In preparing his Tour de France comeback today, Armstrong is taking on the skeptics, his own fear of losing, and a young rising star. “I’m ready,” he says.
MONTE CARLO, Monaco: “I’m ready.”
So says Lance Armstrong as he prepares to roll down the start ramp of the first stage of the Tour de France on Saturday. But he’s 37 years old (older than any Tour winner), took four years off, suffered a broken collarbone just a couple of months ago, and became a father again in June. So, you might excuse the doubters.
But when it comes to Lance Armstrong, normal rules don’t apply. After all, he came back from much tougher odds, near death from cancer, to win his first Tour in 1999. After all he’s been through and achieved, you’d expect that he might be a notch off his game. Not so, say his entourage, who has seen this movie seven times before.
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“He’s strung like a bow,” said his agent Bill Stapleton.
“He’s in as good a shape as he could be in today,” added his marketing guru Bart Knaggs. “It’s taken time, but his weight is right, his power is there, his enthusiasm is burning, he’s ready. He’s mentally and physically put himself in a great position to seize whatever moment is available.”
Nevertheless, Knaggs puts the challenge in perspective. “He hasn’t done the Tour in four years. No matter how good you are, it’s tough to play golf at your local country club and then suddenly decide to go to the Masters. There are thousands of little pieces and elements at the highest level of competition that have to come together. But, Lance knows what he’s doing. He’s the guy who always does the right preparation, thinks through everything, and takes so much care and attention to detail that he puts himself in the right position. In some ways more than past years because he’s had a chance to look at things freshly and think things through from the other side having been away.”
Perhaps more than any athlete ever, he loves to suffer. He will either win, or he’ll damn near die trying.
No matter where he finishes, Armstrong’s return to the Tour brings back the interest, the spotlight, and the revenue that bike racing has sorely missed since his retirement.
And he brings drama. This year, the old man has been paired with the young rising star, Alberto Contador, acknowledged to be the best climber and stage racer in biking today—one of only five riders to win all three Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain).When Lance decided to return to racing this year, a decision driven primarily by a desire to bring international attention to his efforts to fight cancer, he first approached his old coach, Johan Bruyneel, who was coaching Astana, the team sponsored by the country of Kazakhstan. And, coincidentally, the team led by Contador, who was clearly not happy when he got the news that Armstrong would be joining his peloton.
The Astana team presents the strongest team at the Tour. In addition to Armstrong and Contador, Astana features two other riders who have been on the Tour podium in recent years, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden. While Armstrong has pledged to support the strongest rider, as he recently supported Leipheimer in the Tour of Italy, he’s also made clear that should he emerge as the strongest over the course of the early stages of the race, he expects the team to ride for him.
One can smell the smoke coming from Contador’s ears. It’s the kind of rivalry that could split apart a team, or inspire the riders to individual feats beyond their normal capacity. And it’s the kind of dynamic Armstrong loves.
Armstrong is motivated by extreme challenges. He’s motivated by a fear of losing. And perhaps more than any athlete ever, he loves to suffer. He will either win, or he’ll damn near die trying.
But no matter the outcome, because of the attention his return has brought to the global fight against cancer, “I think we’ve already won,” Armstrong said Thursday night at a fundraiser for his foundation hosted by Monaco’s Prince Albert.
Armstrong’s foundation is sponsoring the LIVESTRONG Global Cancer Summit in Dublin, Ireland, August 24-26, and has already received over 325 commitments from 63 countries around the world ranging from heads of state committing billions of dollars to individuals in South America and Africa who are going to go out and screen women for cervical cancer.
“It’s been a huge win for the cancer world to have a sports icon say I’m going to go around the world and race on behalf of the 28 million people affected by cancer,” said Doug Ulman, president, CEO, and executive director of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, who announced the launch today of LIVESTRONGaction.org, a grassroots international portal to organize and fight cancer. “We hope to inspire a grassroots movement around the world.”
As with all things Armstrong, don’t bet against it.
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, causes, and individuals, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. He serves on the board of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.