Monday March 23rd, 2009

You knew it was bad, you knew Lance Armstrong was seriously down in the dumps when he failed to Tweet for almost an entire day.

As anyone knows who has followed it in his oft-updated Twitter account, the Texan's 3-month-old comeback has had more peaks than valleys. Monday's crash in the first stage of a minor, five-day Spanish race marks the lowest moment of this audacious experiment. The 37-year-old went down in a pileup and broke his right collarbone clean through. "Surgery in a couple of days," he finally Tweeted late Monday afternoon. He'll be out for at least a month, and probably longer.

One of the more remarkable aspects of Armstrong's seven-year reign at the top of his sport was his control -- of himself, of the situation, of the behavior of the riders around him. It was always someone else doing the crashing.

There was poor Joseba Beloki on a screaming descent in 2003, breaking multiple bones in a sickening fall that forced Armstrong into an impromptu session of cyclocross that immediately entered Tour lore. There was Dave Zabriskie, tearing the yellow jersey to ribbons in a nasty crash during the team time trial at the '05 Tour, causing his CSC team director, Bjarne Riis, to lament, "We just can't seem to get the luck that Lance Armstrong seems to have."

Armstrong's luck -- he'd never broken a collarbone in 17 years of racing -- ran out on Monday, 12 miles from the finish of the first stage of a the Vuelta a Castilla y León. Armstrong came to grief on a narrow, sketchy road that teammate Levi Leipheimer described for Velonews.com as "bumpy ... pretty bad ... super rough and narrow. The edges were deteriorating, with cracks and parts missing."

Armstrong was then seen sitting in the grass, holding his right arm, then being trundled into an ambulance. "Clean collarbone fracture," Tweeted Astana GM Johan Bruyneel. "Should be fast recovery."

That reasonably upbeat assessment was contradicted by a rather gloomier pronouncement from Armstrong, who told a TV reporter, upon being discharged from the Spanish hospital, "I think for the Tour it's a very big problem."

Recovery from this most frequent of cycling injuries usually takes from four to six weeks. The Tour de France starts on July 4 -- three months and a week from now. That would seem to leave Armstrong plenty of time to heal the bone and recover form.

At much greater risk, now, is his participation in the Giro d'Italia, the three-week Tour of Italy, a race he has long admired but never contested. The Giro will begin on May 9 in Venice. Probably without the Texan.

While I won't go so far as to describe a broken bone as a disguised blessing, Monday's mishap should have the effect of uncomplicating Armstrong's life. He's often spoken of being in "uncharted territory" with this comeback, in part because, well, he'd never taken four years off before. And in part because he'd embraced a different, more ambitious racing schedule than ever before. Never, during his seven-year reign of Tour victories, had he taken the start at another three-week race. His journey to the pinnacle of his sport was powered, in part, by this intense specialization and focus: his entire year revolved around the Tour.

That focus has just been thrust back upon him. If, as now seems almost certain, he can't race the Giro, he'll find himself back in a familiar position -- focusing on the world's greatest bike race, something he's done better than anyone else on the planet.

The greatest bike racer in the world, meanwhile, is his Astana teammate, Alberto Contador, who at 26 has already won three grand tours, and who was not thrilled by Armstrong's decision to come back. The whole point of Armstrong's entering Castilla y León was to spend the week making nice with the young Spaniard, in the process defusing a tense situation between them.

Having spent 10 days together at an early-February training camp in California, the dueling team leaders were not scheduled to race together until the Tour de France. Journalists were sure to have spent that time raising questions, stoking doubt: How could they possibly work together, coexist harmoniously, if they hadn't seen one another in five months?

By racing with Contador in Spain this week, Armstrong intended to pre-empt such questions.

If his intention was to extend an olive branch to the younger rider, Armstrong set himself back in a recent interview with L'Equipe, in which -- after acknowledging Contador's brilliance on the bike -- he noted that the Spaniard is "too nervous" on the bike, and suggested the boy learn "how to relax."

That quote, innocuous as he sought to make it, is now sure to embarrass the Texan, considering which one of them was unable to keep the rubber side down on Monday.

This a different Lance we're seeing than the gimlet-eyed alpha male who scolded the doubters and the haters from the podium moments after clinching his final Tour in 2005. There's much to like about the new edition. As the erudite Columbia-High Road rider and ex-Armstrong teammate Michael Barry put it to me at the Tour of California, "He's kind of a different athlete than he was three years ago. His comportment in the peloton, his demeanor, the way he rides, is slightly different than before. He's just, maybe, a little calmer."

He's a nicer guy, in short. Hell, after serving as Leipheimer's domestique for the duration of that race, Armstrong was talking about how, "maybe, at this stage of my life," it might not be such a bad thing for him, "spiritually," to work for other riders.

This spiritual evolution, these signs of selflessness and maturity, while attractive, do not necessarily create space for him on the road. "At the end of the day," says one ex-pro rider who knows Armstrong well, "you still have to be the baddest mofo out there. That happens by reinforcing the differences between them and you. What you're seeing now is, those barriers are coming down in guys' minds. That's one of the unintended consequences of Lance's humanist approach."

And yet, and yet ... he'll have surgery in a day or two. He'll be on the bike -- on a trainer -- within the week. He'll be itching to race before a month is gone. He was damned fit when he hit the pavement this morning. He's not going to lose that much form during this enforced vacation. He's still Lance Armstrong. All that luck Bjarne Riis begrudged him has not deserted him. Neither has all that talent.

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