MONACO – The nervous plainclothes policeman scrutinized the frenzy, the cameramen elbowed and sweated in the Mediterranean sun and that dead-shark look of determination was back in the eyes of the bike racer everyone came to see.
Yup, no doubt about it, Lance Armstrong is back at the Tour de France. Weirdly, give or take a few gray hairs, it was almost as if he’d never been away. With each push of his aluminum pedals, the 37-year-old rolled back the years – almost.
The seven-time champion’s first ride in four years at the race he used to dominate threw out three essential pieces of information:
•Armstrong is no longer the Tour’s top dog. He still looks good, really good, but no longer quite as awesome as he did when he was “le Boss” around these parts.
•For someone who spent so long away, living a celebrity lifestyle, knocking back beers and growing his family, he has done an impressive job of whipping himself back into shape. Those muscular thighs, sunken cheekbones and wiry frame don’t lie. His Tour comeback is not just the ill-prepared whim of a celebrity kidding himself that he’s still a pro cyclist. He may no longer be the fastest of the 180 riders, but he’s nowhere near the slowest, either.
•Alberto Contador, Armstrong’s teammate, really seems to be the man to beat. The Spaniard looked, well, more Amstrong-ish than Armstrong on Saturday. The way he powered around the hilly, twisting and difficult course was reminiscent of how Armstrong would have done it when he was at his peak. No wonder Armstrong wanted Contador on his team, not racing against him. It’s that old mafia thing – keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
The bottom line: Armstrong rode his worst time trial at the Tour since the cancer survivor first took the race by the scruff of the neck in 1999.
He placed – gasp! – 10th. There are dozens of guys at the Tour who would give their paychecks to be that good and 170 of them – most of them years his junior – finished behind him.
Armstrong was only 40 seconds slower than the winner, Fabian Cancellara, the Olympic champion in this intense, technical discipline of racing against the clock.
In building his record string of seven Tour wins from 1999-2005, Armstrong competed in 19 time trials and won 11 of them. He placed no worse than third in all the others except one – a short clock-race in Paris at the start of the 2003 Tour, where he was seventh.
The last time he raced Cancellara over a similar distance at the Tour, in 2005, the Texan was a minute faster than the Swiss. Contador was nearly 2 minutes slower than Armstrong that day. On Saturday, Contador was 22 seconds quicker – but he is 11 years younger, too.
Basically, the rust wasn’t glaring, but it showed. Armstrong never looked 100 percent comfortable in the saddle. He acknowledged as much afterward. At times, he weaved across the road. He looked a trifle hesitant on fast downhills.
At the finish, Armstrong sat exhaustedly on an ice cooler outside his team’s bus, using a towel to soak up the sweat pouring down his face. When his manager gave Armstrong his time – 20 minutes, 12 seconds – all he could do was nod his head. Words seemed beyond him.
But a quick breather and change of clothes later, Armstrong perked up and spoke to the writhing mass of reporters and cameramen desperate to hear how he felt.
“I was a little all over the place, just because the course wasn’t consistent. It was up, flat, it was down, it was a technical course,” he said. “But I think overall, I felt good.”
Not too much should be read into this first day’s performances. They were just enough to whet the appetite, not make firm predictions on how the next three weeks of racing and drama might pan out.
Contador still needs to leave more daylight between him and Armstrong if he is going to become the undisputed leader of their Astana team. If that happens, Armstrong has said that he would ride for the Spaniard, basically sacrificing his own ambitions.
Even if that happens, it wouldn’t be the end of Armstrong’s world. Bottom line is that riding this Tour sure seems to beat watching it on TV – as he did last year.
“I have a lot of other things that I could be doing,” Armstrong said. “But I want to do this.”
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