Tracing back history, we will find that the oldest man to have won the most famous pedaling race on earth is Firmin Lambot. In 1922, the Belgian was 36 years old. Studying today’s 96th staging of “Le Tour,” we see 180 cyclists joining. The oldest competitor is a 40-year-old Spaniard named Inigo Cuesta. The second oldest?
Lance Armstrong, who turns 38 this September. In a sport where youthfulness and freshness of legs are necessary to climb the Pyrenees and brave Mt. Ventoux and sprint through Individual Time Trials, Mr. Armstrong is a grandfather. He’s an elderly, a senior, an age-old veteran.
Consider Alberto Contador, the man tipped by pollsters to win this season. Contador is only 26. That makes him 11 Julys younger—and fresher and, yes, possibly stronger and more vigorous—than the elderly. But Lance Armstrong is Mr. Strong Arm. After Stage 4 of France’s Tour, he is in second place, only 0.22 seconds behind Fabian Cancellara. His teammate and arch-rival, Alberto? He’s behind him in third place. Which brings up the query: Can LA win his 8th trophy? I hope so. Millions worldwide hope so, too. You see, Mr. Armstrong is the Mr. Woods of bicycling. He’s Federer and Nadal rolled into one body. His name is synonymous to Pele, Ali, Jordan. In a sport that is not supposed to be that famous (compared to basketball, boxing or football), he has mesmerized.
It all starts with his story. A history that is beyond inspiring. If a movie were made on his life, we’d all conclude, “Amazing, but that can’t be true!”
Well, it is true. And, the best part is this: the movie hasn’t ended yet. Parts I to VII have been blockbuster releases… VIII is now showing. Because while we thought that Lance’s seven straight wins were extraordinary—and that he had retired—his comeback has gotten everyone in feverish mode. It’s deja vu and back to a three-worded title we’ve been accustomed to: Tour de Lance.
For with Armstrong’s biography, what an implausible script: Triathlon champion at the age of 13, he focuses on cycling and, by the youthful age of 21, becomes a world champion. Then—like any blockbuster movie that is never without it—disaster strikes: he is diagnosed with testicular cancer that has metastasized to his abdomen, brain, lungs. His skull is sliced and his body, ravished. He was given a less than a toin-coss chance of survival.
But, as is obvious today, Lance survives. No, he thrives. And, in one of the most preposterous of probabilities, less than three years after near-death, he wins the 1999 Tour de France. The next year, he wins again. And again… until 2005 when he won seven straight “Tour de Lances.”
In the months and years that ensued after his retirement, Armstrong relaxes. The man originally born as Lance Edward Gunderson (until his mother remarried and changed his family name) turned into Mr. Playboy. Divorced from his wife Kristin years earlier, he dated singer Sheryl Crow and the two announced wedding plans. But it wasn’t to be. In 2006, the couple split and Mr. World’s Most Eligible Bachelor went on a dating spree: with actress Kate Hudson, with fashion designer Tory Burch and, last year, with Ms. Anna Hansen (the two have a month-old baby, Max Armstrong). But the partying would not last long for the hyper-competitive athlete… For here we are today, in the first week of Le Tour and Lance is at the cusp of, once again, wearing yellow.
Can Lance win in Paris? Will he and Contador duel for the title? Are Lance’s 37-year-old legs robust enough to beat the youngsters?
We don’t know. Only the days ahead will tell. Excluding last night’s Stage 5, there are still 16 racing days and thousands of kilometers more to go. Lance might win; Lance might not. But one fact is unquestionable: After drug-related convictions on Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, the sport’s reputation has been besmirched. The interest, low and sunken.
Thanks to Lance, Le Tour is back on strong arms.