Armstrong returns with a new team and a winning cause
Rolling up the West Side Highway in his chauffeured SUV yesterday, Lance Armstrong cut to the chase:
"Of course I'll ride for Alberto [Contador], if he's stronger," says Armstrong, referring to his new teammate. "You have to be prepared for that. You can't be the guy that says, 'I'm second-best on the team, but I demand to be the leader.' You know me better than that."
Armstrong was on his way to the Teterboro (N.J.) Airport, having left the Clinton Global Initiative in Manhattan, where he had just confirmed his comeback to the sport he ruled from 1999 to 2005. And he was right: we do know him. We know him well enough to strongly suspect that he wouldn't be getting back in this racket if he didn't think he could win an eighth Tour de France.
When he phoned his old friend and mentor, Johan Bruyneel, to discuss a possible comeback, the Astana director asked him, "What party are you at?"
Bruyneel is the director of the Kazakh-based Astana squad which, of all the teams in the world, would seem to have the least need for an aging star three years removed from his last competitive road race. Armstrong will be two months shy of 38 when he begins the Tour next July. Astana, meanwhile, is led by Contador, the brilliant young Spanish rider who has already won each of the sport's grand tours: the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of Spain.
Contador, 25, is not pleased by the prospect of the Texan's return. While Armstrong "certainly hopes" the Spaniard's feelings can be soothed, he says, "If he has offers and wants to go to a Spanish team that's his decision ..."
Earlier that morning, at the CGI's "Plenary Session," Armstrong had been introduced by former president Bill Clinton, who lauded him for the Livestrong Global Cancer Initiative that is being rolled out in lockstep with his return to racing. Last year Armstrong spearheaded the passage of Proposition 15, which amended the constitution in his home state, authorizing up to $3 billion in bonds to fund cancer research. The Initiative is Armstrong's way of upping the ante in this fight, taking it to an international stage. As he travels the world racing his bike, he'll use his pulpit to coax and wheedle and leverage commitments from politicians and policy makers.
OK, he's riding for a cause. We get that. I asked him if there wasn't something else at work here, if this comeback wasn't a "Screw you" to the doubters who have long alleged that some of Armstrong's success has been fueled by doping products.
"I think there's very little of that," he replied, implying that there is at least some of that residual spite pushing him here.
To further buttress his quest with righteousness, Armstrong checked two additional boxes. He announced the founding of a developmental squad of under-23 riders to be built around up-and-coming American rider Taylor Phinney, whom Armstrong described as "the future of American cycling" and whom he poached from the Garmin-Chipotle squad.
Next, he turned his attention, yet again, to the scourge of doping in sport. Standing to Phinney's right on the stage behind Armstrong was the bespectacled Don Catlin, one of the world's top anti-doping detectives. Catlin, who has devised numerous drug tests, has been retained by Armstrong to certify that his comeback is clean.
Complicating the comeback is the fact that Astana is not guaranteed a Tour invite. Last year the team was excluded from the race, a punishment for doping offenses incurred by different riders under different management. Asked by a French reporter if Armstrong had secret assurances from French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Astana would be guaranteed a spot in the Tour, Armstrong said, "I have no guarantees. I saw President Sarkozy last night, said hello, shook hands, met his wife."
Something about the idea of Armstrong eyeballing French first lady and ex-model Carla Bruni sent a ripple of mirth across the room. That became a gale of laughter when he said, a tad defensively, "Well, everybody wanted to know, 'Did you get to meet his wife?'"
After Clinton introduced him, Armstrong had reminisced about his first visit to the White House, following his '99 Tour victory. He recalled, "We were told we had seven minutes." Strolling in the Rose Garden, Armstrong remarked favorably on a nearby magnolia. Because Clinton shared his affection for that genus, he recalled, "that seven minutes turned into 47 minutes."
Has any athlete in his prime ever been so comfortable among statesmen, Kings, presidents and prime ministers? The previous day, Armstrong's agent, Bill Stapleton, had taken a call from John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia. Howard was eager to know if Armstrong's race schedule next year might include the Tour Down Under.
In fact, it will. He is committed to that race, plus the Tour de France. On Thursday morning, at the Interbike trade show in Vegas, he also confirmed that he'll ride in the Amgen Tour of California in mid-February. Though the rest of his schedule is up in the air, Armstrong confided that he wants very much to do the Giro, a three- week race he's never contested.
Asked by an Italian journalist about the possibility of riding in the Giro, Armstrong's response served as an unsubtle prod to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "I would encourage Mr. Berlusconi to enact some cancer-related legislation," Armstrong says.
Later, Armstrong wondered if that might have come off "a little strong." But the truth is, he and the formidable Doug Ulman, a three-time cancer survivor who is president of the L.A.F., are quite comfortable using whatever leverage is at their disposal to further their anti-cancer agenda. Armstrong's 2009 cycling season and his Global Cancer Initiative will reach near-simultaneous climaxes in Paris. The Tour de France will be immediately followed by the L.A.F.'s Global Cancer Summit, where leaders from around the world will make commitments advancing the cause.
"President Clinton has agreed to be there," says Ulman. "We talked to President Bush today. He's very interested, as are Sarkozy, Berlusconi and the Prime Minister of Australia."
Ulman and Armstrong are working hard to pressure the next U.S. president to attend. Ulman notes, "Did you know that no American president has ever been to the Tour de France?" What we're saying [to both candidates] is the U.S. has always been a leader in cancer research. Now you have to tell the world what you're going to do."
Meanwhile, Armstrong faces the minor task of getting ready to return to a sport from which he's been absent since '05.
"You could argue that this is the riskiest thing I've ever done," he says. "Say I get fifth in the Tour, there'll be people who pile on, and say, 'Uh-huh. Now that he's clean, he comes in fifth.' If I get fifth and five guys write, 'It's because he was dirty before and he's clean now,' but I've effected some change around the world, well, guess who wins?"