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DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?

When Lance Armstrong stood on the podium in Paris at the end of the 2005 Tour de France ? after his seventh and final victory ? he took a swipe at all who had doubted the veracity of his achievements.

?The last thing I?ll say to the people that don?t believe in cycling, the cynics, the sceptics, I?m sorry for you. I?m sorry you can?t dream big and I?m sorry you don?t believe in miracles,? he said.

?This is a great sporting event, and you should stand around and believe, and you should believe in these athletes. I?m a fan of the Tour de France as long as I live, and there are no secrets. This is a hard sporting event, and hard work wins it. So vive le Tour. Forever.?

The people flanking Armstrong on that podium were Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, two riders who less than 12 months later were travelling home from Strasbourg in disgrace after being implicated in the Operacion Puerto blood-doping scandal. Both were eventually suspended.

How believable were those athletes? Did Armstrong believe in them?

A month after the 2005 Tour ended, the French newspaper, L?Equipe published a report by the journalist Damien Ressiot under the headline Le Mensonge Armstrong (The Armstrong Lie) which put at least one of Armstrong?s victories under a cloud. After years of mounting speculation and allegation that he had used performance-enhancing drugs or other practices, this appeared to be the smoking gun.

Ressiot revealed that six of Armstrong?s urine samples taken during his first Tour victory in 1999 tested positive for EPO. The EPO test was not validated until 2000, but samples from the 1999 Tour were frozen and tested in 2004 and 2005 using the validated process as scientists worked to refine the test methodology.

By piecing together the code numbers on the samples and paper work submitted to the UCI, Ressiot determined that six of the positive samples belonged to Armstrong.

Armstrong denied it and on September 5, 2005, actually said he had considered returning to cycling because it was the best way to ?piss off? the French. In the end, he said that ?only an absolute miracle? would get him to race again.

Well, now we may be asked to believe in this miracle because Lance says he?s coming back.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER

Armstrong polarises opinion like no other cyclist, indeed no other sportsman.

Many worship him. They read of his recovery from cancer, they watched his seven Tour victories. They lapped up the fighting talk and loved to see Armstrong attack and make the rest of the peloton look ordinary.

Others found it all rather distasteful. They read the work of journalists such as David Walsh or Paul Kimmage or Pierre Ballester or Damien Ressiot and others who dug beneath the surface.

Many fans found the innuendo tiresome, particularly after Armstrong had retired. Leave the past in the past, was their argument. Well, now the past is going to be raked over again because the past is relevant once again, and cannot simply be dismissed as yesterday?s story.

Armstrong admitted in his interview with Vanity Fair that he was not surprised there were questions about him. After all, look at how many of the riders who trailed in his wake got busted. Almost every major player in the Armstrong era has been banned or retired in disgrace.

The fact Armstrong beat so many dopers does not prove he doped. But neither does it prove anything about 1999 to 2005 if Armstrong comes back and wins in 2009 while part of the UCI?s biological passport scheme.

Having signed up to the United States Anti-Doping Agency in order to ride the Leadville 100, Armstrong will be free to apply for a UCI licence in February 2009. He has said he will subject himself to whatever anti-doping programmes are in place but Armstrong has to do more than that. He has to be completely transparent from this moment on.

PRUDHOMME?S RESPONSE

Christian Prudhomme?s statement this morning was weak. Pathetically so.

Armstrong was persona non grata after the 2005 Tour. They couldn?t wait to see the back of him. How will Prudhomme explain those 1999 samples and ASO?s reaction to the news when the president Patrice Clerc and Prudhomme?s predecessor Jean Marie Leblanc took such strong stances. Are they just going to forget it, welcome Armstrong back and count the euro notes?

This morning, Prudhomme could have said: ?As far as we are concerned there is no doubt about the fact that Armstrong?s 1999 urine samples contained EPO and so we consider he has brought the race into disrepute. Therefore he is not welcome.?

Or at the very least he could have said: ?We would like to see six months? worth of biological passport data prior to the Tour before deciding whether or not it is appropriate to invite him.?

Instead, Prudomme has all but issued an invitation wrapped in ribbon.

It is typical of Armstrong that he assumes all he need do to march back into the Tour de France is give an interview to Vanity Fair stating it is his intention.

And it is typical that even powerful, influential figures buckle in the face of Armstrong and submit to his will. Sadly, commercial factors come into play too. It?s the old chestnut ? Nike sponsors Lance, Nike sponsors the Tour de France. It?s a marriage made at the bank.

