Lance Armstrong bids the Tour de France adieu, and unfortunately not the way he had wanted to.. Or was it? I guess it depends on how you look at it.
Okay.. In his final Tour de France, the seven-time champion popped a tire, crashed and struggled up the mountains. Still, he maintains he had no regrets despite the ignominious ending of No. 13 — nearly 40 minutes behind the leader, former teammate and rival Alberto Contador. Yet, if you ask any rider or team manager at the Tour, it’s clear Armstrong’s mark on the sport is indelible — the use of earpiece radios for riders, training regimens, diet and race strategy, among other things. His success helped convert what was mostly a summertime passion in Europe into a 21st Century business fanning interest from Canada to China.
Last year, returning from a four-year retirement from the Tour, he finished an impressive third, got within one second of the yellow jersey he knows so well, and warmed the hearts of French fans who once despised him for his methodical, “American” drive to victory above all. This year, he was but a mere 23rd, and his best single showing was arguably in the prologue in Rotterdam, where he placed fourth. He gradually downscaled his ambitions. At first he wanted to win. Then, he wanted a stage win, which he narrowly missed in an eight-man sprint finish to the 16th stage, the toughest day in the Pyrenees. When that opportunity vanished, he focused on his RadioShack squad — which did give him a sliver of glory and a podium appearance by winning the team classification.
But his long-masterful control of his image — cancer survivor, Tour champion, public personality and pitchman — may finally be escaping his grasp. Or maybe not after the drama that occurred on the final stage into Paris. To say that on a day that is usually dedicated to the three riders who stand upon the podium in Paris, and even the “other” jersey winners, Lance Armstrong may have stolen some of the media hype and still managed to direct all eyes to his cause by “taking the stsage to Paris” despite never truly contending for the yellow jersey.
In the neutral zone, the controlled-pace parade that sees the peloton safely out of the start town, Armstrong and his team were reprimanded by UCI officials and race judges for being out of uniform. RadioShack had shown up Sunday morning with special jerseys, black instead of red, with the number 28 centered prominently on the back. According to RadioShack team staff, the number was an allusion to the 28 million people worldwide suffering from cancer. In past Tours riders have been fined for donning non-regulation uniforms. (Armstrong’s own U.S. Postal team did so for the final stage of the centenary Tour, and sprinter Mario Cipollini was well-known for outrageous custom skinsuits.) RadioShack was ordered to change back to their traditional red-and-black kits or face disqualification.
At first, the RadioShack riders simply grabbed their old jerseys from the team cars and, on the roll, pulled the red ones over the black. But this, too, was not allowed: The numbers were covered. So the race was temporarily slowed, then halted, fans crowded around as RadioShack riders such as Yaroslav Popovych, stopped, took off their black jerseys and pinned their race numbers onto their red jerseys. The race was delayed for 15 minutes. There it was: A disruption of the race, a testing of the outer limits of the rules, a scandal, a marketing and promotional coup, and something no one could ever remember seeing: The world’s best racers sitting beside the road pinning their numbers like any amateur Cat 4 racer in America. Armstrong, however, did it with his customary remove—without dismounting like the rest of his team, he fidgeted while mechanic Craig Geator pinned him up then, impatient, rode off with his numbers flapping in the wind in a show of defiance. (Later, the team car drove alongside him and Geator finished the pin job.). It was another love-it or hate-it moment from Armstrong, a perfect symbol of his career and his personality, and his relationship with the race that shaped both.
On the Champs-Elysees, as Armstrong and his team accepted their trophies and listened to the applause, they stood straight and proud and waving and smiling…… in the black jerseys.