Armstrong Sets Stage for 2010 Tour
Lance Armstrong's four children gathered at the base of the Tour de France podium Sunday while the crowd cheered winner Alberto Contador.
Their dad was steps away, on the podium but not in his usual position at the top, and he had a determined look on his face.
Maybe next year.
The man who came back from cancer to rule cycling's greatest race showed with his third-place finish this year that he's capable of another inspiring incarnation. At the 2010 Tour de France, in which he will be 38, Armstrong could contend for his eighth Tour victory.
"He should be better next year," says Johan Bruyneel, team manager for Astana, for which Contador and Armstrong rode this year. Uneasy teammates, they plan to ride for separate teams in 2010.
"He will certainly be a dangerous rival," says Contador, 26, who also won the Tour in 2007. "He already showed this year that he will be a clear candidate."
The Tour's oldest winner was Belgium's Firmin Lambot, who prevailed in 1922 at 36.
Armstrong retired after winning an unprecedented seventh consecutive Tour de France title in 2005. Ten months after announcing his comeback, he has completed what veteran cycling commentator Phil Liggett calls "one of the most incredible returns by any sportsman to the top of his game, especially at his age."
Armstrong, 5 minutes, 24 seconds behind Contador of Spain and 1:13 behind second-place finisher Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, is the oldest podium finisher in the Tour since 40-year-old Raymond Poulidor placed third in 1976.
Armstrong carried an air of resolution Sunday but said he was extremely happy after he secured his podium finish the day before.
"It's probably a good lesson for my kids," he says. "Either to their friends or at their school, they'd say their dad never lost a Tour, and that's not always the best lesson in life. If their dad came back after a bunch of years off and finished third, that's another lesson.
"Based on everything - my age, my time away, people's expectations - it was a pretty good effort."
Boosting the sport, TV ratings
Armstrong proved over the last three weeks that he still can compete at cycling's highest level and still pull an often-overlooked sport to the forefront of the U.S. consciousness, making third place a victory in many ways.
"It keeps cycling on the front page of the sports section, which is really non-existent when Lance is not racing," says Bob Williams, CEO of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing. "He's very similar to what Michael Jordan did for the NBA and for himself as a brand when he first came out of retirement and even the second time when he came out of retirement."
Membership in USA Cycling, composed of competitive racers, has grown 5.5% this year, the same level as during Armstrong's seven-year Tour run, says Steve Johnson, the organization's CEO. It grew about 4% in the intervening years.
"With Lance and the sport being back in the spotlight, it engages people who might have been on the fence about whether they want to ride their bikes," Johnson says.
Versus, which owns the U.S. broadcast rights for the Tour, saw viewership of its live morning coverage rise 95% over last year and traffic on its website go up more than 100%. Versus President Jamie Davis says he thinks Armstrong's rivalry with Contador "played as much, if not more, of a role as Lance coming back."
That rivalry figures to become an even more prominent story line as Contador and Armstrong go their separate ways. RadioShack announced last week that it is partnering with Armstrong to form a new U.S. professional cycling team for 2010, giving the USA three UCI ProTour teams since it was created in 2005.
Contador's plan for next year is unclear, but, he says, "for sure, it will be on a different team than Lance."
Throughout this Tour, the tension between the two riders was palpable if not fully addressed. Contador's bold break away in the final ascent of the first mountain stage, which allowed him to leapfrog Armstrong in the overall standings, brought this comment from Armstrong: "Even if there were some hurt feelings, we're going to do our job."
After Contador pulled away in a brutal Alps ascent in Stage 15 to seize the overall lead and establish himself as Astana's No. 1 rider, Armstrong was gracious, saying he would not attack, working instead to help Contador.
Next year, with a team built around him to support a bid for an eighth Tour title, Armstrong will be better positioned to challenge Contador, especially in the mountains, where Contador's superior climbing skills were on full display.
"With a full team on (Armstrong's) side, people like Contador will find they're not so strong against Lance," Liggett says.
Some things better with age
Armstrong looked more labored on the ascents this year and lacked some of the finishing speed he once had, Liggett says, but he still reads the race very well and can intimidate his competitors with mind games. Those skills will sharpen, not deteriorate, with age.
Liggett sees "no reason" Armstrong won't be on the podium next year. "He'll have the benefit now of a full year back in the saddle. All the doubts about himself will be removed," he said.
Doubt nearly derailed Armstrong after he broke his collarbone in a March crash in Spain.
"You're laying in a ditch in Spain and you've won the Tour seven times, you've got three kids, another coming (son Max was born in June), you've never had a serious accident while racing and there's not a financial motivation," says Chris Carmichael, Armstrong's longtime coach, who also noted that Astana, based in Kazakhstan, wasn't paying Armstrong. "That's probably a time where he might have been going, 'Hmmm, remind me why I'm doing this.'"
Bruyneel, who also worked with Armstrong's teams during his Tour victory streak, says Armstrong "went through a difficult period after that crash," during which Bruyneel didn't expect he would compete in this year's Tour de France.
With his collarbone stabilized by a steel plate and 12 screws, Armstrong returned to racing in early May in the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. He finished second, then was 12th in the Giro d'Italia that month.
Throughout his preparation, and even in the early stages of the Tour de France, Armstrong had basic adjustments to make.
"As weird as it sounds," Bruyneel says, "after 3 years of retirement, there were a lot of little things that he just forgot. It took awhile before he got used to the peloton again."
During his Tour reign, Armstrong got used to taking abuse from French fans and hearing doping allegations from the French news media. This year, the invective all but disappeared.
"He's looked at as an underdog in this Tour instead of this dominating champion who would come back and kick everybody's butt every year," says John Wilcockson, author of Lance Armstrong: The World's Greatest Champion and editor-at-large of VeloNews who has covered 41 Tours. "The French love an underdog."
Receiving cheers instead of jeers along the Tour route lit Armstrong in a different way. He used to compete with a me-against-the-world motivation spurring him through the hardest stages. Now it's more of a we-are-the-world atmosphere, with "I love Lance!" rather than syringes painted on the pavement of the race route. For the first time since 2000, there were no doping scandals during the Tour.
"It's much more healthy when people are cheering for you and really happy to see you competing vs. when he was racing (before) he'd be riding some of these stages and people would be spitting on him and spraying water and saying terrible things," Carmichael says.
While the French reached out to him more, Armstrong opened up more to his fans.
He was a regular on Twitter throughout the race, even taking time to comment on subjects such as Tom Watson's run at the British Open and Walter Cronkite's death. He also posted updates to livestrong.com, the website linked to his cancer awareness foundation.
Much of that was borne of his desire to focus attention on cancer - one of his reasons for returning to the peloton - but it also revealed an Armstrong more at ease than he was in the past.
"Before, he was very, very focused on winning the Tour and having the obligation of winning the Tour," Bruyneel says. "This year, he wanted to win but he didn't have to win the Tour. . . . So he was more relaxed, he was more open."
The look on Armstrong's face Sunday, though, hinted at that singular focus and at the competitive fire that will drive his aging body through arduous workouts in the next year, working toward the podium's top step.