Tour still possible for Armstrong
Lance Armstrong, one of the most uncommon athletes of the modern era, just suffered an extremely common injury at an extremely inconvenient juncture -- and that shock to his system may be as hard to get over as the fractured clavicle itself.
One of his most telling comments in the immediate aftermath of Monday's crash in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon was about his awareness that his own good luck had finally run out. Sitting in a Spanish hospital, disappointed and in pain, his season goals in question, Armstrong couldn't help but reflect on the fact he had managed to avoid serious injury throughout his run of seven straight Tour de France victories, and even before. "This never happened in my 17 years of pro cycling," Armstrong said in a statement e-mailed by his Astana team.
He never deluded himself into thinking he was immune. In an October interview with ESPN.com, Armstrong was asked what he thought was at risk in coming back after three years away from competitive road racing. The first words out of his mouth had to do with getting hurt.
"You could get injured, seriously injured, that's a risk," Armstrong said. "You could not be as strong as you were before or as strong as you wanted to be for whatever reason, and get second in the Tour and get relegated to working for Levi [Leipheimer] or Alberto [Contador], which is fine, if I'm not the strongest guy. People [would] say, 'Oh, you came back and you were a domestique [support rider].' That's a risk. I don't see any other risks, as long as the strategy at the foundation is playing out and being effective."
With Armstrong now sidelined at a critical point of his preparation for the Tour of Italy (May 9-31) and the Tour de France (July 4-26), here are answers to a few FAQ (Frequent Armstrong Questions):
1. Does Armstrong have to have surgery?No. Collarbones can and do heal on their own, but with race deadlines staring him in the face, it makes sense to speed up his recovery process.
2. How soon can he start training again?If Armstrong has the surgery most cyclists with broken collarbones opt for -- inserting a titanium plate with screws to hold the bone in place -- and all goes well, he'll be able to get on a stationary bike within three to four days with his right arm in a sling, according to his longtime personal trainer, Peter Park of Santa Barbara, Calif.
"The most important thing in the first three weeks is to let the bones knit," Park said. "That part of the body has tons of blood supply, so it heals really fast."
Riders usually have to wait about a month to get back on the road, and can start racing shortly after that. All this assumes, of course, that this really is a clean fracture and doctors back in the United States don't discover bone fragments or other potential complications.
3. What are the chances that he'll start the Tour of Italy as planned?He could probably start it, and at that point, he may welcome the chance to log long mileage. But Armstrong may not want to ride the Giro -- or try to finish it -- in subpar form, with lowered expectations. He could change his calendar to ride shorter races later in the spring as he did in past pre-Tour de France campaigns.
After a broken collarbone, the most challenging things for a cyclist are regaining the strength to pull on the handlebars while out of the saddle on climbs, and being able to maintain the arm tension and extension required by the time trial position. Armstrong wouldn't be able to ease into the Giro. It starts with a short team time trial -- one he took particular pride in dominating in the past, and where he wouldn't want to let his teammates down -- and has significant climbs on the fourth and fifth days.
Then again, Italy is an important target country for Armstrong's foundation, which is already deep into promotion and policy initiatives, and Armstrong doubtless has a financial stake in the race as well in the form of an appearance fee.
4. How about the Tour de France?There is enough time for Armstrong to make a full recovery and put in the kind of work he needs to be competitive at the Tour, provided everything goes smoothly. He's been training hard since July 2008, and with that endurance base, he won't lose much cardio fitness. One key will be avoiding weight gain, as he's been striving to slim down gradually all season. The other will be his ability to regain "race fitness" -- simply put, the feeling of racing at full gas in the group, which can't be duplicated solo, or motorpacing.
5. How does this affect the much-discussed competition between Armstrong and Contador for team leader at the Tour?The plot may thicken again. Contador won't race in Italy either way, and if Armstrong doesn't go, the team leader's role would likely fall to Leipheimer or Andreas Kloeden -- Astana is rich in candidates.
If Contador stays healthy this spring while Armstrong's form suffers, the consequences are obvious. But this detour may simply enable Armstrong to gear all his preparation (including potentially riding the Giro as a training race) for the Tour, which he said last week was definitely his main goal anyway. Armstrong and Contador won't get a chance to either bond or size each other up under race conditions now unless the American completely changes his schedule.
Does that help or hurt either man? Hard to tell. It's still all about who looks better the first week of July.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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