Posted by: mdegeorge | July 4, 2010

Put up or shut up time for Lance?

This year’s Tour de France opened with a convincing performance from Lance Armstrong in the prologue. It’s a reflection of mounting pressures on the Texan in what he has labeled his final Tour.

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So much was made of his comeback to the sport in the fall of 2008, his falling out with Alberto Contador-led Astana, and his formation of Team RadioShack by and large to continue his cycling career. Since his return, he’s placed an immense focus on showing the cycling world he’s riding clean, a pursuit that’s been brought into the limelight by recent allegations by Floyd Landis, including on the eve on the Tour’s launch from Rotterdam.

Even the normally unflappable Texan is feeling the pressure. In parts of two seasons back in the professional peloton, he’s yet to notch a win outside of the U.S., and all three of those road titles were in extremely minor races. He’s always ridden an abbreviated schedule in which gaudy win totals weren’t the main objective. Armstrong was anything but a pushover last year, acquitting himself well in the Giro d’Italia to set up a third place finish in the Tour. But there was something missing. His 12th place finish in the General Classification of the Giro would make the career of some riders, but it lacked the trademark Armstrong panache, that glint in his eye. A spot that low on GC would seemingly have set him up to attack to for stage wins, but he never mounted a serious challenge in any of the mountains.

The same goes for the Tour. He finished on the podium, but never looked to realistically trouble Alberto Contador’s hold on the Maillot Jaune. Armstrong was hamstrung by the consideration of protecting the race lead for teammate Contador, altering what normally would have been prime pouncing position for stage wins in the mountains. It’s hard to tell in retrospect whether he was limited more by his team duties or a lack of legs to threaten for wins. I suspect it’s at least some of the latter.

This year though, all the pieces are in his favor. He has a team of well-trusted lieutenants hand-picked to lead him to Paris. He’s alleviated the mystery of whether there’s yet another encore by announcing it’s his last Tour.

But with those conditions comes another less favorable one: the pressure to prove his comeback was worthwhile has also ramped up. If he slinks away from France without wearing the Maillot Jaune, without a stage win, and without a major European triumph to his name in the third phase of his career, the questions will undoubtedly arise. Questions about his ego, his abilities, and if the difference between the accomplishments of “clean” Lance and seven-time Tour champ Lance are just age-related.

In the prologue, Lance looked like someone a rider trying to put those questions to bed, like the chip on his shoulder is back. The brash Texan probably knows he’ll need it for the next three weeks.

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