By Douglas Robson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 15, 2009
SACRAMENTO -- The extra attention Lance Armstrong brings to cycling when he lines up for Sunday's Tour of California also comes with extra baggage.
Those overstuffed suitcases were in plain sight at Thursday's prerace news conference, where the luminous but still controversial light cast by the seven-time Tour de France winner overshadowed the race itself, which features the finest field in its short history and the return of another big and notorious American name, Floyd Landis.
During the lengthy news conference in a hotel ballroom here that was standing-room only, Armstrong's decision to scrap his highly publicized personal drug-testing program a day earlier and the unproven doping allegations that have dogged him since he ruled the sport took center stage.
Armstrong, who has never failed a drug test, defended his decision to jettison the program, which was aimed at providing unprecedented openness and transparency by posting Armstrong's biological data on the Internet.
Announced with much fanfare in October as a key component to his return, the independent program came crashing down without even starting when the administrator, prominent anti-doping scientist Don Catlin, said Wednesday it had been canceled. Armstrong explained Thursday that the costs and logistics of the program were too complicated.
"It was a difficult program to put together," Armstrong said. "The testers would have been tripping over each other."
He is still subject to screening by other anti-doping agencies, such as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the International Cycling Union. His personal program will be taken over by Danish doping expert Rasmus Damsgaard, who also oversees testing for Armstrong's Astana team. Several of Armstrong's test results have already been posted on his Web site.
Armstrong emphasized that no athletes face needles and cups as often as cyclists, and that the sport contains "the most comprehensive testing program in the business."
"I'm telling you, I'm as clean as a whistle," he added.
Armstrong's legendary temper also flared as he got into a testy exchange with reporters, telling one writer from a British newspaper that he "was not worth the chair" he was sitting on when he asked why Armstrong had welcomed back unrepentant cyclists who had served doping suspensions.
Saturday's 2.4-mile prologue marked Armstrong's first race on U.S. soil following a 3 1/2 -year absence. Armstrong finished 10th in the prologue in 4 minutes 37.17 seconds.
The nine-stage Tour of California covers 750 miles from Northern California to Escondido, where it ends on Feb. 22.
Armstrong kicked off his comeback last month at the Tour Down Under. The 37-year-old finished in the middle of the pack but said he was satisfied with his performance. His main goal in Australia was to get his legs reacclimated to the repetitive stress and recovery of stage racing, which is also his aim in California.
Armstrong reiterated Thursday that he returned for two reasons -- to race and to campaign for global cancer awareness. Despite three years away from racing, he feels strong and mentally fresh.
"At 37, I feel just as good as I did at 27," he said.
Though the TOC has some elements that favor Armstrong, such as time trials and tough climbs, his main purpose is to help two-time defending champion and Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer stand atop the podium again.
For the first time, Armstrong will be competing against close friend and loyal domestique George Hincapie, who assisted the hard-charging Texan in all seven of his Tour de France victories. Hincapie currently races for Team Columbia.
The Lance Show aside, there are plenty of other story lines in what is fast becoming one of the most prestigious races in the world.
The fourth edition of the TOC has by far the best lineup in the history of the event. Slated to compete are 2 Tour de France winners (Armstrong and 2008 champion Carlos Sastre), 11 world champions, 8 Olympic medalists and nearly every top American cyclist.
Organizers and riders are calling it the richest crop of talent assembled on American ground since the 1986 world championships in Colorado Springs.
"It might be the greatest collection of U.S. cyclists at any one time," Leipheimer, a California native, said last week. "The field is stronger than ever," the 2007-08 winner added Thursday.
It's also a major comeback race for those who, unlike Armstrong, were forced out of the sport. Italian Ivan Basso, the 2006 Giro d'Italia winner, is racing for Team Liquigas after a two-year suspension for admitting he intended to dope. He returned in October.
Landis, a Pennsylvania-born Mennonite, is in his first pro race since being stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title when he tested positive for a synthetic testosterone.
The 33-year-old crashed during a training ride Thursday and then skipped his scheduled appearance at the prerace news conference. Landis, who has a surgically reconstructed hip, was bruised but still plans to race.
The only other winner of the Tour of California, in 2006, Landis spent much of the past two years in an expensive battle to clear his name in various courts. He has maintained his innocence and has been critical of cycling's testing system. His ban ended Jan. 30.
"He's a tough guy," Leipheimer said after hearing of Landis's crash at the news conference. "It won't affect him."
The weather could affect everyone. Last year, riders faced numerous rainy days and challenging conditions. More showers are predicted for the week ahead.
"Our biggest concern this year is to try and avoid the cold, wet days that these guys had to race in last year," Armstrong said. "Bad weather makes it harder and a bit more dangerous, but we're still excited."