Armstrong's legacy still under revision

Updated: April 18, 2005, 6:15 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

July 26 will be a big day in Lance Armstrong's life, largely because we suspect he will sleep in on July 25.

And July 24? Well, he has plans for a victory ride through Paris.

Lance Armstrong
Whenever the topic of Lance Armstrong is raised, too often it's the subject of steroids and not the number of Tour de France titles he has won.
At least that's the way he wants to go out, riding down the Champs-Elysees wearing the yellow jersey and throwing down champagne shots and sticking his tongue out one last time at all his critics and accusers.

You see, these are nasty times, and retiring clean and universally lauded is no longer allowed. Armstrong has turned the Tour de France into his personal strip mall parking lot, dope-slapping the Alps and Pyrenees over and over and over again.

And then, over and over and over again.

That, plus his triumph over testicular cancer, would seem to make him the best candidate for universal lionization since Lou Gehrig retired.

But nobody gets universally lionized any more. Everybody's got critics, everybody's got someone biting at them and sometimes everybody gets a turn in the barrel.

Just because they do.

Of course, Armstrong didn't just have critics. He was a harsh taskmaster, true, and ruthless in pursuit of his goals by any account. But he has been accused of being a stone-cold cheat, which is much worse than merely being accused of being an irritating boss.

And yes, that will be part of his legacy as he eases into what one suspects will be a long and cheery life with his children, with singer Sheryl Crow, as well as with his army of wide-eyed and ardently devoted fans.

But it's a funny thing about legacies. They are nothing more than reputations after the fact, and the thing is, reputations don't belong to the people to whom they are assigned. They belong to the public, and the public is a vast and amorphous blob with a billion brains and a million opinions.

He is by any measurement the greatest rider in Tour de France history, and by a staggering margin. He is by any reasoned analysis a hero to cancer sufferers and survivors, who can use all the hope they can get when the chemotherapy and the uncertainty get to be too much.

And he is accused of being a cheater by competitors, former team members and a fair amount of France.

Armstrong cannot change the minds of those who see him as a cheater, or a bully, or both. Barry Bonds can tell him a thing or three about that.

But here's the other thing about legacies. They are always being edited, even after death. Franklin Roosevelt's legacy is being re-examined on The History Channel this week, and he has been dead for 60 years.

Armstrong isn't dead, far from it, and he can make his own additions to that legacy even in retirement, much as Magic Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell have.

But while Armstrong's own legacy is still under revision, here's something that will almost surely be true on July 25, and July 26, and for the foreseeable future.

The Tour de France will be returned to Europe.

Oh, we love international events, but our relationship with the Olympics tells us that we like international events with a strongly American flavor to them.

The Tour has been Armstrong's chew toy, but in his absence, it is likely to lose most of its fascination to us. Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx were magnificent champions, as well, but Americans found the event, and the sport, eminently resistible nonetheless.

And we shall again. The Outdoor Life Network is going to do its best with what it has, of course -- the Boston Marathon, for example, or rodeos, or "Avalanche Dogs."

But it won't be the same, not by a long shot. Armstrong takes with him all the casual fans of the most famous bicycle race, and if this hurts the feelings of those who love the sport, well, we are who we are, and that's all who we are, we're Popeye the Sailor Man.

Or something like that.

So that, too, will be Lance Armstrong's legacy. The Tour grew in status here because of him, and while it has won a greater respect from those Armstrong introduced it to, it is still a European sport, with European stars, and it will recede in our collective cerebra until the next great American cyclist rises.

That's not likely to be Tyler Hamilton, in any event. The second most famous American cyclist of the day just got a two-year pop from an independent court of arbitration for a positive test. Great day for American bike work, no question.

That's the other verifiable and immutable part of Armstrong's legacy that will come into play. He will, trust us, cast a long, cold, cruel shadow on that next American, whether it be Hamilton in 2007, or someone else. The point is, Armstrong leaves a standard to which almost nobody could sensibly aspire, and there's nothing that grates quite like, "Sure, he won, but let's see him do it for five more years."

That, though, will be someone else's problem. Lance Armstrong has July 26 staring him in the face because he'll be sleeping through the 25th. If he knows what's good for him, he'll worry about the 27th on the 27th.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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