JUST BECAUSE he'slean and ripped and far more fit than he's ever been at this time of year,Lance Armstrong won't necessarily regain the form that won him seven Tours deFrance. Just because those questions about his past have faded from theforeground, they haven't necessarily gone away. And while none of them care tobe quoted, there are plenty of cycling people who wish he'd leave and not comeback. He is a magnet for attention that might otherwise redound to moredeserving riders—guys like his Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer, who on Sundayclinched his third straight victory in the Amgen Tour of California, but whosenext mention in this story is more than a thousand words away. But giveArmstrong this: Three-and-a-half years after his retirement, two races into hiscomeback, he has plunged an IV full of Red Bull into the arm of a sport sorelyin need of a pick-me-up. By his mere presence in the peloton, the 37-year-oldTexan makes pro cycling an infinitely more interesting proposition. Who elsecould turn a slow night at the Tour of Cali into an episode of CSI:Sacramento?
The Astana boyswere going through their usual paces late on the evening of Feb. 18. Havinghammered at the front of the peloton over five categorized climbs in that day'sstage 4—a spectacular 115-mile meander through the foothills of theSierras—they were catching up on e-mails, phoning home and getting ready forbed at the Piccadilly Inn, near the Fresno airport. That's when a squad carfrom the Sacramento Police Department pulled up to the entrance. Out steppedtwo detectives and a CSI agent.
From the trunkthey pulled Armstrong's Trek time-trial bike, stolen four nights earlier from ateam truck parked across the street from the state capitol. (An anonymous GoodSamaritan had turned it in earlier that day.) Ride and rider reunited, the CSIwoman took fingerprints from three Astana mechanics and the team's Trekliaison, Ben Coates, "to eliminate us as suspects," Coates explainedlater. "It was pretty cool."
The theft of hisbike was the high-water mark in an exceptionally soggy week for Armstrong andthis four-year-old race. The first three stages were contested in rains rangingfrom steady to pelting to torrential—and temperatures that seldom rose above50°. "That's hard," admitted Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports,which puts on the TOC. "I mean, that's Belgium."
The atrociousweather crystallized opinion among race officials that the event needs alater—and drier—home on the calendar. Neither rain nor sleet nor stolen bikenor abrasions suffered in a collision with a race motorcycle during stage 2could dampen the spirits of Armstrong, whose influence on the race waspredictably dramatic and immediate: TV ratings were up 100%, according toMessick. Bike-friendly websites such as velonews.com and cyclingnews.comreported Tour de France--like traffic. And the race was witnessed by some twomillion spectators (up from 1.6 million last year), an inordinate number ofwhom turned out to see one man. "It was amazing," said Jens Voigt, theageless German rider for Team Saxobank. "The fans seemed to say, 'If theguys can suffer on the bike, we can stand here and wait for them.'"
Armstrong's bondwith his worldwide army is based on a deeper suffering: his triumph overtesticular cancer, which had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. The race'sunofficial theme was splashed on thousands of placards handed out by volunteersfor the Livestrong Global Cancer Campaign, his awareness-raising initiative:hope rides again. During and after Armstrong's reign as the world's bestcyclist, however, books and depositions and articles have cited circumstantialevidence that he didn't win all those races clean. (He has never testedpositive for performance-enhancing drugs.)
A month into hiscomeback we know this much: In the court of public opinion—that slice of thepublic, at least, willing to bag work or school for a day to see a bike race—hehas long since been acquitted. No, the crowds along the road didn't unanimouslysupport him. Without slowing his tempo near the summit of stage 4's finalclimb, Armstrong stiff-armed into a snowbank a man in a yellow devil costumewho'd been running alongside him. Closer examination revealed that the tines ofEl Diablo's pitchfork were giant faux syringes.
But Yellow Devilwas in a distinct minority at the TOC. The route that day was lined with signsbearing brief paeans: PLANADA LOVES LANCE. NORTH FORK LOVES LANCE. OAKHURSTPHYSICAL THERAPY LOVES LANCE AND THE TOUR. More practical was the sign held upby a six-year-old near the summit of the penultimate climb: CHAINSREQUIRED.
ACCORDING TOlocal legend," Justin Baldwin was saying, "this place was once a houseof ill repute." The handsome adobe building at 614 13th Street in PasoRobles, Calif., is now the home of the Central Coast Wellness Community.Baldwin is a local vintner who learned he had cancer of the tonsils five yearsago on the same day his wife, Deborah, received a diagnosis of breast cancer.(They're both now cancer-free.) "We went through treatment," Justinrecalls, "only to find out that the social and psychological servicesweren't available anywhere around here." Money was raised; the building waspurchased. The center now provides what Baldwin describes as everything from"yoga to nutrition advice to counseling for the children whose parents havecancer."
Last Thursdayevening, 90 or so minutes after completing the longest stage of the race (134miles, from Visalia to Paso Robles) and on the eve of his first time trialsince July 2005, Armstrong walked in the side door of the facility. He spent 20minutes chatting with a half-dozen cancer survivors, followed by another 20minutes standing and signing autographs. Would it have been smarter to be offhis feet? "Honestly, that didn't even register," Armstrong said later."These events are cool for me. I'm getting as much inspiration as I'mgiving, you know?"
Like thatpitchfork, Armstrong's comeback is two-pronged, divided into his day job andhis life's work. On the September morning he made his comeback official, hedetailed a plan to link his riding to the Livestrong Global Cancer Campaign."Racing the bicycle all over the world," he said, "is the best wayto get the word out." So it is proving to be: Between stages at January'sTour Down Under, Armstrong met Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd.Armstrong's advocacy resulted in more funding for cancer research from Rudd'sgovernment.
