Wednesday September 10th, 2008

Grim news for gossip rags everywhere: Lance Armstrong confirmed Tuesday that he is, in fact, coming out of retirement. The immediate result, of course -- aside from a defibrillation of interest in cycling in this country -- will be a marked reduction in late-night sightings of the Lone Star State's most prolific Lothario with celebrity blondes of various vintages on his arm. If Lance is going to take the start at the Amgen Tour of California on Valentine's Day, 2009 -- the first of five stages races he's reportedly eyeballing, culminating with the Tour de France next July -- he'll need to maybe be dial down the night life a bit.

Or not. This guy has always played by his own rules. Maybe he'll figure out a way to get in his mileage without sacrificing time devoted to what Satchel Paige called "the social ramble." Yes, he'll be 37 later this month. But Armstrong's got a once-in-a-generation engine, as he reminded me in our last interview. If everyone around him had doped, I asked, how he was able to crush those guys while riding clean? "I agree there are some f------ rats out here, with all the stuff we've seen," he said. "But sometimes, people come along with 12 cylinders."

I got an email a couple weeks ago from one of the 12-Cylinder Man's former teammates, asking if I'd heard the rumors. I texted Lance and his assistant, Mark Higgins, and heard bupkes back from them. Then came this bombshell in the current issue of Vanity Fair, in which Armstrong bestows his historic scoop on historian Douglas Brinkley, a fellow Austinite. Brinkley's priceless reaction: "For a moment I gaped at him. Was I being punked?" But it makes sense. As we were reminded most recently by Brett Favre, it's not easy for a certain kind of superstar to leave the arena. They've got competitive juices to expend; egos to feed.

And, in Armstrong's case, a point to prove. He and his people are marketing this comeback as a frontal assault on cancer. The final clause of the first sentence Higgins sent out earlier today: "I have decided to return to professional cycling in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden."

Few people on this planet have taken the fight to cancer with Armstrong's persistence and fervor. So when he tells us that this comeback is all about fighting cancer --- not about feeding his ego -- we have to take him at face value. He's banked that much capital.

But this comeback is clearly about something else, as well. This is Lance jamming his thumb in the eye (I thought of another metaphor, using a different finger, but took a pass on it) of those who have cast doubt on his feats; who have wondered aloud if, in order to amass at least some of those successes --- the guy won every Tour de France from 1999-2005 -- he crossed over to the dark side; that he availed himself of some of the doping products in which this sport has been awash since the mid-90s.

Armstrong has reportedly taken steps to be reinstated in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's out-of-competition testing pool, a prereq for his re-joining the pro peloton. That's another reason for Lance to get to bed early: He'll want to be fresh and well-rested when his old pals, the testers, arrive at his door at 7 a.m., thrusting sample cups toward him while gruffly requesting: "Fill 'er up."

For a variety of reasons, the only team it makes sense for him to come back with is Astana, run by his old friend and mentor, Johan Bruyneel. That creates at least one sticky problem, right off the bat. Astana already has a team leader: the brilliant young Spaniard Alberto Contador won the '07 Tour. As Lance told Brinkley, "I'm going to try and win an eighth Tour de France." It's tough to conceive of the man who was the Patron of the peloton for the better part of a decade chasing down breakaways and fetching water bottles for a 26-year-old.

But that's a long ways off. Let's get Lance through the Tour of California, first. Speaking of which, can you imagine how many high fives were exchanged at Amgen when this news came down? Projection: Armstrong will single-handedly double attendance at that race next year. As noted yesterday, he's probably saved the Tour de Georgia, a terrific one-week race that's been scrambling for a title sponsor. So Lance is going to strap it on again and suffer up Brasstown Bald in the sixth stage of one more Tour de Georgia. He'll take the measure of the best riders in the world at another Dauphine Libere. Once again we, the cycling journos, will scrum and push and make mental note of our collective, sketchy hygiene as we crowd around his team bus at the departs of another Tour de France.

How completely brilliant. If there is a downside here, someone share it with me. It may have been a well-kept secret, but cycling in America was already entering a renaissance, with conspicuously clean teams like Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia proving that guys can win races without pharmacological assistance. Now here is the most famous cyclist in American history, promising to make his test results public --- "I can come with really a completely comprehensive program and there will be no way to cheat," he tells Brinkley --- joining the party. Good for Lance, good for his fight against cancer, good for Trek, whose bikes he rides. Good for this beautiful, beleaguered sport.

Would I be surprised if Lance can't hang with cycling's new young guns; if his sport has passed him by while he was training for marathons and entertaining models with BFFs Matthew McConaughey and Jake Gyllenhaal? If he ends up riding in support of Contador next July? No. Dude is crowding 40.

Nor, truthfully, would I be surprised if Contador ends up riding for Lance. Even if he's down to nine or 10 cylinders, the guy is still a freak.

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