On July 11th 2010 we witnessed the end of the third major round of Lance Armstrong's bike racing career. His bike racing career was preceded—and may be followed again--by an impressive triathlon racing experience.
Round 1: Before he won a single Tour de France—and before most Americans heard his name—Lance was a very strong cyclist. He was the US National Champion and World Champion in 1993. Unfortunately, most people who don't follow cycling closely have no idea who the national or world champions of the sport are. Round 1 ended after Lance discovered that he had cancer that had spread throughout his body in 1996.
Round 2: After fighting for his life against cancer, Lance won 7 consecutive Tours de France (1999-2005) and became the most famous cyclist in the world. Bicycle manufacturers and bike shop owners rejoiced as America rediscovered the bicycle. American bike racing fans rejoiced that the sparse smattering of victories by Americans in European road bike racing was replaced by American dominance of the biggest bike race in the world. Unfortunately, Lance grew bored of winning the Tour de France and "retired" in 2005. Granted, it's a lot of very hard work, and he already had enough fame and fortune for a few lifetimes.
Round 3: After getting inspired to race again through his Leadville 100 racing experience, Lance decided to return to the pinnacle of the sport to race the Tour de France in 2009. It's a tall order after leaving the professional peloton for a few years, but Lance did well and finished 3rd in 2009. For 2010, Lance had a year of racing under his belt and a full schedule of "warm-up" races leading up to the Tour. When he finished 2nd in the Tour of Switzerland, I started to think he might really have the form to be a real threat to the other top Tour contenders. But after multiple crashes and perhaps a bonk on the final climb yesterday, we'll never know how well he could have done in this year's Tour. This is Lance, not SuperLance. Getting those 12 minutes back is not in the cards.
I HOPE we'll never know how well he would have done if those crashes hadn't happened. Because now, working as a "domestique" for his teammate Levi Leipheimer in the coming weeks, he should sacrifice his stage-by-stage finish times to help maximize Levi's chances of winning the Tour. This may mean pacing up hills right through his anaerobic zone, then peeling off and dropping back. It should mean taking pulls in front of Levi to help Levi stay as protected and rested as possible for the crucial moments. It should mean wearing himself out as a loyal teammate to the point where his own time trial performance in Bordeaux will be lackluster. I hope.
I've seen some journalists and readers guess that Lance may go for a stage win, like some sort of "farewell" performance now that the GC (overall win) is not in the cards for him. I'll be disappointed if this happens, because it will mean that he chose—even if only for one stage—to put his own need for more glory ahead of the need to help his team place well in the race. I'm optimistic. I don't know why Levi's web site still has the video of him and Lance talking about his broken wrist from last year's Tour on the home page. Maybe he thinks it's good karma. I'm not so sure about that, but Levi has been on the Tour podium before and I'd love to see Levi finally win in 2010.
Even by his own admission, Lance hasn't replaced "The Cannibal" Eddy Merckx as the greatest bike racer to have ever graced the planet. But he is currently the most popular, and continuing this race as a great teammate, racing in Ironman events, maybe even racing in US continental races will help perpetuate his popularity among generations of athletes. Wouldn't it be cool to hear about Lance racing in 60+ Masters categories a couple decades from now, after the battle with cancer and the Tour victories? Physically fit (and fearless!) athletes who race into their 70's, 80's and even 90's are the greatest sources of inspiration to me.
Here's to Rounds 4-15. Go Lance!