Lance Armstrong’s Reputation Hinges on Next Foe: Scott Soshnick

Lance Armstrong didn’t win the Tour de France, the grueling race he once dominated, the one jokingly dubbed the Tour de Lance. In prior years he pedaled and pedaled and pedaled until he was the last man standing on the podium. Past tense.

Armstrong has demonstrated, over and over, that mountains and preconceived notions of human capability can be conquered. He showed that cancer can be kicked. Armstrong won the Tour seven consecutive times, in 1999-2005. He retired, came back in 2009 after a three-year break and finished third. He tried again this time to no avail. Oh, how he tried to win a stage, just one stage. He sprinted toward the finish. Came close, but.

He finished 23rd in the race, which, for the third time in four years, was won by Alberto Contador of Spain.

Some in France have ridiculed this version of Armstrong, saying that a graceful champion knows when to quit. They lampooned Lance, all right, downgrading his status from competitor to tourist, someone out for a Sunday ride when it became apparent that winning wasn’t an option.

Don’t the castigators realize there’s something regal about a champion who isn’t afraid to fail, isn’t afraid to try all the while, deep down, knowing things have changed.

“Once you know you’re not going to be the best guy then I’m going to sit up and enjoy it -- look around, look at people, listen to people,” Armstrong said.

It’s hard to imagine any athlete’s vantage points being more different. Armstrong, the contender, used to rise from his seat, eyes narrowing, teeth clenched, too focused on breathing and screaming muscles to even notice the throngs lining the course. Winning mattered. Only winning.

Then there’s this guy. Same fellow, but different. He sits up straight, arms on hips, not the least bit concerned with pelotons, positioning or pedaling through the pain. This guy got to see and feel and interact with the folks who lined the course, some of them holding signs heralding hope.

A Helpless Hurt

Hey, Armstrong’s 38. Willie Mays was right. Turning old is just a helpless hurt. Seems time, not the Pyrenees, was Armstrong’s unbeatable foe, to borrow from Cervantes, who surely would’ve liked Lance, dreaming impossible dreams and fighting foes.

Speaking of fights and foes, here come the feds after Armstrong, who, depending on the outcome of the investigation, will be remembered as just another flawed athlete or the real deal, a bonafide hero. We’ll see.

One by one, the supernovas of sport have disappointed. Their seemingly superhuman achievements were a byproduct of talent and practice, yes, but magic potions and shortcuts, too. Barry Bonds. Mark McGwire. Marion Jones. Alex Rodriguez. There are more, of course. More cheaters and more questions, such as: Is there a teary eyed admission in Armstrong’s future?

Never Failed Test

Armstrong and his defenders note he’s never failed a drug test. Surely they’re cognizant that, in this day, and especially in this sport, not getting caught simply isn’t enough to sway doubters. Certainly not enough for cynical sports fans burned by believing.

Federal investigators have set their sights on cycling’s biggest pelt and his former U.S. Postal Service team amid allegations of, among other things, doping and fraud. Pointing the finger at Armstrong are former cyclists Greg LeMond and Floyd Landis, the latter a disgraced Tour winner who followed an all-too-familiar pattern -- deny, deny, deny, admit.

It’s an ominous sign that Armstrong last week hired a criminal defense attorney, saying that he’d cooperate with a “credible and fair” investigation -- not one that took on the tenor of a witch hunt.

Cooperation might not be his choice. Armstrong’s inquisitor isn’t former Senator George Mitchell, who didn’t have subpoena power while trying to unmask Major League Baseball and its culture of performance enhancers.

Novitzky Asking Questions

Nope, the man asking the questions will be Jeff Novitzky, a federal agent with the Food and Drug Administration who has been leading the government’s probe of illegal steroids in professional sports.

Any objective assessment would have to conclude that it’s hard to fathom how Armstrong, a native Texan, could’ve dominated a sport awash in cheaters without at some point having skirted the rules himself.

Then again, it gnaws at me that Armstrong accomplished all that he did after doctors gave him a 40 percent chance to live when testicular cancer had spread to his brain and lungs. The guy’s a fighter.

Physiologist Edward Coyle of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Texas in 2005 published a paper about Armstrong’s body. He discovered that Armstrong has an oversized heart that has grown to become 30 percent larger than the average man’s.

They say everything’s bigger in Texas. Lots of Armstrong fans sure hope that doesn’t apply to lies, too.

(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Scott Soshnick in New York at ssoshnick@bloomberg.net

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