tour de France. He said he wanted to promote his cause across the world, spreading the message via the medium of bike racing.
But anybody who remembered the Armstrong of three years earlier knew this wasn’t a guy who would be happy just pootling around chatting about disease. After Carlos Sastre won the Tour in 2008 Armstrong had dismissed the Spaniard’s win (something he later apologised for) and claimed in private that, from looking at the numbers, he could still win the Tour. He wanted an eighth yellow jersey.
Nothing with Armstrong is straightforward and in the months that followed there was intense media speculation.
A highly-publicised and comprehensive anti-doping regime with respected expert Don Catlin ended up being quietly cancelled, deemed too expensive and unnecessary before it had even got started.
There was a promise of a more open relationship with the press, which won over some former foes – even in the French media – but it didn’t last. The unedifying spectacle of Armstrong lambasting Sunday Times journalist Paul Kimmage at the Tour of California press conference was proof of that.
There was the statement that Armstrong was riding for Astana for free, simply appreciating the opportunity to spread the anti-cancer message. When it was revealed that he had in fact been paid a wage he then said it was donated to charity. He also received appearance fees from race organisers at some events, such as a reported US$2 million from the Tour Down Under.
In the middle of this there were dates with premiers and presidents, all of whom seemed eager to be seen listening to Armstrong’s anti-cancer statements. The great unwashed fell under his spell too, with Armstrong’s (not so) spontaneous Twitter rides in Belfast, Glasgow and Adelaide drawing thousands of cyclists to join him.
At an Astana training camp in late 2008 the world had its first sighting of the new racing version of Lance Armstrong – a broad-shouldered, muscular man rather than the ultra-lean, hollow-cheeked figure that ruled the peloton in his prime. As the 2009 season developed he gradually returned to shape.
Starting his comeback at the Tour Down Under in January, Armstrong put in a solid ride to finish 29th overall. In February he looked lighter and stronger at the Tour of California where he came seventh. In March he took part in Milan-San Remo, finishing 125th.
Two days later, though, progress was checked. Twenty kilometres from the end of the Tour of Castilla y Leon’s opening stage Armstrong crashed and broke his collarbone – the first time he had succumbed to this most common of cycling injuries in his career.
Incredibly, just six weeks later he was on the Giro d’Italia start line in Venice. The world was eager to see what shape he was in, and the answer was: not bad. Armstrong grew stronger as the race went on and was even launching attacks of his own in the final-week mountains. He eventually finished 11th overall.
Strong Giro aside it was clear physical ability alone wasn’t going to be enough for Armstrong at the Tour. He and Astana team boss Johan Bruyneel would need to use every tactical trick in the book – and they did.
After a decent prologue performance that left him in 10th place, Armstrong used his instinct to be in the right place at the right time on stage three to La Grande Motte. A combination of a rampant Columbia team and a fierce crosswind caused the peloton to split. Armstrong was in the front group; his team leader Alberto Contador was not.
Armstrong’s true intentions became clear as he took his turn in driving the group and ordered the team-mates with him to do the same, as Contador languished behind. He was not going to work ‘for the strongest rider’ as he had previously claimed. He was out for number one.
The team time trial followed the next day and saw a rare moment of unity with Astana winning the stage. Armstrong came to within 22 hundredths of a second of pulling on the yellow jersey. He would never again get so close.
The split in the team went beyond mending on stage seven to Arcalis. With Armstrong poised to take yellow and hence control of the team, Contador went on the attack. “That was not a part of the plan,” Armstrong scowled as he slipped behind Contador in the GC, “but I didn’t expect him to follow the plan anyway.”
From then on, Contador was on his own. With team boss Bruyneel in Armstrong’s pocket Contador was shut out.
The Spaniard became an isolated figure in the Astana team, often travelling with his brother and manager Fran to and from stage starts rather than in the team bus, and getting second-rate help on the road. Bruyneel avoided Contador’s press conferences but still had the gall to say he was only doing it so as not to steal the Spaniard’s limelight.
The final indignity for Contador was when he was left in a hotel foyer in Annecy before the final time trial as team cars had gone to the airport to pick up Armstrong’s friends. The same day that Armstrong and Bruyneel announced the RadioShack deal for 2010 and beyond.
By the time the race reached Paris Armstrong had secured third place overall, but he had never truly challenged either Contador or Andy Schleck. Perhaps more importantly he had already confirmed he would be back in 2010, and this time with a team built around him.
Armstrong started his 2010 campaign at the Tour Down Under again. It was a solid start to the season, but things gradually began to deteriorate.
First his team was denied a place at the Giro d’Italia, then, at the Tour of California, where strong home support was expected, Armstrong was hit with the most serious allegations yet.
Floyd Landis, his former team-mate, had given ESPN’s Bonnie Ford a confessional-style interview in which he admitted using performance-enhancing drugs for most of his career and implicated Lance Armstrong and many other athletes and team managers. He had provided the World Anti-Doping Agency, and US Cycling, with all the details.
