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JUST BECAUSE he's lean and ripped and far more fit than he's ever been at this time of year, Lance Armstrong won't necessarily regain the form that won him seven Tours de France. Just because those questions about his past have faded from the foreground, they haven't necessarily gone away. And while none of them care to be quoted, there are plenty of cycling people who wish he'd leave and not come back. He is a magnet for attention that might otherwise redound to more deserving riders—guys like his Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer, who on Sunday clinched his third straight victory in the Amgen Tour of California, but whose next mention in this story is more than a thousand words away. But give Armstrong this: Three-and-a-half years after his retirement, two races into his comeback, he has plunged an IV full of Red Bull into the arm of a sport sorely in need of a pick-me-up. By his mere presence in the peloton, the 37-year-old Texan makes pro cycling an infinitely more interesting proposition. Who else could turn a slow night at the Tour of Cali into an episode of CSI: Sacramento?
The Astana boys were going through their usual paces late on the evening of Feb. 18. Having hammered at the front of the peloton over five categorized climbs in that day's stage 4—a spectacular 115-mile meander through the foothills of the Sierras—they were catching up on e-mails, phoning home and getting ready for bed at the Piccadilly Inn, near the Fresno airport. That's when a squad car from the Sacramento Police Department pulled up to the entrance. Out stepped two detectives and a CSI agent.
From the trunk they pulled Armstrong's Trek time-trial bike, stolen four nights earlier from a team truck parked across the street from the state capitol. (An anonymous Good Samaritan had turned it in earlier that day.) Ride and rider reunited, the CSI woman took fingerprints from three Astana mechanics and the team's Trek liaison, Ben Coates, "to eliminate us as suspects," Coates explained later. "It was pretty cool."
The theft of his bike was the high-water mark in an exceptionally soggy week for Armstrong and this four-year-old race. The first three stages were contested in rains ranging from steady to pelting to torrential—and temperatures that seldom rose above 50°. "That's hard," admitted Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which puts on the TOC. "I mean, that's Belgium."
The atrocious weather crystallized opinion among race officials that the event needs a later—and drier—home on the calendar. Neither rain nor sleet nor stolen bike nor abrasions suffered in a collision with a race motorcycle during stage 2 could dampen the spirits of Armstrong, whose influence on the race was predictably dramatic and immediate: TV ratings were up 100%, according to Messick. Bike-friendly websites such as velonews.com and cyclingnews.com reported Tour de France--like traffic. And the race was witnessed by some two million spectators (up from 1.6 million last year), an inordinate number of whom turned out to see one man. "It was amazing," said Jens Voigt, the ageless German rider for Team Saxobank. "The fans seemed to say, 'If the guys can suffer on the bike, we can stand here and wait for them.'"
Armstrong's bond with his worldwide army is based on a deeper suffering: his triumph over testicular cancer, which had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. The race's unofficial theme was splashed on thousands of placards handed out by volunteers for the Livestrong Global Cancer Campaign, his awareness-raising initiative: hope rides again. During and after Armstrong's reign as the world's best cyclist, however, books and depositions and articles have cited circumstantial evidence that he didn't win all those races clean. (He has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.)
A month into his comeback we know this much: In the court of public opinion—that slice of the public, at least, willing to bag work or school for a day to see a bike race—he has long since been acquitted. No, the crowds along the road didn't unanimously support him. Without slowing his tempo near the summit of stage 4's final climb, Armstrong stiff-armed into a snowbank a man in a yellow devil costume who'd been running alongside him. Closer examination revealed that the tines of El Diablo's pitchfork were giant faux syringes.
But Yellow Devil was in a distinct minority at the TOC. The route that day was lined with signs bearing brief paeans: PLANADA LOVES LANCE. NORTH FORK LOVES LANCE. OAKHURST PHYSICAL THERAPY LOVES LANCE AND THE TOUR. More practical was the sign held up by a six-year-old near the summit of the penultimate climb: CHAINS REQUIRED.
ACCORDING TO local legend," Justin Baldwin was saying, "this place was once a house of ill repute." The handsome adobe building at 614 13th Street in Paso Robles, Calif., is now the home of the Central Coast Wellness Community. Baldwin is a local vintner who learned he had cancer of the tonsils five years ago on the same day his wife, Deborah, received a diagnosis of breast cancer. (They're both now cancer-free.) "We went through treatment," Justin recalls, "only to find out that the social and psychological services weren't available anywhere around here." Money was raised; the building was purchased. The center now provides what Baldwin describes as everything from "yoga to nutrition advice to counseling for the children whose parents have cancer."
Last Thursday evening, 90 or so minutes after completing the longest stage of the race (134 miles, from Visalia to Paso Robles) and on the eve of his first time trial since July 2005, Armstrong walked in the side door of the facility. He spent 20 minutes chatting with a half-dozen cancer survivors, followed by another 20 minutes standing and signing autographs. Would it have been smarter to be off his feet? "Honestly, that didn't even register," Armstrong said later. "These events are cool for me. I'm getting as much inspiration as I'm giving, you know?"