PUTTING ASIDE forthe moment the question of whether or not Lance Armstrong's return to cyclingis a good or a bad thing, let us all agree that it is a very interesting thing.Witness the delicious, unscripted drama that erupted at a Las Vegas trade showlast Thursday. Crashing Armstrong's press conference at Interbike was his swornenemy, Greg LeMond, a three-time Tour de France winner who has evolved, inmiddle age, into a kind of graying, Midwestern Inspector Javert. LeMond brieflyhijacked the proceedings with a sometimes coherent farrago of questionsdesigned to tie Armstrong to the doping that was so pervasive in cycling whilethe Texan ruled over the sport.
After indulginghis uninvited guest for a minute or two, Armstrong asserted control, declaring,"It's time for us, everybody in this room, to move on.... I appreciate youbeing here—next question."
Here's aquestion: Lance, what the hell are you thinking? You will be two months shy ofyour 38th birthday at the start of the 2009 Tour de France, a race you've wonseven (consecutive) times already. It will have been four years since youmounted a road bike in anger. The team you're coming back with, Astana—directedby your old friend, Johan Bruyneel—has little need of you. Astana is led byAlberto Contador, a brilliant Spaniard with matchless acceleration andformidable palmar√®s: At the tender age of 25, he has already won all three ofcycling's grand tours.
The itch to raceagain "kinda snuck up" on him, Armstrong told me last week. As we know,he'd stayed in decent postretirement shape, running marathons and getting in afew bike rides between nights of tomcatting and honky-tonking with Jake andMatthew. But it was while training for last month's Leadville 100, a brutal,high-altitude mountain bike race in Colorado, that he fell back in love, hesays, "with the idea of riding my bike for five hours a day."
Two weeks beforethat race, the board of the Lance Armstrong Foundation approved a projectcalled the Global Cancer Initiative—a follow-up to the LAF's successfulspearheading of Proposition 15, which last year authorized up to $3 billion inbonds to fund cancer research in Texas. After Armstrong finished a strongsecond at Leadville, he phoned LAF president Doug Ulman and said he wanted backin the game.
It was ano-brainer to piggyback the Comeback upon the Initiative. The news created aninternational buzz. Last Tuesday, Armstrong's agent, Bill Stapleton, took acall from former Australian prime minister John Howard, who asked if the Texanmight race in next January's Tour Down Under. (The answer was yes.) Armstrong,meanwhile, says he intends to lean on Howard to help jack up his nation'santicancer budget, which Armstrong, donning his policy wonk's hat, describes as"kind of small." Asked by an Italian reporter if he'll ride in the Girod'Italia, Armstrong replied that he would very much like to, before deliveringan unsubtle prod to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. "I wouldencourage Mr. Berlusconi to enact some cancer-related legislation."
The latterexchange took place in a Manhattan hotel ballroom at the Clinton GlobalInitiative, or CGI, where Armstrong rolled out his GCI between hugs and confabswith many of his BFFs. After being introduced at the Opening Plenary by Bubbahimself, Armstrong reminisced about his first White House visit: A seven-minutemeet and greet in 1999 turned into a 47-minute bonding session after thecyclist complimented the President on a Rose Garden magnolia tree. (Had hementioned Hooters, one suspects, Armstrong might have been invited to dinner.)Now there was Lance backstage at the CGI, catching up with Bono; exchangingbest wishes with Barbara Walters and Muhammad Ali; buttonholing George H.W.Bush. Armstrong had a warm greeting for French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
It's impossibleto deny Armstrong's devotion to his war of choice, and the passion andeloquence with which he wages it. At the CGI, he spoke of taking the fightglobal and lamented that "the Number 1 killer of young women in Africa iscervical cancer.... By failing to act, by not applying the medicine that wehave to the people that need it most, we are failing morally andethically."
Never in theannals of sport has an active athlete had such a bully pulpit, or so manypresidents and prime ministers on speed dial. The '09 Tour de France will beimmediately followed by the LAF's Global Cancer Summit, where world leaders,ideally, will make commitments to battle cancer. And the yellow-bracelet braintrust is already pressuring the next U.S. president to attend. "Did youknow," Ulman notes, "that no American president has ever been to theTour de France?"
There hasn't beenmuch cause, since Armstrong got out of the game. Which brings us to the othergiant upside of his unretirement: It will defibrillate his sport in thiscountry. Yes, the teams Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle, with their strictanti-doping programs, have given fans much to celebrate. But the return ofLance thrusts cycling back into the mainstream. Like him or not, he is aheadline-generating machine.
As Armstrong wellknows. He is driven by ego, yes, but also a desire to muzzle the doubters whodon't believe he was a clean champion. He has retained the services of DonCatlin, one of the world's top antidoping detectives. Catlin, who will be paidby Astana, will subject his client to tests to ensure that he is clean, thenmake the results public.
"You couldargue that this is the riskiest thing I've ever done," says Armstrong."Say I get fifth in the Tour. There'll be people who say, 'Uh-huh. Now thathe's clean, he comes in fifth.'" Still, the cyclist sees his return to theraces as a no-lose situation. "If I get fifth and five guys write, 'It'sbecause he was dirty before and he's clean now'—but I've effected some changearound the world—well," says Armstrong, "guess who wins?"
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Seldom has an athlete had such a bully pulpit, with somany world LEADERS ON SPEED DIAL.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER