Monday, July 12, 2010


The Distance from Les Arcs to Avoriaz

The comparisons are surely looming, if they haven’t come already, between Miguel Indurain’s dramatic collapse on the stage to Les Arcs in 1996 and Lance Armstrong’s on the road to Avoriaz yesterday. And not without reason. Both men, obviously, were the dominant Tour de France riders of their generations – one was the man most people believed would finally break the five Tour barrier, the other is the man who actually did it. And the similarities between the breakdowns in their final Tour appearances are indeed striking. Both met their downfall not deep into the race, but on the first true mountain stage – Stage 7, from Chambery to Les Arcs for Indurain, Stage 8 from Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz for Armstrong. Both stages were in the Alps, and though they occurred about 170 kilometers and 14 years apart, both men lost the same 12 minutes, give or take. And both days were remarkable in that the grand champions were not just left behind by some remarkable challenger, nor by an upstart playing the giant-killer, the David to their Goliath. They were left behind by everyone.

Given the similarities, it is almost inevitable that people will note the two days' similar look and that ultimately, both men's Tour de France Waterloos will be remembered as being much the same. There’s really no point in fighting it. But it is important that now, in the moment, we should acknowledge that they are not the same in at least a few fundamental ways. Most obviously, when Indurain finally cracked, he was still the favorite, the highest-value scalp in the race and the keystone that anchored his competitors’ tactical schemes. Armstrong, while still a valued scalp, started the race as an outsider for the win, a man understandably made mortal by the simple inevitable force of time, if nothing else.

As their spots in the competitive hierarchy differed when the big cracks came, so did the impact. While the memory has been blunted by age, Indurain’s demise was much more of a surprise at the time -- unlike Armstrong's, it wasn't preceded by a third place the previous year. But more importantly, it left a much bigger hole. Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich stepped into the vacuum in 1996, and the rest is history, as both men went on to become major forces in the sport for the next decade. Armstrong’s departure from Tour contention in 2010, by contrast, leaves no vacuum at all, except perhaps in the hearts of some cycling fans and Phil Liggett. The reason that’s so is at least partially due to the arc of Armstrong’s career, and namely the rich crop of grand tour contenders that have flourished in the three-year absence of his considerable shadow. Nothing much was able to sprout under Indurain’s continuous shade, and a lot of what was already growing – Greg Lemond, Tony Rominger, Charly Mottet – wilted over his five years of dominance.

But the most dramatic way in which Armstrong’s collapse differs from Indurain’s is that Armstrong’s was, in a sense, more voluntary, or at least a more known risk at the time it occurred. Indurain’s day at Les Arcs was simply a marked endpoint to a career – the point at which, for whatever reason, whatever it was he’d had just suddenly left him. He just rode until he didn’t have it anymore, then retired. Not so Armstrong. On his retirement in 2005, Armstrong had managed to get out of the game before that moment struck, and left the sport without giving it the sweaty-faced, fall-of-a-champion, the-king-is-dead snapshot to go with the written obituary. It was remarkable – a degree of restraint rarely seen in cycling.

As we all know by now, though, retirement didn’t take, and Armstrong returned to the sport after a three-year hiatus. He did so of his own accord, and being Armstrong, people ascribe that decision to any number of things from one end of the spectrum to the other – from charity, selflessness, and passion to jealousy, vanity, and greed. I’m not going to wade into that swamp, but one thing’s for sure: when he returned to the sport last year, Armstrong had to know he risked erasing the triumphant memory of his first departure and replacing it with this very moment from his second. And here we are.

The irony is that, after so many years of victory and that first smooth exit, it may well turn out that the dismal ride to Avoriaz was exactly what Armstrong needed to leave the sport on a high note, and I suspect he knows it. Even the early signs point to yesterday’s stage becoming the sympathetic moment in the career of a man who had, over a decade, inspired a number of emotions – among them respect, fear, love, and hate – but never anything that would likely be called “sympathy.” In the coming weeks, I suspect he’ll drive those feelings home by playing the loyal, bottle-toting teammate to Levi Leipheimer. In other sports, it might be seen as a sad or shameful slippage down the lineup, the old quarterback dropping from starter to second string. But this is bike racing, and while cycling fans love a winner, they also demand that bit of humanity and humility to go along with the accolades. Indurain had that in spades, even before that day in 1996 when the Tour suddenly passed him by. Armstrong never did, though, and you can bet that he'll seize this second opportunity for all its worth.

People often write that it’s just the French fans that like that sort of thing, but I don’t think that’s true. I should know for sure in a few weeks.


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