Commentary

Where has comeback taken Lance?

Updated: July 4, 2009, 11:30 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

MONTE CARLO, Monaco -- If it's true that people don't change when they get older but simply become more intense versions of themselves, then nowhere is that more evident than in one Lance Edward Armstrong, who is still running on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of defiance.

Armstrong began his comeback with the declaration that he was not out to rebut those who doubted his integrity. He admitted that he missed the athlete's life and relished the chance to race at the highest level again, but maintained that his motivation included as much altruism as ego.

Yet a recent Nike ad designed to spotlight the common ground between his two missions, cancer awareness and competition, begins with this voice-over: "The critics say I'm arrogant. A doper. I'm washed-up. A fraud …" This is vintage Armstrong, on offense and defense simultaneously.

Over the next three weeks, will Armstrong be something approaching the rider he was? Saturday's opening Tour de France time trial in this millionaires' haven might begin to provide the answer. But there is no question about his continuing desire to impose his will on things, to not just win any debate but annihilate the other side.

With all the power, money and influence Armstrong has accrued in the 10 years since he won the first of his seven Tour titles, you'd think he long since would have stopped caring what people thought of him. Wrong. There is still a considerable amount of told-you-so in each pedal stroke. The nickname of "Mellow Johnny," a corruption of "maillot jaune" (yellow jersey) conferred on him by his friends, is an ironic one indeed for a guy who tried to kick back in retirement and found it impossible.

Instead, Armstrong chose to take on a situation he had never faced during his dynastic reign and is challenging another rider on his own Astana team, triple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador, for supremacy. Armstrong's bid can be regarded as audacious, potentially divisive, or both, but it is riveting for Tour followers, whether they are rooting for or against him.

After his three-year hiatus from the sport, 38-year-old Armstrong's fans, skeptics, acolytes and antagonists have multiplied exponentially, and he has found he has more left to prove. In the past nine months, he also has had more to contend with than he bargained for.

Armstrong was always a news factory, and that has not changed. Barely a week has gone by since his gala reintroduction as a professional cyclist at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in September without something unexpected.

He immediately committed to racing in Australia, only to find out he had to request a special dispensation because he hadn't been in the anti-doping test pool long enough. (The difference, about 10 days, ultimately was forgiven by the UCI.)

The Tour of Italy embraced Armstrong and vice versa, but he didn't elect to race in France until after some publicly stated ambivalence and rhetoric on both sides. Armstrong pledged to submit to an independent anti-doping testing program overseen by a leading figure in the field, Dr. Don Catlin, but that arrangement dissolved for reasons neither party will discuss. Armstrong said he has been tested by official agencies more than 30 times since he began keeping track last summer.

French anti-doping officials took Armstrong to task for leaving the sight of a tester who arrived for an unannounced control at a house he was renting briefly in Nice. Armstrong said he was within his rights to have Astana manager Johan Bruyneel, who was with him, check the man's credentials. Armstrong darkly predicted that French officials might ban him from the Tour, but "Showergate" ultimately evaporated, as the French agency decided he was not guilty of a violation.

In a jarring incident for an athlete whose career had been remarkably mishap-free, Armstrong crashed and broke his collarbone in a stage race in Spain in late March, interrupting his training and coincidentally abbreviating the one sizable chunk of road time he would have logged with Contador. Armstrong was back on his bike within a week but had to scale down his expectations for the Tour of Italy, once a major target.

Even Armstrong's much-chronicled personal life took an unanticipated path, as he and his girlfriend, Anna Hansen, announced in December that she was pregnant via a natural conception -- a relatively uncommon turn of events for a long-term testicular cancer survivor who had extensive chemotherapy. Their son, Max, Armstrong's fourth child, was born June 4.

Armstrong first revealed the extent of his ambition in a Vanity Fair magazine article released online in September. In that piece, Armstrong said he intended to be more open and less prickly with the media than in the past.

He was accessible during most of his races -- at least, as accessible as one could be beside a team bus surrounded by mobs even greater than they were in his heyday -- with the exception of the Tour of Italy, where he became irritated with the coverage, withdrew, and communicated through Twitter and videos. However, Armstrong has not abandoned his old habit of taking journalists to task. He just does it publicly instead of privately now, issuing micro-critiques to the virtual auditorium packed with his Twitter followers.

It's fair to say that someone who asks for the responsibility of being the face of a global scourge should accept a measure of public accountability. But monitoring Lance Unfiltered can be illuminating -- a potpourri of comments on subjects including modern art, politics, cancer research, movies and music, with a tone that ranges from caustic to cordial to compassionate.

Armstrong admits he has overreached on a couple of occasions since his return. Bringing Catlin on the road with him before he had a firm idea of what the testing program would entail was ill-advised, and Armstrong now says he was wrong to take some hyperbole attributed to French team director Marc Madiot this past fall as an indication that the country would bar its roads to him. Overall, the Texan concedes that the comeback has been more difficult than he imagined.

Armstrong has been pointing toward his foundation's Global Summit in Ireland in August, where participating nations will send delegates to learn how to reinforce the pledges their leaders and policy makers have made at a grassroots level.

Is his cancer message resonating despite the ambient noise of a cycling season, his cycling season in particular? Foundation president Doug Ulman said it is, citing more than 300 commitments to programs made around the world that total several billion dollars of expenditures on cancer prevention, treatment and cures.

Some of the initiatives were already in motion before the foundation opened the umbrella under which they're grouped. The campaign served as a catalyst for others. Ulman said that it's not always easy to quantify his group's work but that he believes the coordinated effort to gather the individuals and groups "to talk about where we are and where we're going" ultimately will be recognized as a milestone.

Armstrong's competitive future beyond the summit is hazy, although he sounds more and more like a man who is reluctant to dismount for what surely would be the final time.

"I don't think the age is so much the issue; the bigger issue is the time away," he said of his performance on the bike. "I think if I were to race again, I would most likely feel better, stronger next year than I would this year. It just depends. I think it's 50-50. If we put something together and it's a good structure and I need to do that, I'll do it."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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