A STEP BACK IN TIME

It is very disappointing to see some riders and other key people in the sport who, behind the scenes and off the record, were scathing about Armstrong and his ?legacy? after his retirement, but who are already talking about how ?great for cycling? his return could be.

Armstrong?s return is not great for cycling. It may generate a lot of publicity but that is not the same thing at all.

Undeniably, there are those who worship the man, and that is their right. But Armstrong?s return will reduce the sport, and the Tour de France, to a freak show. There is no doubt about it.

The sport has changed so much in the three-and-a-bit years since Armstrong quit. A root-and-branch overhaul is in process. It is proving slow, difficult work, but there is progress. Armstrong?s return will turn the clock back. Do we want that?

It is inconceivable to think that the likes of Garmin and Columbia could have existed in their current forms during the Armstrong era. Cycling has changed, and will continue to do so. Armstrong is yesterday?s man, all but irrelevant to the sport as it is now. Armstrong may think he is bigger than cycling and, for a while, to some people, he may have been. But he is not now. He will be a 37-year-old attempting to recapture past glories.

What is remarkable is the reaction of Alberto Contador, the strongest stage race rider in the world at the moment. If even he is prepared to talk up Armstrong’s chances of an eighth Tour de France win what hope do the rest have? Contador has admitted defeat at the first hint of His Master’s return.

WHAT DOES THIS ACHIEVE?

From a sporting point of view, what would another Armstrong Tour victory actually achieve other than self-aggrandisement?

We already know what a Lance Armstrong Tour de France victory looks like. We have seen seven of them ? six of which were almost identical. It is dominant, more or less lacking in tactical subtlety other than picking a mountain and attacking decisively on its slopes.

We have seen how Armstrong and his team can strangle a race with a show of strength. We know how that works. Armstrong?s wins were largely charmless and bullying and smug. Do we need to see all that again?

Contrast the one-man show of Sestrieres, or Hautacam from the Armstrong years with the thrilling, epic what-will-happen-next battle on Prato Nevoso or Alpe d?Huez this summer. What would you rather watch?

There will be plenty of people who want to see him humbled, humiliated even. He fires those feelings in some, but what will that achieve?

Having said that, the fact is there is no way Armstrong would have announced his plans for a comeback unless he and his backroom team were confident of victory. Armstrong simply does not do defeat.

We can only presume that they have studied Carlos Sastre?s ride, particularly on Alpe d?Huez, and worked out that Armstrong would have won the 2008 Tour. Armstrong worked on numbers, so the numbers must be right.

TIME WAITS FOR NO MAN

Armstrong?s video statement was strangely subdued.

He looked tired and a lot more than just three years older than he did in 2005. Making the announcement on a very home-made-looking video clip was odd for a man whose public relations operation has always been so co-ordinated and slick.

He celebrates his 37th birthday next week, and will be almost 38 when the 2009 Tour comes around.

It is a long time between now and next July and there is a world of difference between holding a camcorder at arm?s length and saying you?re coming back and actually riding the Tour de France.

So, I will not get too too carried away until he actually sticks a racing number on his back and starts competing because debate and speculation at this stage is almost pointless. As it stands, you or I may as well state our own intentions to ride the Tour de France in 2009.

There remains the chance that this is just a publicity drive to raise awareness for his cancer charity but assuming it?s not, the biggest issue is who he will ride for. Johan Bruyneel has already stated that he would consider it odd if Armstrong signed for another team, so Astana looks the likely destination. Columbia and Garmin?s names have come up among the fans but as far as I can see, there is absolutely no chance of Armstrong going to either. Simply no chance.

We will learn more on September 24, when Armstrong meets the press in New York.

And then, the circus will crank into over-drive. Do us a favour, Lance, you don?t need cycling and cycling doesn?t need you. Leave the sport to get on with things and get on with your life.

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Bonus comment: Why Sevilla, Botero and Hamilton must not start Tour of Britain

September 3 ? Want to be national TT champ and ride the Tour of Britain? Tough, you can?t

August 27 ? Defending Great Britain

August 20 – Gold, gold, glorious gold

August 13 ? Gold rush starts

August 6 ? Team LPR in the Tour of Britain

July 30 ? Assessing the Tour

The Tuesday Comment – January to July 2008