Lance farewells Tour as feds move in

BOSTON — Lance Armstrong rode into Paris on Sunday, ending his historic run in the Tour de France with a whimper, not a bang. And that may have been a good thing too. Because the way Lance’s 2010 Tour has gone, the most likely bang would have been a headfirst crash into the Arc de Triomphe.

For the man who has navigated this epic race with unparalleled success — through a record, seven consecutive wins and a stirring comeback last year when, at age 37, he finished third — payback proved a bitch (or, if you prefer, une chienne.)

Armstrong crashed several times early in the race, fell out of contention, became largely an afterthought in the competition — and, finally, when he took one last shot at glory by trying to win a late stage, came up short against younger, faster riders.  

Though there is no shame for mortal riders in finishing 23rd, particularly at Lance’s advanced age, it was obviously a major disappointment for Armstrong and his legion of fans. His consolation will have to come from the visible boost he gave to his anti-cancer crusade and the fact that he did wind up on a podium when his Radio Shack team finished in first place.

The physical and emotional ordeal that was Armstrong’s farewell Tour will someday be just a footnote in his career. But on this final day, despite his sporting effort at the traditional fellowship and bonhomie of the parade into Paris, it was easier to picture the yellow pallor of an aging Lance than to summon up the image of him wearing the yellow jersey. Among our most illustrious athletes, it is the rare few who know when to call it a day, and for Armstrong this Tour was clearly a day too late.

If there was no bang in Paris, the big bang could be waiting for Armstrong at home. And it could be far more painful than anything he endured the past three weeks in France.

At stake here will be Armstrong’s reputation and his sporting legacy. And they are now in jeopardy because the feds — the same pit bulls that put former Olympic queen Marion Jones in jail and former baseball king Barry Bonds in exile — have now shifted their attention to the sport of cycling.

The investigation involves accusations of both doping and financial shenanigans on the U.S. Postal Service team that would later become the Discovery Channel Team. Armstrong has repeatedly denied all allegations involving performance-enhancing drugs. And though he was the singular face of those teams, he has, of late, begun portraying himself as nothing more than an employee with no true knowledge of or involvement in management practices.

Politics, of course, makes for strange bedfellows. And that’s no less true for the politics of cycling.

Leading the cheers and the charge of the anti-Lance forces are two cyclists — one who remains an American hero and another who is the sport’s reigning pariah. The former is Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour and a three-time champion; the latter is Floyd Landis, who won the Tour in 2006 only to become the first winner disqualified for doping.

LeMond has accused Armstrong of riding dirty. Landis is a newcomer to the cause, having fashioned himself as a born-again truth-teller after years of lying about his own record. Back when Landis was desperate trying to retain his Tour title, he unleashed vicious, personal attacks on LeMond. Now all is forgiven in common cause. And Landis, who for three years was a key support rider for Armstrong on the Postal Service team, is regaling all with detailed, “eyewitness” accounts of doping practices — blood transfusions, testosterone patches and the whole illegal rigamarole — by Lance and his teammates. 

Armstrong dismisses LeMond’s accusations as if he has become unhinged and has labeled Landis a chronic liar. But if the federal investigators believe them — and there are indication that they do — Armstrong may find himself facing a long, uphill slog to defend his lofty perch in the American sporting pantheon.

The Tour de France, having been battered by doping incidents allegations for years, will endure. Even with Armstrong no factor, this year’s race proved to be a compelling duel between defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain and Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, last year’s runner-up. Contador again held off Scheck, by 39 seconds, to claim his third title.

Despite Armstrong’s potential problems, Tour officials have to be overjoyed that there was not a single positive drug test during the competition. And though Contador, 27, has been dogged by doping accusations throughout his career, no suspicions were voiced about him during this year’s competition.

Yet in another irony, even without doping rearing its ugly head in the race, Contador’s 2010 victory is regarded by many as tarnished. And words like “cheating” and “unethical” were still being bandied about even as he made his gracious winner’s speech.

Early in this last week of the Tour, Contador seized the lead when he led a breakaway just as Schleck’s bicycle chain came off. Schleck was in first place at the time and cycling protocol demands that nobody exploits a mechanical problem to attack the man in the yellow jersey. Contador gained 39 seconds, the yellow jersey and a lead he never relinquished.

The Spanish star is the best rider in the world right now and could eventually challenge Lance’s records. But he is not remotely the role model — the champion above suspicion and reproach — that the sport so desperately needs. While Contador did apologize for what he characterized as an inadvertent breach of etiquette, he eventually beat Schleck by that exact 39-second margin he stole that day of the broken chain. Nobody will ever confuse his 2010 Tour win as a triumph of character.