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Still Not About the Bike
Austin Murphy
October 06, 2008
Lance Armstrong returns with a cure, not the Tour, on his mind
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October 06, 2008

Still Not About The Bike

Lance Armstrong returns with a cure, not the Tour, on his mind

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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.

After indulging 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."

Here's a 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."

The latter 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.

It's impossible 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 ethically."

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 headline-generating machine.

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