- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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LIMOGES, France -- Lance Armstrong's return to the Tour de France peloton has meant drastically different things to different people.
To fans of the 37-year-old and supporters of his cancer awareness campaign, it's an inspiring reason to tune in again.
To Alberto Contador, it has meant fighting a subterranean turf war within his own team that he probably didn't envision after winning the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta d'Espana within a 14-month span.
To Patrice Clerc, former chief of the Tour's parent company ASO, it meant "the return of doubt" regarding performances in the race, referring to doping allegations that trailed Armstrong throughout Phase I of his career, a characterization to which Armstrong strenuously objected. Armstrong has been tested heavily before and during the race.
To the media, it has meant the return of huge, anarchic and often physically dangerous jamborees around Armstrong's team bus, where television crews and radio and print reporters fight for space with rubberneckers and autograph seekers as if they were scrapping for food dropped from a helicopter during a famine.
So dicey are these scrums that former Belgian journalist and Astana team media liaison Philippe Maertens has reverted to the practice of his predecessors at Discovery Channel and U.S. Postal Service, taping Armstrong's answers to whichever reporters manage to wedge themselves against the barricades to talk to the cyclist, then bringing the recorder to the media workroom to play the interviews back for another cluster of journalists.
To the swollen circus that is the Tour, Armstrong's comeback has meant the return of the celebrity du jour. Last week, actor Ben Stiller and musician Jimmy Buffett took turns visiting in the bus. Sunday, Robin Williams made his cameo, and even severely jaded correspondents such as yours truly could not resist poking the comedic lion.
Ford: Robin, what would the equivalent be in Hollywood of this comeback?
Williams: Ten Academy Awards.
Ford: I mean, a comeback.
Williams: Mickey Rourke times 10.
Williams: I don't know if it's a comeback, 'cause he already won it seven times. I don't know. Who's won the most? I remember when Nicholson won his third, he said, (segues into Jack Nicholson voice) 'Rob-o, I've got one for every decade.' (Goes back to his normal voice.) He's already got three, so if he wins another four, it would be like that. I don't know if you can compare Lance and Jack. (Segues back to Nicholson voice.) Jack on a bike would be a frightening thing.
A few minutes later, perhaps sensing his cue telepathically, Armstrong made a reference worthy of "The Shining."
"This race is going to get a lot harder, and our team won't look the same or feel the same in the third week as it does now," Armstrong said. "Honestly, if I was Cadel Evans or Andy Schleck or Carlos Sastre, I would be waiting. I'd wait for my moment in the Alps, on [Mont] Ventoux, whatever, and I'd stick it in as hard as I could. I mean, I would just pull the knife out and go."
Armstrong chatted at length at the Astana bus after Sunday's Stage 9 before a manageable pack of reporters. The teams were sequestered in a secure area as they waited for the last stragglers to make it across the flats after descending the Col du Tourmalet. Then, the riders boarded charter flights for the short hop to Limoges. Johan Bruyneel and Armstrong sat in the front row on their plane; Contador sat elsewhere.
One of the reasons Armstrong lingered by the bus is that he is not conducting a rest day news conference, thereby dispensing with the theater of years past. There, and later in an interview with French television in the airport terminal in the stage finish city of Tarbes, Armstrong said everything he probably would have said Monday anyway.
Although the race is nearly half over, Armstrong said the "selection," the esoteric cycling term for who cuts it and who doesn't, is only "25 percent" complete. You could argue the percentage, but he's probably dead on. Giro winner Denis Menchov is already hopelessly behind, Sastre and Evans on the bubble.
And the most interesting choice has yet to be made.
Contador's late acceleration on the Andorran mountain of Arcalis enabled him to recoup the 19 seconds he lost to Armstrong in a wind-battered sprint stage, and to edge into second place two seconds ahead of the Texan. "Le Boss, C'est Contador," the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe trumpeted in a front-page banner that needs no translation but was an overstatement -- at least at this point in the race.
Yes, Contador finished the short opening time trial 21 seconds ahead of Armstrong, and yes, Armstrong did not attempt to follow his attack on Arcalis, but Armstrong has cycling etiquette to justify his reticence. Sooner or later, he'll have to decide whether to continue being polite.
It was clear as soon as the Tour route was published that the race would come down to a heavily back-loaded third week. Armstrong said he doesn't expect anything to change in the standings until next Sunday, when the peloton enters the Alps via Verbier, Switzerland. Then come two more stages like the ones just completed in the Pyrenees -- lots of climbing and a downhill finish -- followed by an individual time trial, a transitional stage and the big enchilada on Mont Ventoux.
Tellingly, Armstrong, who multitasked even more than usual in June after the birth of his son, triaged his preparation and scouted the Alps stages but not the Pyrenees. If he feels he has only one good chance to surprise Contador, chances are he already has calculated where and when he might jump if circumstances are right.
"I'm not the rider I was four, five, six, seven years ago," Armstrong opined, but that might not be critical to contend for the podium this year. The seven-time Tour winner keeps insisting that he's no longer the CEO of this rolling hierarchy, but if he's not, who is?
It's not Evans, whose effort to change his passive modus operandi is still a work in progress. It's not defending champion Sastre, who probably will heed Armstrong's advice and take a risk in the spot where he thinks it will do him the most good. It's not either of the Schleck brothers or quietly confident Christian Vande Velde, who prefers to do his work under the radar. And it's not Contador, although make no mistake, there is a tough, hardheaded athlete inside that whippet's physique.
The broad strategy for any of the overall contenders is pretty much an open secret now, but in this Tour, Armstrong has shown he's adept at being hypervigilant to any small opening. That opportunism is new and necessary, given that he has competition on his own team. His taste for the jugular never went away.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Follow her Twitter feed here or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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