- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Nothing is a given in bike racing. But when Lance Armstrong began the 2010 season with RadioShack, a hand-picked staff and riders around him and a major American sponsor bankrolling the operation, just like the old days, there was a general assumption that the second season of the third act of his career would be smoother than the first.
Amid the theatrics of 2009 -- the sniping with Astana teammate Alberto Contador, the instability of Astana's financial underpinnings, the drug-testing tiff with French authorities, the broken collarbone in late March that left Armstrong with no margin for error in his recovery, some unpleasant dialogue with Giro d'Italia organizers, all capped by a third-place finish in the Tour de France won by Contador -- Armstrong kept sounding one consistent note. He would be a better bike racer this year. The miles in his legs would give him a sturdier foundation and more than compensate for the extra candle on his birthday cake.
It hasn't quite worked out that way up to now. Armstrong acknowledged as much Friday in a pre-Tour of California news conference, saying he has foundered physically and at times psychologically.
"I don't think that we're pulling the fire alarm, but now is the time when the signs need to start pointing up," he said. "I'm a rider who a lot of times hasn't had a lot of doubts, but there are days I have doubts, to be honest. But nonetheless, I keep plugging away."
It was odd to hear the admission. Such talk would have been dismissed as sandbagging years ago. When Armstrong was in his prime, he delighted in the art of the bluff, and the needling or mannered praise of Tour de France rivals that he knew would mess with their heads.
But when Armstrong said Friday that he believed the 20-something generation he is suiting up against now is better than the competition he faced a decade ago, it sounded right and probably is. Not to imply Armstrong is a toothless lion at age 38. He's just had a strange, staccato early season in which no bones were broken but a few plans got rearranged.
He and his girlfriend, Anna Hansen, announced they were expecting another child, their second, Armstrong's fifth. He hasn't raced as much as he would have liked, partly because of a severe stomach virus he said set him back in March. He looked impressive at the prestigious Tour of Flanders in early April when he navigated the cobblestones as a dress rehearsal for a bumpy day early in the Tour de France. But just a couple of weeks ago in wind-buffeted New Mexico, he seemed ill at ease in the low-key Tour of the Gila. Left unmentioned Friday was an ongoing French investigation into medical waste that Astana allegedly generated during last year's Tour. The team denied any wrongdoing, and there have been no new reports on the case for months.
Armstrong has refrained from giving long, one-on-one interviews or engaging in any polemic, although he did chastise radio show host Tony Kornheiser (who is also a co-host on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption") via Twitter for fanning the flames of tension between motorists and cyclists. That confrontation ended peacefully when Kornheiser invited Armstrong to appear on his show to advocate for a truce that would help avert needless tragedy on the roadways.
The Tour of California comes at an opportune time for Armstrong and offers him a role that is ideal for getting well. He'll be riding in support of his teammate, three-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer, and while Armstrong's form certainly will be scrutinized, he's not carrying the burden of a must-win.
There are seven weeks and a day before the Tour de France starts in Rotterdam on the first Saturday of July. On Friday, Armstrong made that sound like a time constraint he welcomes because of the discipline it will impose. He said he is trying to simplify his life, a tall order given his business empire, charitable commitments and being a father to two families several states apart. (He made one symbolic stab at minimalism this past week by eating in the same Italian restaurant in Santa Barbara five nights in a row.)
"I've tried to cut back as much as I can and know that we've got 50 days," he said. "Everything else will have to be put on hold for 50 days."
Armstrong said he can't count on riding into form as the Tour goes on. The first week will feature a tuned-up and nervous peloton racing on potentially dicey, windy roads in Holland and Belgium and one especially treacherous day with multiple stretches of cobblestones. But in the same breath, he noted the course is back-weighted with difficulty, since the last week includes the only long time trial of the race and a withering series of stages in the Pyrenees.
As he did at RadioShack's first training camp last December, Armstrong said the team will need to take a "multifaceted" approach in the Tour, code for saying another rider -- perhaps Leipheimer -- might wind up being a better podium candidate as the race evolves. He spoke in the past tense about the years when his domination of the event was "not a guarantee, but as close to a guarantee as we could get." However, he's not working on a concession speech just yet.
"I still believe that I can win the Tour," Armstrong said. "Everybody might think that's crazy, but I'm going to do everything I can to get to the start line in the best shape. Race heads up in the first week, and we'll see what happens in the mountains."
RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel is calculating Armstrong's preparation time a little more liberally. He views the first week of the Tour as something to survive and the last week as the one in which Armstrong needs to peak. In between, Armstrong will race here in California and do another weeklong stage race in Europe, as well as his accustomed stage reconnaissance.
"The work that has to be done from now on is exactly the same as the work he has done last year at the Giro, where he kind of found his form and got ready for the Tour," Bruyneel said.
Armstrong questioned why he'd returned to professional racing last year after he crashed in a small stage race in Spain and found himself sitting in a ditch with pain searing across his upper body. He questioned himself again for a few days after surgery to repair his collarbone. But once Armstrong recommitted to his season, there was a sense of urgency about him. That, and not fitness alone, may be the ingredient that has been missing this time around.
"The comeback was a huge success," Bruyneel told reporters at the news conference. "This is not a comeback anymore."
Armstrong now has 50 days to figure out what it might be.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.