Connect to share and comment

Lance Armstrong is not God

But he is pretty impressive, grabbing a virtual dead heat for the lead as the Tour de France rolls along.

Astana rider Lance Armstrong, center, cycles during the third stage of the 96th Tour de France cycling race between Marseille and La Grande-Motte, July 6, 2009. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)

If anything was established on the fourth day of the Tour de France, it was that Lance Armstrong is not God.

Not because on the fourth day he didn’t create the fish and the fowl. But because on a day where he could have claimed the Tour lead and assumed the yellow jersey, Armstrong saw his Astana team come up one-tenth of a second short in the team time trial.

Still, the man who defied death, recovering from cancer to become the greatest champion in Tour history with seven straight triumphs, now seems intent on defying age. At 37, returning to competition this year after three-and-a-half years of retirement, and bouncing back from a broken collarbone earlier in the season, Armstrong is now in a virtual dead heat for the lead. And he appears to have convinced most everyone that he is not just along for the ride, but a serious contender for victory.

It is a long way and a long time — more than 3,000 miles and 19 days — to Paris so any definitive projections are premature and specious. About the only thing that now appears clear is that this race could get ugly.

Ugly, of course, kind of defines the Tour’s recent history when drug scandals, including the first-ever disqualification of a Tour winner, American Floyd Landis, overshadowed the races. While the French fans have welcomed Armstrong back with open arms and his presence undeniablely adds luster to the Tour, French authorities saw his comeback as an unwelcome reminder of a tarnished era. That feeling was compounded when he joined Astana, a team that was banned from last year’s tour because of drug violations. (Astana is now under new management.)

Given that so many riders were cheating with performance-enhancing drugs back in Armstrong’s heyday, the French brass never accepted that Lance could have beaten all comers for seven consecutive years as a clean rider. But while there was both circumstantial and anecdotal evidence that pointed the finger at Armstrong, there was never conclusive proof that he cheated. (The French, at one point, claimed that new tests on old Armstrong samples had revealed the presence of illegal drugs, but the scientific protocols and the chain of custody made the evidence suspect.)

French authorities must be distraught at Armstrong’s strong early showing and undoubtedly would never accept that a 37-year-old — the oldest man to win the race was 36 and that was back in 1922 — could win, indeed could even contend, without resorting to illegal drugs. But Armstrong can only do what he has always done: deny any allegations and point to the fact that he has never failed a drug test.

Beyond that now familiar melodrama, there’s also a good ugly in this year’s race — at least good for fans whose interest may not be rooted in the technical aspects of cycling. There’s a soap opera playing out on the Astana team and it is heating up by the day. When Armstrong joined the team, it already had a notable team leader in Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour champion who, at 26, is considered to be in his racing prime.