By James Raia
Usually a month or so before the Tour de France the question begins. With little variance in words or tone, friends and acquaintances simply ask: “Can he do it again?”
It’s been this way for several years. And now on the eve of my eighth journey to cycling’s pinnacle event, I have no doubt Lance Armstrong can win his sixth straight Tour de France title. But he won’t.
Armstrong will not be victorious because of waning talent. In fact, after nearly 15 years of reporting on his career as an amateur on the U.S. National Team, his years at the Tour DuPont and during all of his five Tour de France titles nothing Armstrong does as an athlete comes as a surprise.
I’ve seen him naively go to the front of races and stay there. I’ve seen him bluff for TV cameras, wait for fallen riders, negotiate a grassy field like a decathlete carrying a bike, and stare down would-be pursuers with looks that could frighten the devil.
I’ve witnessed Armstrong become one with a fan’s souvenir and fall, take the blame and finish a stage commandingly. He’s had diarrhea, verbal jousts with riders and journalists and withstood mysterious mechanical mishaps. He’s lost Roberto Heras, the skilled climber and ever-faithful mate of the past few seasons. Yet, he and his team barely flinched.
There’s simply no physical or mental reason why he shouldn’t win again. Further, Armstrong may even have more resolve off the bike.
From a year ago, he’s divorced. And he’s now often traveling under the watchful eye of celebrity gawkers who view his relationship with a rock singer a decade his senior as prime tabloid fodder.
And there’s the uniquely timed release of a new book by two journalists who seem to have forgotten some of the tenets of objective journalism. Personally, I don’t envision empty syringes in every cyclist’s hotel bathroom or in the dumpsters at the borders of every European village.
Still, add the allegations with the negotiations and subsequent announcement of a new team sponsor for 2005 and there are ample reasons for some heavy-duty stress.
Yet, Armstrong seems unaffected. He’ll have six returning Postie teammates from last year’s squad and two other devoted guys to chauffeur him around Belgium and France. And no doubt that will all go smoothly, considering the strategic savvy of team director Johan Bruyneel.
But for all of Armstrong’s skill and his unwavering ability to discard life’s obstacles as minor irritations, what he hasn’t faced on the bike is serious bad luck.
Last year, it was top contenders Levi Leiphiemer of Santa Rosa, Calif., and Spaniard Joseba Beloki, among others, who were dispatched in the flash of crashes.
Armstrong, however, is perhaps the luckiest rider in history. His bad days in recent years, while problematic, have vanished via a strong recovery or a twist of fate in the form of more good luck.
There’s a lot in sport than can be attributed to nothing else but good fortune. And maybe talent, timing and philanthropy are a good for formula for athletic serendipity.
Certainly, I’ve been around Armstrong enough to develop a healthy respect for his talents. And I’ve seen him give plenty of time to fans and cancer patients when the TV cameras were nowhere close.
Yet, Armstrong has repeatedly said last year’s 61-second title wasn’t good enough, and by all accounts he’s trained accordingly. I have no doubt he’ll again be the strongest rider in the Tour de France peloton.
But something he can’t see an idiotic fan doing something stupid on a blind corner, a fallen tree branch, a pothole, a stray rock on the some narrow road deep in the Alps or Pyrenees will prevent Armstrong from winning his sixth straight Tour de France title.
In other words, in this Tour de France, it will be about what happens on the bike at the times when Lance Armstrong isn’t in control.
James Raia is editor of “Tour De France Times” http://www.byjamesraia.com/