Friday, July 10, 2009

Can Lance Armstrong Win the Tour de France? [J. Mark English]

Coming out of retirement, Lance Armstrong appears to be just within reach of first place in the Tour de France. Diane Pucin of the Los Angeles Times has more:

It took only one move for Lance Armstrong to draw all eyes upon him and the Tour de France.

It came midafternoon on Monday, Day 3 of cycling's most prestigious race, when a sudden and vicious crosswind whipped across the sun-baked area known as the Camargue in southeastern France. The 37-year-old Texan, chasing an impossible dream in what has been a most improbable comeback, stood up in his saddle and pounced.

The rival Columbia-HTC team made a bold push to take the lead of the peloton and Armstrong, four years after retiring and 10 months after announcing -- amid scoffs -- that he would take up competitive cycling once more, saw it coming and broke into a sprint.

That is all it took.

The Tour, once heaped with scorn amid numerous doping cases, is must-see TV again. Riding for Team Astana, the man who prevailed over cancer and has won an unprecedented seven Tours is back.

"What you saw from Lance this week was both strong riding and smart riding," said Columbia team veteran George Hincapie, who was Armstrong's teammate for all seven victories and spoke by phone from Barcelona, where Thursday's stage ended. "The guy is in great shape, plus he's so smart."

On Monday, Armstrong jumped from 10th to third, 40 seconds behind the leader, Fabian Cancellara. And in Armstrong's wake, his chief rivals -- including once-presumed Astana leader Alberto Contador, who became testy afterward -- were left bobbing helplessly behind, colorfully clad buoys scattered about the open road.

As Day 7 gets underway today, Armstrong is 0.22 of a second away from the lead and heading into the climbing stages of the Pyrenees, long his greatest strength.

His surprising performance has dramatically increased crowds and excitement in France, where Armstrong over the years has had a disagreeable relationship with both the owners of the race and the French public over unproven doping allegations.

Yet, like every cyclist in this race, Armstrong has been repeatedly tested for illegal substances by his team, the International Cycling Federation and the Tour itself. He has said via Twitter that he has been tested more than 30 times since January.

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