- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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PARIS -- Lance Armstrong had to go away and come back to be the athlete the French wanted him to be -- imperfect.
The Page 1 headline bannered across the Sunday edition of the French sports daily L'Equipe said "Chapeau, Le Texan," which roughly means, "Our hats are off to you, Tex." It was a shocking turnaround for those of us who remember the year the newspaper displayed a huge photo of Armstrong's back, rather than his face, on the podium, not to mention numerous other stories over the years that attacked the credibility of his performances and disparaged his personality as aloof and mechanical.
The image that accompanied this salute also was arresting. Spain's Alberto Contador and Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, who finished 1-2 in the 2009 Tour de France, are out of focus in the foreground, glancing over their shoulders. Between and behind them is the sharply defined figure of Armstrong wheeling around a turn like a broad-chested bull poised to charge. Don't look back too long, boys; he may not be able to gain on you like he used to, but this race proved it wouldn't be wise to let down your guard.
Armstrong's athletic accomplishment in finishing third at nearly 38 years old, after three full years away from professional cycling, is massively and indisputably impressive. It was easy to fixate on his day-to-day progress here, but late in the race, as it became clear what he was about to do, it was hard not to dwell on the sheer sweep of his longevity in the sport.
The world championship stripes on Armstrong's jersey are 16 years old, dating from the same year he first rode in the Tour. He is riding with the sons of riders who once viewed him as a punk kid. The 24-year-old Schleck is younger than Armstrong was when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, which seems like a millennium ago.
No wonder the crowds embraced Armstrong when he showed he was close to the youngsters, yet not quite their equal. The sight of Armstrong "suffering," in cycling jargon, his face reddened and his mouth hanging open as he pumped uphill with his distinctive rolling-boat motion, would resonate with anyone who has felt a little more fatigued and a little less on top of things than they used to. He deemed himself satisfied, and he probably means it.
Coupled with that overlay of fallibility was the observation, confirmed by many riders, that Armstrong has become more approachable. "To be honest, I look for Lance as an icebreaker sometimes," his one-time domestique Christian Vande Velde said on the Tour's first rest day. "He's the happiest man in the peloton." Veteran French rider Christophe Moreau stood in the middle of a ski village where the peloton spent the night last week and said matter-of-factly on his cell phone, "He's a lot more relaxed this year."
Part of it may be born of the fact that the new RadioShack team Armstrong will lead next season needs to build its roster for 2010 and beyond. Part of it may be that some of the younger riders who gravitated toward Armstrong, like Schleck and British sprint sensation Mark Cavendish, don't have much or any history with him. Part of it may be the fact that Armstrong really doesn't have anything to prove on the road, except to himself.
"I feel a stronger bond with riders now than I did before," Armstrong told a small group of reporters last week. (He held only one formal news conference during the three-week race, after Astana won the team time trial.) "Before, I think they saw me as just pure business. I didn't speak to them and they didn't dare speak to me. I told the team, 'Don't speak to anybody else, let's just do our job and go home and you can talk to your friends later.'"
But everyone watching from home should beware of oversimplifying Armstrong's narrative or whipsawing from one misleading extreme to another. The seven-time Tour champion hasn't suddenly metamorphosed from Mr. Ruthless to Mr. Rogers. He wasn't a total automaton before, and he is not someone who is going to shoot for anything but the top step now.
Armstrong would have loved to win this race, and if he had, we might not be getting such a romantic view of things from the French. We will never know what might have happened if he hadn't broken his collarbone in March, or if he and Contador had been on different teams, but we may get an excellent view of that scenario next season if Armstrong stays healthy.
This Tour was different from Armstrong's seven victories in other ways besides his psychological duel with Contador or his final position in the overall standings. The race thus far has been free of any positive doping results, and the public and media scrutiny that followed Armstrong throughout his career seemed less intense, although many would disagree with his contention that his performance here has any relevance to the past.
He certainly was squarely in the sights of anti-doping controllers. Armstrong was tested a dozen times during the race under the new regime that targets top riders and dispenses with the notion of "random" testing.
There was just one flare-up of the old hostilities, when French sports minister Roselyne Bachelot, quickly echoed by French anti-doping agency head Pierre Bordry, complained that the Astana riders kept a drug tester waiting at their hotel for an hour early one morning. Armstrong fired back, calling the remarks "political," and nothing else came of it.
What Armstrong showed beyond any doubt in this Tour is that while he couldn't bring the hammer, he was pretty good with an ice pick. He missed going into the race lead by a fraction of a second. His 37-second margin over fourth-place Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain would have been much slimmer had he not gained a pocketful of time in two unlikely places, a flat stage where he followed Team Columbia into a crosswind and gapped the main pack, and another where he was in the front when the peloton split before a bunch sprint. "You can do the math," he said after surviving Mont Ventoux.
Whatever Armstrong's private thoughts may have been about what he did and didn't achieve, on the road, for his cancer foundation or for his image, he looked uncomfortable dressed in something other than yellow. As he and Contador stood side by side at the podium ceremony, the spacing between them resembled that of strangers in an elevator. Armstrong is about to shed a jersey and a role that never really fit him, and head once more for the only destination he's ever really liked. Going up.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.