By JOHN LEICESTER, AP Sports Columnist, PARIS / Well, well, there’s a sight you don’t see every day at the Tour de France: Lance Armstrong on the podium in Paris without — hold the presses — the race winner’s garish yellow jersey on his back.
Third. Not a result, in pure sporting terms, that ranks up there with the seven consecutive times he claimed the victor’s laurels on the crowd-lined Champs-Elysees, framed by the Arc de Triomphe in the background.
But how much more human.
Armstrong suffered on this Tour, the pain and effort etched into his craggy face. Like a wily fox, he used years of accumulated race smarts to compensate for what his 37-year-old body has lost in speed and resilience; a few seconds saved here, a few more clawed back there.
When the youngsters sped off ahead, he gritted it out behind. Winning, it became clear in the Alps, was beyond him. But he found enough gas in the tank to keep all but two other riders — winner Alberto Contador and runner-up Andy Schleck — at arm’s length all the way to Paris.
He spoke about hurting, about being tired — “I’m realistic. It’s part of getting older.”
He acknowledged that age and a 3½-year furlough from cycling had dulled his cutting edge.
Like that famed Paris arch of white stone blocks, Armstrong’s record of seven straight wins is hugely impressive. Imposing and likely eternal. But it also left many feeling a little cold.
The Texan was too pokerfaced, even uncouth and ill-tempered at times, to truly become a people’s champion. He made winning look like meat-grinding, relentless. No one else got a chance.
His single-minded pursuit of victory and sometimes brash ways ruffled French sensibilities. And the whispers and questions about whether a cancer survivor could be so dominant without resorting to banned chemicals refused to go away, no matter how much he insisted he was clean.
Combined, those factors ensured that what should have been his greatest triumph, his seventh win in 2005, left a bitter taste in many mouths. Tour organizers weren’t sad to see the back of him. His victory ceremony felt more like a divorce than the celebration of a seven-year union. Bitterness was evident in Armstrong’s podium speech, with his shot at “the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics.”
And off he disappeared into retirement.
Thankfully, that was not the final word.
Among the variety of reasons that drove his return to cycling was a desire to craft lighter, more positive final chapters to his racing career.
It’s been fascinating at this Tour to see Armstrong actually does care how people think of him and his legacy. He worked over the past three weeks and before to rub the tarnish off his image. He couldn’t win the race, but he won hearts and new ears in France and elsewhere for his other big passion outside of cycling — the fight against cancer.
He and the Tour are both better off for it. It wasn’t right that cycling’s most storied race and its greatest champion had parted on such sour terms.
“The fact of not being loved by a certain category of people, by a certain country, that must have gnawed at him,” the Tour’s director, Christian Prudhomme, said this week. “Now, he emerges human. … He has without a doubt become closer to the people.
“I only saw one negative placard about Armstrong over the entire three weeks!”
The hissers who gathered around Armstrong’s bus in 2005, whistling and booing as he rode to the start line flanked by bodyguards in the mornings, all but vanished this year, largely replaced by starry-eyed fans happy to see him back.
There was a French teenager in the Spanish city of Barcelona on the verge of tears after she failed to snag an Armstrong autograph and a banner on a hot French road declaring “Lance, yes you can.”
In an Associated Press interview on the eve of Sunday’s final stage, Armstrong himself said: “I am a more relaxed person.”
“I might still be the boss of the peloton, but it’s not this: ‘Hey, it’s my way or the highway,'” he said. “Everybody in that peloton can talk to me and, before, very few people could speak to me — I think was their impression.”
Cycling’s doping controls, even though they still have holes, are more believable now than they were when Armstrong was in his racing prime. Rightly, Armstrong’s been repeatedly tested.
He would like fans to believe the fact that nothing’s been found must show that he was clean in the past, too. Although that argument lacks logic, it is an interesting example of how Armstrong’s comeback is in part an effort to change others’ opinion of him.
Armstrong, in the AP interview, was honest enough to acknowledge that some cycling fans think he’s “got the egg on his face” because riders he beat in his heyday, such as 2005 runners-up Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, were subsequently brought down by doping scandals.
Winning over his doubters and countering the suspicions “was a goal of mine, to be frank,” he said.
“In my opinion, and this is mine and of course I’m bias(ed), but if you’re on the fence or you’re in the middle and you want to be objective, those questions have been answered,” he added.
To think Armstrong aimed for third, instead of the winner’s spot, this year to win sympathy is clearly wrong. He would have won if he could and will try to do so again next year.
But, this time, third was just perfect.