Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Lance Armstrong key to Tour’s popularity

By: Matt Dickinson

A branch so withered and decaying that it was in danger of being chopped off from mainstream sport, the Tour de France returns this weekend amid a renewed and heightened sense of anticipation.

Most of that is down to Lance Armstrong, a man who transcends the world of carbon-fibre frames and Lycra.

Love him or hate him, celebrate his return or wish he had stayed away, his comeback to the Tour at the age of 37 will guarantee global interest at a time when the event has been doped within an inch of its life.

There is a case to be made that Armstrong’s involvement for the first time since 2005 further undermines the race’s credibility, given how many of us have lost faith in him, but the story will be impossible to ignore.

“One man’s battle against fate, fame, love, death, scandal and a few other rivals on the road to the Tour de France” is the subtitle to Daniel Coyle’s Tour de Force, the best of the many books either by or about Armstrong.

It is always a war when Armstrong is involved, and now we can add a compelling fight against old age and also his colossal ego.

The Texan is in the same Astana team as Alberto Contador, the brilliant Spaniard who won this event two years ago, and who is thought by many wise judges to be capable of exerting dominance for many years to come.

Will Armstrong attempt to take on Contador, and risk being crushed, or will he be happy to help his younger team-mate (by 10 years) to victory?

The idea of Armstrong dropping back to collect water bottles for Contador seems fanciful, given that the two are not close and that the American may be the most competitive human ever born, but there would be an upside.

“He has the opportunity to cement his legacy, ironically, in defeat,” said David Millar, competing for Garmin-Slipstream. “I think this year’s Tour is going to do his popularity in France a world of good, because if he doesn’t win then the French will love him, as long as he shows character and resilience and races with a bit of panache. It will show another side of the man that I’m sure exists.”

There will be a huge fascination with Armstrong, for better and for worse.

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