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Lance Armstrong tries again to reclaim Tour

Armstrong is back to take the Tour — the "Tour de Lance" that is.

Lance Armstrong
Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong trains on July 1, 2010 in Ridderkerk, Netherlands. The 97th running of the Tour de France starts Saturday in Rotterdam. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — While Lance Armstrong might well top a list of the most admired American athletes of the past decade, he probably wouldn’t fare quite as well on a list of the most liked.

Long before he attained his current elevated stature — the man who beat cancer to become cycling’s greatest champion — those who knew him described him as callow and more than a bit prickly.

Throughout his career and his record — seven successive Tour de France victories — his edge would become razor-sharp. Armstrong fought everything as if it was a life or death struggle, giving no quarter and, often, no courtesy either. He was compared unflatteringly to the amiable Greg LeMond, America’s groundbreaking Tour champion, even as he surpassed his riding feats.

When — at age 37 and after three full seasons in retirement — he began his comeback aimed at the 2009 Tour de France, he didn’t always show the grace befitting a legend. The public was happy to believe he just wanted to spread the news of his campaign against cancer and that he missed competing. He need not have let slip that the 2008 Tour victory of Carlos Sastre, a popular and proficient cyclist who was not regarded as a champion of the first rank, convinced him that he just might be capable of winning again.

As it turned out, he did finish the 2009 Tour 14 places ahead of Sastre. But he finished third, more than five minutes behind his Astana teammate Alberto Contador, the 26-year-old Spaniard who was winning his second Tour title. Still, that podium performance as well as his rivalry with Contador, which over the course of the long race escalated from uneasy to hostile, convinced Armstrong to go it again in 2010 — this time at the head of his own Radio Shack team.

Ironically it was in defeat, with Lance’s courageous performance coupled with his deft handling — at least in its public manifestations — of the tricky Contador dynamic, that Armstrong not only won the admiration of fans, but finally their hearts too. (During the race, he apologized both publicly and privately to Sastre for his earlier demeaning remarks.)

America loves its champions. But there can be something especially gallant in a comeback that can trump even victory. Armstrong seemed to smile more than he had in all the previous Tours combined and even the reluctant French finally embraced him too.

With Armstrong beginning his 2010 Tour campaign Saturday, it is a perfect time to engage a new book on his 2009 race, “Tour de Lance” by Bill Strickland, a veteran cycling journalist and Armstrong camp insider.

In his cover language, Strickland gets right at a core truth about the effort: that while Armstrong believed he could win again, his pursuit was one “to reclaim the Tour de France.” So while Contador eventually shook off Lance’s challenge and rode to a convincing victory, Armstrong still dominated the story lines and, in the end, stood tallest, even while on the lowest rung of the medal podium.