- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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BRUSSELS -- Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for one last look at the god, the cheater, the hero, the fraud, the miracle, the doper, the inspiration to millions, the brains behind the con, the greatest comeback kid ever minted.
That's him -- on the little sofa in his hotel room, wearing just a hand towel, eating tuna out of Tupperware and checking his cell phone with a sigh.
It's only 7:30 p.m. Sunday, and he's already ridden a bike from one country to another, traveled 144 miles and dodged one stray dog, three crashes and a few dozen questions about doping, federal investigators and jail time.
And now it's July 4, and he misses his four kids. Yeah, it's not always so easy to Livestrong -- bracelet or no bracelet.
"I chose this, but I want to be home," says Lance Armstrong, who stood in fourth place after only two days of the Tour de France. "It's time for me not to ever miss these days again -- a football game, a lacrosse game. Man, I'm never doing this again."
Armstrong needed this the way he needed a barbed-wire bicycle seat. He was retired and loving life. Four kids. Great girlfriend. Aspen. Austin. Anywhere. Running marathons and riding mountain bikes and flying with Bono to world-leader summits.
But no, the Texan in him had to prove he could do it again, even at age 38, Methuselah in this sport. Armstrong wanted to ramp up donations to his Livestrong Foundation, so he came back last year and finished an astounding third, raising $50 million. But even that wasn't good enough. So now he's out for first, and guess what? He's already among the leaders, and we haven't even hit the mountains yet.
So why does Armstrong sound so beaten?
"Look at me," he says, touching his graying sides. "I don't look a day over 50, do I?"
Knives fly at Armstrong from everywhere, most recently from ex-teammate Floyd Landis, whose 2006 Tour de France win was stripped for doping. Landis insisted he was innocent then, but he's insisting he's guilty now. Not only is he guilty, but Landis says that Armstrong, three of Armstrong's teammates and their coach, Johan Bruyneel, are guilty, too. His sensational accusations have caught the attention of relentless federal investigator Jeff Novitzky, who is already snooping.
"Big Tex is going to jail," Landis allegedly texted a friend afterward.
All of which produces a shrug from Big Tex.
"I'm used to it," says Armstrong, who denies every charge Landis makes. "This is the 11th straight year somebody has tried something at the start of the race. I'm trained not to care. I'm doing this for the foundation, a foundation that touches millions of people's lives. They don't care about all this. Those people? Those people that understand and volunteer and donate and care about Livestrong? Those people who are in the fights of their lives? They don't care."
"That's not for me to say. My record speaks for itself."
"I'm used to it," says Armstrong, who denies every charge Landis makes. "This is the 11th straight year somebody has tried something at the start of the race. I'm trained not to care."
That record plays like this: 14 tumors, 40 percent chance to live, survive, make it back, win seven straight Tours, retire, unretire, finish third and now compete at a shocking fifth-place pace after Monday's stage. He's two spots ahead of the man he nearly punched out last year, ex-teammate and two-time winner Alberto Contador -- who's 11 years younger and about 30 controversies lighter.
Contador is still the favorite. He's the greatest climber in the world, the defending champ who gets to control his Astana team this year, not fight Armstrong for it. How can he not win?
"If he's at the same level he was last year, it'll be very difficult to beat him," Armstrong says. "But I checked my calendar this morning, and it's 2010, not 2009." Armstrong said he gives himself 5-to-1 odds to win, down from 10-to-1 before this one started.
You start to believe him. His body looks sharper, harder than it has in five years. "I'm better than last year," Armstrong says. "I'm stronger. I'm in better shape. I came in a little flat last year. Not this year. I know most people think I can't do this, but there are a few people out there that think I can. Right, Richard?"
His masseur, Richard, looks up from tenderizing Armstrong's right thigh and flashes a huge grin. "Oh, ya! Absoloootely, ya!"
And if he pulls this off? A guy who retired old five years ago? That would be like John Elway winning a Super Bowl at 41, Jack Nicklaus winning a Masters at 60, Liz Taylor marrying Robert Pattinson. "Oh, man," Armstrong says. "This would be bigger than all seven [Tour wins] combined."
The other thing that's different this time is Tuesday. The dreaded Stage 3. Wanze, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, France. It's 132 miles, eight of which are over cobblestone, some of it ancient. The stage has the peloton petrified. You ever try to ride cobblestone on Life Saver-thin tires at 35 miles per hour with 197 riders sardined around you?
Then again, who rides a rocky road better than Lance Armstrong?
"It's tricky. I tested them," Armstrong says. "You're talking about streets that are hundreds of years old. They're bowed sometimes. And if it rains? Carnage. You've got to be in front [of the peloton] on the cobbles. You've got to be the hammer. You can't be the nail. It's going to be crazy. I can't wait."
After that, it will come down to the ride through the Pyrenees, Armstrong says, as it always does.
But something is different this time with Johnny Action, as his friends call him. He doesn't have that edge in his voice. He's softer, quieter, oddly uncertain.
Maybe it's Contador. "Alberto is a far better rival and athlete than anybody I went up against before," Armstrong admits. "No doubt he's a special rider."
Then again, maybe it's Novitzky. You talk about a far better rival. You don't want to hear your name in the same sentence as his. He's a Wild West sheriff who has been accused of going outside legal bounds to get his man. And he has gotten many -- Victor Conte of BALCO and trackster Marion Jones, among them.
But he whiffed on Barry Bonds, partly because of his methods, which seemed to be inspired by Michael Chiklis in "The Shield." One judge remarked of them, "What happened to the Fourth Amendment? Was it repealed somehow?"
Armstrong just sighs again. "I don't want to talk about any of that," he says. "I got three more weeks, and I can stand anything for three more weeks. Then it's me and Anna [his girlfriend] and four kids who love me." And a fifth coming in October.
Look, I don't know whether Armstrong doped. He might have. He says he didn't, but athletes say a lot of things. Still, I do know he is the most tested athlete in American history. A man who's had people watch him pee more than 1,000 times, by his own count, and yet he's never failed one of them. The man is a test passer. He's had tests of scalpels and IVs, lungs and muscle, and now age and will. For 23 days, he will be trying to pass this 2,262-mile test against riders whose fathers he raced. He'll be trying to pass it every day, and it mesmerizes and astonishes me. But because of Landis, nobody's noticing.
So let Novitzky come. Let him dig. Let him interview and deal and raid, maybe even with subpoenas. And if he can find proof that Armstrong doped -- proof, not stories -- then Armstrong would become the nail, not the hammer. Hang him off the Eiffel Tower.
Until then, doesn't Armstrong deserve the benefit of the doubt? A man who's worked tirelessly for and inspired people you know, people in your life, people who don't even know yet that they will need him for inspiration? A man who, right in front of your eyes, is trying to make calendars stop turning?
Doesn't he deserve at least that?
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Say what you want about Lance Armstrong, Rick Reilly writes, but the man has passed more tests than any other athlete in America. Doesn't he deserve the benefit of the doubt?