Lance’s Chances: Exiting the Tour triumphantly

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Lady Luck may have abandoned Lance Armstrong during the Tour de France 2010, but it was Father Time who showed her the door.

Anyone who has raced in a bunch knows the difference between crashing and staying upright is mere chance. There are things you can do to lower your odds — correct positioning in the pack, fierce concentration, lightning reflexes, expert bike-handling skills — and Lance certainly had them over the years. But with a weaker Team Radio Shack this year than the dominant ensembles of Tours past, and the inevitable march of gravity against his conditioning and skills, Lance’s chances of eluding disaster were lowered out of the gate.

Lance’s 2010 season never seemed to get rolling. In early April he pulled out of the 4-day Circuit de la Sarthe with gastro-intestinal problems. He crashed out of May’s week-long Tour of California. Adding in his many promotional engagements and Livestrong commitments, Lance seemed to be spending too much time off the bike during critical training junctures.

The other question, of course, had to do with doping. If this really is, as we’ve suggested, the first post-doping era Tour de France, the difference between a near-39 year-old and next-gen racers in their late-20s prime could not be masked by artificial aids. The weight of growing allegations had to have bowed Lance’s shoulders as much as yesterday’s crash at around 40 miles an hour.

Lance just hasn’t seemed right in this year’s still-young Tour. His clipped and muted public statements have lacked confidence, his on-bike demeanor has missed the flinty focus and swagger, and excuses and shrugs have made their way into the Armstrong lexicon for the first time. Even before yesterday’s stage he had ridden unimpressively and lost major time on Stage 3’s cobblestones. As early as the Tour is, Lance looked haggard and distracted, as though he knew things the rest of us did not.

All the above said, this could still be a triumphant Tour de Lance. Freed from having to focus on winning, or even competing, Lance can finally lighten up and show some of the personality that those who have spent time with him say he reveals once the Klieg lights of celebrity are off — and which we’ve seen glimmers of in the Radio Shack commercials. Final rock-star tours aren’t the best they ever do, or even the most memorable. But they do conjure lots of great feelings from memories past. And that’s really their whole point.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect in the current Tour, but we look forward to future commentary from Lance during TV coverage. As one of the smartest and most strategically sophisticated riders ever to win the Tour, Armstrong can provide cycling insights akin to Andre Agassi in tennis, Charles Barkley in basketball and John Madden in football. He has never shown much inclination for the microphone, but his public profile has not been his primary concern either.

Whatever the future holds for Lance, and however bad his fortunes have been the past week, the next fortnight presents a golden opportunity to ride into the sunset smiling and waving his helmet as befits the greatest Tour champion of all time.

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