Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lance 2.0

Lance Armstrong is back! This is old news now, but this seemed to sneak-up on everyone - maybe even Lance himself. After being on the sidelines for three years the seven-time Tour de France Champion, thought that he could and should get back into top level professional road racing. Like most of what Lance does, once the commitment was made - he and everyone else around him in his entourage of supporters, sponsors and handlers was full-on, into it. How else to explain Trek re-firing up the whole division of the bike company, devoted solely to Lance's needs. This division had gone dormant after Lance's departure from Professional racing in 2006. Ditto for Nike. They announced several years ago that the company was getting out of cycling - now, they have jumped back in.

Even Lance himself, never one to leave any stone of physical and organizational prep unturned, has whipped himself into amazing shape in a very short period of time to take on the rigors of a Pro Road Race season. His long time coach, Chris Carmichael, claims that Lance is in the best shape that he has ever seen him in, this early in the year even at age 37. And the fitness numbers bore this out at the recently completed Tour Down Under in Australia. Lance acquitted himself very well - was always in the race. Never seemed to be struggling. Even was away in some key break-aways and played an animated role in those breaks. "Just testing the legs", said Lance. His legs looked very good.

Of course, this being Lance Armstrong there is bound to be controversy. One would think that a Seven Time winner of the worlds greatest bike race would be unanimously embraced and hailed as the world's best cyclist - but this is not the case with Lance. His dominance of the Grand Boucle has had somewhat of a polarizing impact on followers and fans of professional bike racing. True, a majority, think that he is the greatest, but there is a minority who think that Lance's obsession with the the Tour de France leaves him as a one-trick-pony in the ranks of the great cyclists of all time. Then there is the fact that an American kept winning, year, after year after year . . France's National Tour, at a time when U.S. and French relations were perhaps at an all-time low. Finally, there is the dark and sinister world of Performance Enhancing Drugs(PEDs). The naysayers argue, "How is it, that one cyclist could have such an absolute and complete domination in the World's most competitive bike race beating all other cyclists, many of whom, after the fact, have been found to be using PED's". It's a good question and Armstrong has been adamant that he has never taken anything. It's true that no one was tested more in competition and out, than when Armstrong was at his best. There are no positive tests, and while there is a whirl-wind of accusations, it's all based on, at best, very circumstantial evidence. This time around Lance is going the extra mile on this and employing a third party testing regime that will go even beyond that of the UCI, WADA and the individual races that he will contest.

There is also the melodrama of Lance's new team - Astana. He comes back to the Pro road ranks and into the team of his former team manager for all his past Tour de France wins, Johan Bruyneel. Lance, claims, "There is only one manager that I could ever ride for and that's Johan." Fair enough, but Lance is injecting himself into, perhaps the strongest stage-racing Pro Road team on the planet with huge Stars such as Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer - Contador won the Tour de France in 2007 and won the Tours of Italy and Spain last year. Leipheimer finished 3rd in the Tour de France in 2007 behind Contador and has legitimate claims and possible aspirations of winning The Tour de France himself. This all sounds good - a strong stage-racing team. Lance should fit right in. His experience could play a valuable role. However, Lance has hinted that he wants to take a run at the Tour of Italy and the Tour de France victories himself. This is a bit of a different dynamic than when Lance raced for the US Postal service and Discovery teams. Those teams were built completely, and absolutely around Armstrong. No one, on any of those teams had aspirations beyond 100% support of Lance and securing the Tour de France Yellow Jersey for him. The Astana situation is very different. Something that Lance has never really had to contend with since his early, pre-cancer days in the sport - open competition within the team and the team will then support the best rider. This is the other classic model of Pro Team, stage-race strategy. Sometimes it works, and other times it does not! Bernard Hinault had a change of heart mid-way through the Tour de France one year. At the outset, he said he was riding for Greg Lemond. However, at some point he started riding for himself, and took some of the team's riders with him. Now Lemond had enemies within his own team!! Last year at the Tour de France, the support-the-best-rider strategy worked for CSC and Carlos Sastre won the Tour de France.

The stage is set for an interesting year of Professional Bike Racing. Personally, I'll admit to being a long-time fan of Lance Armstrong. Like many others I had a Lance Moment years ago, when by sheer chance, I ended up seated beside him at a triathlon race reception and prize ceremony back in his triathlon days, of the late 80's. We shared a beer and chatted briefly. I am sure that he has absolutely no recollection of the encounter! However, triathletes around the world have duly taken notice that Lance has made some hints that after this cycling comeback is done, perhaps as soon as 2010, he may make a return to the sport that first gained him notoreity - triathlon. He picked a rather interesting private training camp location, just prior to going to the Tour Down Under - the Kona coast, home of the legendary Ironman Hawii - and Lance spent a fair amount of time riding along the Ironman Hawaii bike route on the Queen K Highway.

Whatever happens this year, his return to racing will be good for the sport. Already, there are way more people paying attention to the sport this year, then in the previous few years, indeed, since Lance first retired. With the recent drug scandals in the Pro Cycling, sponsors had been backing away and teams had been cutting budgets. With more eyeballs on the cycling events, be it on the course or on the TV, that will be good for the sport as that's what attracts sponsors. I know that I am not alone in saying that I have a renewed level of interest in watching the Tour of Italy, the Tour de France and the other races that Lance will be contesting this year.

Finally, to borrow from the title of his first book, Lance himself says that, this is not about the bike! This is about raising awareness for the scourge of Cancer around the world. He says, that is his ultimate goal here - get people to donate more and governments to put more money into cancer research. Addressing the the naysayers and the Livestrong cancer initiative all in one fell swoop, this is what Armstrong had to say in a recent interview in Outside Magazine:

"some of these people are so immature. I've got bad news for them: I'm coming. I'm coming [back] on behalf of eight million people who are going to die around the world this year, and I think that's a noble reason to get back on my bike. The people that bitch about it and say all these bad things, they view the Lance Armstrong Foundation as a sham, and pardon my French, but f*#@ them. I've got no time for that. My intentions are pure, and, as I said, it's not stopping."

Say what you want about the man. He's always been an outstanding and forth-right interview! Bottom line, he has probably done more for fund raising in the area of cancer research and awareness than anyone else. Lance has revolutionized the world of non-profit fund raising. And that's a good thing. Indeed, it would appear that it's not so much about the bike this time around!

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