After finishingseventh in the Tour of Cali, Armstrong stole a little more of Leipheimer'sthunder when his foundation sent a blast to reporters announcing that theLivestrong Global Cancer Summit will take place in Dublin in August, followingArmstrong's participation in the five-day Tour of Ireland.
So, is he a prorider moonlighting as a globe-trotting anticancer crusader or vice-versa? It'snot always clear; Armstrong keeps a cleated shoe in each world. As he sprawledacross a lounge chair in his hotel room last Saturday, his conversation rangedfrom the unusually long prologue that will kick off the 2009 Tour de France("Fifteen kilometers, and it's not flat") to the $6.5 billion forcancer research that Senator Arlen Specter helped secure in the stimulusbill.
This was themorning after the time trial, in which he placed 14th—76 seconds behindLeipheimer, who covered the rolling 15-mile course in a blistering 30:40, eightseconds faster than Dave Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream, who also finishedsecond overall. "Not bad" was Armstrong's assessment of his own ride."I had higher expectations and probably put too much pressure on myself, soit's good to have people around to remind me, 'Dude, you've been gone for threeyears, not three months.'"
Armstrong's TOCrole was to serve as a sort of superdomestique for the 35-year-old Leipheimer.Asked if he would be returning the favor at the Tour of Italy in May and/or theTour de France in July—grand tours Armstrong intends to contest—Leipheimer saidtactfully, "I would hope so because that would mean that Lance is ridingextremely well, back to the level that he was when he was winning seven Tour deFrances." Yes, he concluded, in that case he would be "ecstatic" toserve as the Texan's errand boy. Implicit in that answer: And if Lance is notriding up to his former level and I'm stronger, I fully expect him to fetchwater bottles for me.
This is going tobe tasty. Basically, Astana won the Tour of Cali with one hand tied behind itsback. It competed without several of its top riders, including AlbertoContador, 26, the supremely gifted Spaniard who won the '07 Tour de France andhas two other grand tour victories on his résumé.
For whom willAstana ride at the '09 Tour de France? Alberto or Lance? Youth or experience?Astana general manager Johan Bruyneel, the calculating Belgian with eight Tourteam wins to his credit, doesn't sound overly worried, saying, "It is onthe road that these questions are usually answered."
But if it'sclose, might Armstrong and Contador each secretly lobby teammates to ride insupport of him rather than the other guy? The Texan recoils at such asuggestion. "I'll do the right thing," he vows. "People warn methat if I don't win, I'll mess up my legacy. No. If I go to the Tour and rideselfishly, if I ride against somebody, and we all lose, that will hurt thelegacy. I have no interest in that."
LANCE IS adifferent athlete from three years ago. His comportment in the peloton isslightly different. He's a little calmer, more mature." The speaker isMichael Barry, whose book Inside the Postal Bus recounts his days as theTexan's teammate. Barry now rides for Team Columbia-Highroad in support ofanother freakish talent.
With apologies toArmstrong and Leipheimer, there was no more incandescent light in this racethan 23-year-old Mark Cavendish, a brash Brit who won two days running—instages 4 and 5—in the rolling street brawl that is a field sprint. A hard manfrom the Isle of Man, Cavendish gratefully accepted a textbook lead-out fromhis teammates, then unleashed the most savage acceleration in cycling."When they drop me off with 200 meters to go," he said after stage 4,"there's really only gonna be one outcome."
Remind you ofanyone?
And the otheryoung riders, were they resentful of the old man's return? Let's ask MattCrane, 23, who was awarded the Most Courageous Rider jersey after escaping on along breakaway in stage 5. Crane rides for a U.S. team called Jelly Belly,which values every second one of its jerseys appears on television. Did heresent Armstrong's siphoning of media attention from his team?
"Having himback is a great thing," replied Crane, who grew up in Connecticut."Lance started winning Tours right around the time I started riding andracing a bike. He was the guy I worshipped for years. Before my mom repaintedthe walls in my room, they were covered in Lance posters."
So what if theguy's a black hole for media attention? "When Lance is here, we get biggercrowds, more TV coverage, which makes the sponsors happy," says Voigt."In his slipstream we live well."
The last wordgoes to the peloton's foremost wordsmith, Barry: "The races Lances isdoing, the attention he's bringing to cycling—it's good for everybody. It'sgoing to be an unbelievable season."
Two races into his comeback, Armstrong has plunged anIV full of Red Bull into a sport SORELY IN NEED of a pick-me-up.
"If I go to the Tour and ride selfishly, if I rideagainst somebody and WE ALL LOSE," Armstrong says, "that will hurt thelegacy."
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Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
A FACE IN THE CROWD It was almost like old times as Armstrong took his place in the peloton for stage 5 in Visalia.
EARLY RETURNS Rigorous workouts back home in Austin, including a run with son Luke, have Armstrong ahead of his old training pace.
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MIKE POWELL (ARMSTRONG)
ROAD HAZARD A devilish prankster served as a reminder that some fans will always suspect Armstrong of having doped to win.
TIM DE WAELE (DEVIL)
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CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES
CHANGING PLACES? Armstrong (right) worked for Leipheimer at the TOC, but their roles may be reversed in France.
HEALING TOUCH Lance met with cancer survivors and other admirers in Paso Robles.