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Lance Returns

- September 10, 2008

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I will stipulate right up front that I have never been a Lance Armstrong fan. I admire him for what he has accomplished on the bike, for biking in this country, and of course for his work for cancer survivors. But my first impression of him from long ago — that he was a self-centered a—–e — has proven to be my enduring impression of him.

Those of you who pay no attention to cycling may not know that the seven-time winner of the Tour de France has announced that he’ll return to racing next season on a limited basis, riding the Tour and a few other events, including the Tour of Georgia here in the USofA.

One unusual aspect of this news is that it comes from Armstrong’s people rather than from a team with which he has reached an agreement (echoes of Brett Favre). Armstrong’s presumptive (there’s that word again) team is Astana, which is essentially a continuation of US Postal/Discovery Channel and has Trek, with which Lance is closely associated, as a sponsor.

Note that the announcement of Lance’s return didn’t come from Astana. Indeed, so far the Astana team folks have been close-mouthed about it (except for George Hincapie, Lance’s main domestique over the years, who managed a smile at the prospect of his boss’s return to the peloton). This seems a bit unusual, and there are indications that Astana was caught off-guard by Lance’s announcement. For all I know, they’re happy as clams about it. But somewhere, deep down, I tend to doubt it.

Remember a few years back, when Michael Jordan decided to make a comeback and selected the Washington Wizards as his playmates? That experiment failed miserably. Jordan assumed control of the team, in the executive suite as well as on the court, and played the dual roles of boss and ballhog. At crunch time, it was Jordan who would take (and, all too often, miss) the deciding shot. (It was also Jordan as boss who used the #1 pick in the NBA draft to select the ill-fated Kwame Brown, and who was responsible for any number of other bone-headed moves. Jordan’s record to date, in DC and elsewhere, as a judge of personnel — either players or coaches — is miserable.) His presence undeniably packed the stands with adoring fans, but there’s no doubt in my mind that his on-court presence severely retarded the team’s development. Instead of building for the future, the Wizards centered on Jordan, who was playing out the string. The Wizards were about Michael Jordan. Period.

Anyway, Lance‚Äôs return puts me very much in mind of Jordan’s return. Why? Well, Astana already has a core of strong riders who in his absence would be genuine contenders for podium placements in major events, including the TdF. Is Lance coming back in order to help them achieve that goal? Nope. He’s announced that he’s in it to win it. Winning it, as Lance’s remarkable string of TdF victories established, requires a total, single-minded team effort. Given the corporate model that the Posties/Discovery employed, everyone else on the team was there for one purpose only: to work for Lance. To shield him from harm, to chase down attacks, to use themselves up pulling him up mountains until he was ready to exert himself. In short, to sacrifice themselves for him. That was the reality of the team effort behind Lance’s victories. As wonderful a rider as he was, he was the first to acknowledge that he couldn’t have done it without that sort of all-out team effort.

So if Astana welcomes him back, they’ll presumably be committing themselves to replaying that team strategy. I wonder how some of the current Astana riders feel about relegating their own prospects in major races to ride instead for the aging Lance. I wonder whether this is really the optimal strategy for team development. I wish Lance, and Astana, would learn a lesson from the Jordan debacle in DC and just get on with his life.