Cycling's most famous athlete is returning to its most famous event, and I couldn't be happier.
I was shocked when I read earlier that Lance Armstrong was contemplating a return to competitive cycling, with the goal of racing in the 2009 Tour De France.
When he retired in 2005 after winning his seventh consecutive Tour, it sounded like he was done for good. We all thought that he had decided to go out like John Elway, riding off into the sunset with a victory on his sports' biggest stage.
Apparently his competitive fire was unquenched, and today told Vanity Fair that he would be competing in the 2009 Tour De France at the ripe old age of 37.
Thirty-seven is ancient in the world of professional cycling. The strain that the Grand Tours (Tour De France, Giro D'Italia, etc.) put on the human body for three straight weeks is incredible. The cyclists are asked to race well over a hundred miles each day at high speeds while climbing hills with a gradient as high as 14 percent. That might not seem steep, but if you or I were to attempt it, we most likely wouldn't be able to keep our bikes moving fast enough to stay upright.
Most cyclists end up retiring in their early- to mid-thirties because their body just can't take the strain anymore. Armstrong won his seventh Tour at age 33, and looked strong doing it. Had he wanted to, he probably could have returned in 2006 and won an eighth Tour on the trot.
I first got hooked on the Tour watching Lance's US Postal Service team dominate the cycling landscape in the late 1990s. Being a young kid, I had nothing to do during summer vacation other than sit at home and watch the Tour with my mom.
Even as a youngster, it was pretty obvious that Armstrong was an athlete that we'll never see the likes of again. The man has so many physical gifts that, when couple with his work ethic, made him effectively impossible to beat at his peak.
I was fascinated by his dominance, and was hooked on the Tour. Even after his retirement, I would spend three weeks every summer glued to my TV, but it was never quite the same. Cycling fans had to deal with so many favorites getting nabbed for doping (Alexander Vinokourov) and one Maillot Jaune winner being stripped of his jersey for doping (Floyd Landis.)
It seemed like for every positive story like Yaroslav Popovych or David Millar and Team Slipstream (now Garmin-Chipotle), there was a well-known rider or even an entire team getting sent home, like Saunier-Duval was this year. Cycling had a huge black eye, and it didn't have the world's most tested athlete around to help out anymore.
Sure, I still enjoyed watching the tour. Mark Cavendish was the most exciting rider in 2008, and Christian Vandevelde represented the American contingent with pride. The duel between Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre made for plenty of drama in the closing stages, but it just wasn't the same.
With this announcement, Armstrong immediately makes the 2009 Tour worth watching. He always rode the Tour with a chip on his shoulder because of how the French have treated him, and he'll no doubt have that same motivation this time around.
What's more, he'll return as a contender. Early rumors have him joining Team Astana, which includes the 2007 champion Alberto Contador and American veteran Levi Leipheimer. Armstrong has been out of competitive cycling for three years, but his "retirement" has been anything but relaxing. He's taken up marathon running, and competed in a cycling event through the Rocky Mountains last month.
His return will not be some sad attempt to hang on. He won't be unrecognizable like Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards. Lance wouldn't come back unless he felt he could win.
Go ahead and pencil Lance in as one of the top contenders for the 2009 Tour De France. He'll be going up against riders more than ten years his junior and he'll leave them in the dust.