There are two days in every great athlete’s comeback that somehow still catch us by surprise.
The day he announces it. And the day that removes any lingering doubts whether it was a good idea in the first place.
Lance Armstrong suffered through one of the latter Sunday at the Tour de France. His comeback isn’t officially over; the race still has two weeks left to run. But Armstrong would need a handful of younger, fitter rivals to all take a wrong turn — then stay lost for nearly 15 minutes — just to make up the ground he’s already lost.
Stage 8 marked the tour’s first ascent into the Alps, often the point at which Armstrong put some distance between himself and the pack. Instead, he got caught up in three crashes and dropped by the leaders on the two grueling climbs, skidding all the way back to 39th place. He’s banged-up, short on luck, low on fuel and too old to pretend otherwise.
“Obviously the Tour’s finished for me,” Armstrong said, “but I can try and win stages, try and help the team, really try and appreciate my time here, and the fact that I’m not coming back.”
He was 27 when he won the first of seven consecutive tours, and after three and a half-years away from the sport, 37 when he returned last year and finished third.
Only a day earlier, a friend asked whether Armstrong was too old — he finished Saturday in 14th; already 3 minutes, 16 seconds behind then-leader Sylvain Chavenel — to close that more modest gap. Three-plus minutes can seem like a lifetime in cycling; having witnessed four of his wins in person made it tougher still to venture a guess.
With nearly all the great ones, the end comes so suddenly that it’s easy to miss, and a half-dozen years ago, musing about his own advancing age, Armstrong described what it looks like when a great rider finally cracks. He had a front-row seat in 1996, when five-time champion Miguel Indurain was surprised by a freak snowstorm and then broken by Denmark’s Bjarne Riis during a mountain stage that passed through his hometown. Indurain finished 11th in what turned out to be his final appearance at the tour, surprised people by pulling out of the Vuelta in his native Spain and retired by the end of the year.
Only Armstrong knows whether Sunday was his turn.
“No tears from me,” he said afterward. “I’ve had a lot of years here where it’s been very different, so I’m not going to dwell on today.”
Johan Bruyneel, who manages Armstrong’s RadioShack team and coached the cyclist during all seven of his tour wins, acknowledged this one had slipped from their grasp. He said a hip problem caused by a crash left Armstrong unable to respond powerfully enough when the lead pack attacked on both of the climbing stages.
“All that could go wrong, went wrong,” Bruyneel said.
“He wasn’t defeated physically today,” he added, “but through bad luck.”
Plenty of crashes are just that, yet Armstrong had avoided more than his fair share in the past. The few times he did get caught up in one, they served as a catalyst, the prelude to an episode that ended heroically more often than not.
This time the wrecks not only took an immediate toll. They weakened Armstrong to the point where the leaders dropped him with relative ease.
“I’m a little bit sorry for him, because he really wanted to be really good in this Tour,” said Andy Schleck of SaxoBank, a friend who won the stage and is in second overall. “So I think his morale is down.”
Some people wondered whether that wasn’t the case already in May, when Floyd Landis, a one-time Armstrong lieutenant stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title after a positive doping test, pointed an accusatory finger at his former boss and other members of the now-defunct U.S. Postal Service team.
Armstrong, who was competing in the Tour of California the day the story broke, crashed out of that race with facial cuts and an injured elbow. Soon after, the feds let it be known they were investigating Landis’ allegations. Now, instead of a goal to point his bike toward, Armstrong is left to play out the string. All the good riders have already passed him and suspicion, the only opponent Armstrong doesn’t dare lose to, is hot on his tail one more time.
Whatever Armstrong was looking for the day he decided to give the tour a final try, the one thing that’s clear is that the finish line won’t come soon enough.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org