Landis, who admitted to being disgusted at watching Armstrong bask in further glory, claimed there had been a systematic doping programme within the US Postal squad during Armstrong’s glory years. Landis, already discredited for his positive testosterone test at the 2006 Tour, appeared to have nothing to lose.
If Armstrong was unhappy, this was just the beginning. He crashed out of that day’s stage and quickly left the race and America’s media, who had made a beeline for the race.
Worse news for Armstrong was to come. Landis’s allegations were being investigated by Jeff Novitzky, an agent for the Food and Drug Administration who previously led the BALCO case that put Marion Jones in prison. Armstrong and co stood accused of using US government funds – their US Postal sponsorship money – to fund illegal drug use and commit sporting fraud.
This time there was to be no brushing under the carpet by cycling’s impotent regulatory bodies – if Landis’s accusations were proved right, Armstrong was staring into the abyss.
As usual, such frustrations seemed to spur Armstrong on, and the run-up to what would be his last Tour de France was impressive. He finished third at the Tour of Luxembourg and then second at the Tour of Switzerland.
But as the Tour began in Rotterdam, and the focus on Armstrong was ramped up a notch, it was the Landis story that kept hitting the headlines. Under that shadow Armstrong’s dream of one last Tour win became a nightmare.
It started well enough: fourth in the prologue, five seconds quicker than Alberto Contador, was Armstrong’s best time trial display since returning to the sport. But on stage three Armstrong suffered a puncture on northern France’s infamous cobbles and lost two minutes to most of his overall rivals.
Tour hopes dashed
But that was a minor blip in comparison to stage eight – the 2010 Tour’s first real day in the mountains – where his hopes were entirely dashed. He suffered two crashes and was held up by a third. He lost more than 12 minutes and the dream was over.
Armstrong rolled round for the remaining two weeks, putting in a fiery display on day 16 over the Pyrenees to Pau, but at the finish he was easily beaten in the sprint. As he said in 2004, “Pas de cadeaux.”
He eventually finished in Paris in 23rd place, almost 40 minutes down on Contador.
After the Tour, Armstrong kept up his high-profile charity events and public appearances. The plan was to compete for the first half of the 2011 season and officially retire at the Tour of California.
But in the end he decided to call it quits after the Tour Down Under. Armstrong had arrived in Adelaide looking out of shape and eventually left the sport with nothing more than a whimper.
With the FDA investigation reportedly meeting with more cooperation than resistance Armstrong appeared to have lost his fight. His attempts to discredit Novitzky – his only tactic when it comes to his ‘enemies’ – looked ever more desperate, and his decision to come back to the sport ever more misguided.
THE COMEBACK YEARS
|Tour Down Under||Jan 20-25||6||29|
|Tour of California||Feb 14-22||9||7|
|Milan san Remo||Mar 21||1||125|
|Castilla y Leon||Mar 23||0||DNF|
|Giro d’Italia||May 9-31||21||11|
|Tour de France||July 4-26||21||3|
|Tour of Ireland||Aug 21-23||2||DNF stage 3|
|Tour Down Under||Jan 19-24||6||24|
|Tour of Murcia||Mar 3-7||5||7|
|Criterium Int||Mar 27-28||2||45|
|Tour of Flanders||April 4||1||27|
|Tour of California||May 16-20||4||DNF stage 5|
|Tour of Luxembourg||June 2-6||5||3|
|Tour of Switzerland||June 12-20||9||2|
|Tour de France||July 3-25||21||23|
|Tour Down Under||Jan 18-23||6||67|
THE FUTURE: HAS LANCE ARMSTRONG LOST HIS APPEAL?
When Lance Armstrong left cycling in 2005 it wasn’t long before his team, Discovery Channel, followed suit.
Despite having Alberto Contador on its books, and despite Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel launching a concerted campaign to attract a replacement sponsor, once the Discovery Channel money dried up everybody went their separate ways. There is little doubt that the RadioShack squad will follow a similar fate at the end of this season.
Perhaps the biggest blow is losing young American star Taylor Phinney from Armstrong’s Trek-Livestrong U23 squad to BMC – which, coincidentally, is led by Armstrong’s good friend Jim Ochowicz. Meanwhile, in a sign it’s not exactly building for the future, RadioShack has recently hired Robbies Hunter (aged 33) and McEwen (38), with the squad’s other big names – Levi Leipheimer (37), Andreas Klöden (35), Haimar Zubeldia (33) and Yaroslav Popovych (31) – hardly future stars either.
But while bike team sponsors come and go, what many thought would stay constant is Armstrong’s personal attraction as a brand endorser. According to a report in Advertising Age, Armstrong’s RadioShack promotions were only just beaten to the ‘Most Ineffective Campaign’ crown by Tiger Woods’s Nike ads. To be fair, Ad Age said all celebrity endorsements are largely a waste of time, but to be ranked alongside Wood is fairly damning.
This article originally appeared in Cycling Weekly magazine, March 3 2011 issue