By Jon Brand
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 4, 2009
Lance Armstrong has had many monikers in his cycling career: seven-time Tour de France winner, cancer survivor, philanthropist.
And as the 180-rider Tour begins in Monaco today, he appears prepared to add another title to the list: dutiful teammate.
The Texan ended a 3 1/2 -year retirement last fall with the Tour de France in mind. Yet he enters the race as his team's announced secondary option, behind Spaniard Alberto Contador.
Astana, the Kazakhstan-based team for which Armstrong rides, named the 26-year old Contador the lead rider over Armstrong, 37. The scenario might make Armstrong's already difficult quest for an unprecedented eighth yellow jersey even harder.
"Out of respect for [Contador], out of respect for the team and out of respect for the rules of cycling, I would do it with pleasure," Armstrong told the Associated Press earlier this week.
His proclamation did little to defuse the intrigue surrounding Astana.
Armstrong "has the most amazing tour history of any rider out there ever," said George Hincapie, an American rider for Columbia-HTC and a former teammate of Armstrong's. "I don't know if he's going to win the race . . . but it's going to be an interesting Tour for Astana because they have so many big guys."
It's another plot twist in a season that has held peaks and valleys for Armstrong, who is riding to raise awareness for cancer research in lieu of a salary this year.
He had a strong opening to the campaign, finishing the Australian Tour Down Under, albeit in 29th place. The performance seemed to announce that his famous fitness had not slipped.
"A number of times during the course of this season, he said, 'You know guys, I've been away . . . sitting on my backside, drinking beers,' " Versus cycling announcer Paul Sherwen said in a conference call Monday. "However, you must never forget that he finished up three marathons in sub-three hours" during his retirement.
In March, however, Armstrong suffered a crucial setback. He broke his collarbone at Spain's five-day Vuelta a Castilla y León.
A few weeks later, still in recovery, he skirmished with French anti-doping officials over an improperly administered drug test.
In May, he began his climb back to the Tour by racing in the Giro d'Italia for the first time, finishing 12th.
"If it hadn't been for the broken collarbone, I think Lance would have been much more of a force to reckon with [in the Giro d'Italia]," Sherwen said.
Since competing in Italy, Armstrong has tuned up for the Tour's tough climbs in the Pyrenées and Alps by training at altitude near his new home in Aspen, Colo.
He has mixed in lengthy rides in the Rockies with actual competition, sometimes combining both.
When Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer, a fellow American and third-place finisher in the 2007 Tour, came to town in June, the duo rode to a small time trial in Carbondale, Colo. They competed in the race, signed autographs and then pedaled back to Aspen, spending almost 70 miles on the bike.
"It was more training than anything else," Leipheimer said. "You get an intensity you can't get from regular training rides."
Leipheimer also raced with Armstrong on June 22 in the Nevada City Classic, a one-day event north of Sacramento.
There, Armstrong lapped the field and won his first race since the 2005 Tour de France.
Though Armstrong is peaking at the right time for a podium finish in Paris, he maintains that he's ready to do whatever it takes to help Astana's chosen team leader, Contador, in this year's Tour.
"We really have a clear-cut favorite that we can say he is better than the other contenders," he told the AP earlier this week. "Nobody wants to lose. I'm not going to act irresponsibly."
But if the Spaniard falters or it's close at the penultimate stage on famed Mont Ventoux, all bets are off.
"He looks good," Leipheimer said of Armstrong. "Very skinny and stronger than after the Giro. I think he's probably better than in 2003, when he was able to win in what was his most challenging [Tour de France] victory."
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