PUTTING ASIDE for
the moment the question of whether or not Lance Armstrong's return to cycling
is a good or a bad thing, let us all agree that it is a very interesting thing.
Witness the delicious, unscripted drama that erupted at a Las Vegas trade show
last Thursday. Crashing Armstrong's press conference at Interbike was his sworn
enemy, Greg LeMond, a three-time Tour de France winner who has evolved, in
middle age, into a kind of graying, Midwestern Inspector Javert. LeMond briefly
hijacked the proceedings with a sometimes coherent farrago of questions
designed to tie Armstrong to the doping that was so pervasive in cycling while
the Texan ruled over the sport.
his uninvited guest for a minute or two, Armstrong asserted control, declaring,
"It's time for us, everybody in this room, to move on.... I appreciate you
being here—next question."
question: Lance, what the hell are you thinking? You will be two months shy of
your 38th birthday at the start of the 2009 Tour de France, a race you've won
seven (consecutive) times already. It will have been four years since you
mounted a road bike in anger. The team you're coming back with, Astana—directed
by your old friend, Johan Bruyneel—has little need of you. Astana is led by
Alberto Contador, a brilliant Spaniard with matchless acceleration and
formidable palmarès: At the tender age of 25, he has already won all three of
cycling's grand tours.
The itch to race
again "kinda snuck up" on him, Armstrong told me last week. As we know,
he'd stayed in decent postretirement shape, running marathons and getting in a
few bike rides between nights of tomcatting and honky-tonking with Jake and
Matthew. But it was while training for last month's Leadville 100, a brutal,
high-altitude mountain bike race in Colorado, that he fell back in love, he
says, "with the idea of riding my bike for five hours a day."
Two weeks before
that race, the board of the Lance Armstrong Foundation approved a project
called the Global Cancer Initiative—a follow-up to the LAF's successful
spearheading of Proposition 15, which last year authorized up to $3 billion in
bonds to fund cancer research in Texas. After Armstrong finished a strong
second at Leadville, he phoned LAF president Doug Ulman and said he wanted back
in the game.
It was a
no-brainer to piggyback the Comeback upon the Initiative. The news created an
international buzz. Last Tuesday, Armstrong's agent, Bill Stapleton, took a
call from former Australian prime minister John Howard, who asked if the Texan
might race in next January's Tour Down Under. (The answer was yes.) Armstrong,
meanwhile, says he intends to lean on Howard to help jack up his nation's
anticancer budget, which Armstrong, donning his policy wonk's hat, describes as
"kind of small." Asked by an Italian reporter if he'll ride in the Giro
d'Italia, Armstrong replied that he would very much like to, before delivering
an unsubtle prod to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. "I would
encourage Mr. Berlusconi to enact some cancer-related legislation."
exchange took place in a Manhattan hotel ballroom at the Clinton Global
Initiative, or CGI, where Armstrong rolled out his GCI between hugs and confabs
with many of his BFFs. After being introduced at the Opening Plenary by Bubba
himself, Armstrong reminisced about his first White House visit: A seven-minute
meet and greet in 1999 turned into a 47-minute bonding session after the
cyclist complimented the President on a Rose Garden magnolia tree. (Had he
mentioned Hooters, one suspects, Armstrong might have been invited to dinner.)
Now there was Lance backstage at the CGI, catching up with Bono; exchanging
best wishes with Barbara Walters and Muhammad Ali; buttonholing George H.W.
Bush. Armstrong had a warm greeting for French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
to deny Armstrong's devotion to his war of choice, and the passion and
eloquence with which he wages it. At the CGI, he spoke of taking the fight
global and lamented that "the Number 1 killer of young women in Africa is
cervical cancer.... By failing to act, by not applying the medicine that we
have to the people that need it most, we are failing morally and
Never in the
annals of sport has an active athlete had such a bully pulpit, or so many
presidents and prime ministers on speed dial. The '09 Tour de France will be
immediately followed by the LAF's Global Cancer Summit, where world leaders,
ideally, will make commitments to battle cancer. And the yellow-bracelet brain
trust is already pressuring the next U.S. president to attend. "Did you
know," Ulman notes, "that no American president has ever been to the
Tour de France?"
There hasn't been
much cause, since Armstrong got out of the game. Which brings us to the other
giant upside of his unretirement: It will defibrillate his sport in this
country. Yes, the teams Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle, with their strict
anti-doping programs, have given fans much to celebrate. But the return of
Lance thrusts cycling back into the mainstream. Like him or not, he is a