Is Lance Armstrong running for something? Had you shown up for the prologue of the Tour of California back in February you might have thought so. Thousands of fans crammed against barricades to see Armstrong's first race on American soil in almost four years, a 2.4-mile loop around the state capitol in Sacramento. They screamed their heads off and waved yellow placards—distributed by Armstrong's advance team—emblazoned with Lance's face on one side, and on the other, the slogan "Hope Rides Again." All along the route, yellow-shirted LiveStrong employees handed out boxes of yellow chalk, so that fans could scrawl their own "messages of hope." Huge mobs gathered around Armstrong's RV, pushing and shoving for a glimpse of his yellow-and-black helmet. Forget red and blue: Armstrong had turned California into a yellow state.
Armstrong, the hope rider, was using his cycling comeback to spearhead a "global cancer campaign" that would culminate with a triumphal summit meeting in Paris, right after the Tour de France. At every major race, there would be events to raise cancer awareness—and, not incidentally, Lance Armstrong awareness. He would personally lobby government officials for increased cancer funding as well as smoking bans and health care initiatives. In January, at the Tour Down Under, he palled around with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who immediately announced a major boost in cancer funding. Armstrong has blogged about his support for SCHIP and even made noises about backing universal health care, which is apropos, since he famously lost his own health coverage when he was diagnosed with cancer.
All of this should have been enough to erase his tabloid image, circa last summer, as a water-hogging, Olsen-twin-wooing heartbreaker. His splashy return to the cycling scene made anything seem possible—a run for Texas governor in 2010, or perhaps more likely in 2014, when he'll be just 43 and presumably retired from cycling again. An even more interesting path would be an appointment to the Senate when/if Kay Bailey Hutchison resigns her seat to run for governor. In an interview with the Daily Beast's Mark McKinnon—who happens to be Armstrong's political and media guru and a board member of his foundation—the cyclist explained that "[i]f you feel like you can do the job better than people who are doing it now, and you can really make a difference, then that's a real calling to serve."
Five months into Armstrong's comeback, his athletic career has taken a positive turn: He's just a fraction of a second off the lead in the Tour de France. His bizarre, histrionic behavior while off the bike, though, leaves one to wonder whether this guy is cut out for public life. Lance actually shares a few traits with Sarah Palin. They both react to any criticism with extreme defensiveness. They demonize their enemies while at the same time cultivating nonstop melodramas that keep them in the news. And while they both periodically issue petulant threats to quit, you get the funny feeling that neither one is going away anytime soon.
Armstrong's return to cycling didn't start smoothly. The wheels started to come off—literally—at the Tour of California. He crashed on each of the first two days, slipping on a rainy road and then bumping into a motorbike carrying his personal photographer. Then he took down his team leader, Levi Leipheimer. The day after that, he shoved a toy-syringe-wielding fan into a snowbank.
His sketchy, nervous riding was scaring the bejeezus out of the other riders. "We thought he was a neo-pro," one Spanish rider told the press (a neo-pro is a cycling rookie). Armstrong eventually took himself out, crashing on a crappy road in Spain and breaking his collarbone—a common cycling injury that he had miraculously avoided during his entire Tour de France reign.
There were other hiccups. Upon his return, Armstrong announced that he would subject himself to "the most advanced anti-doping program in the world," a strict regimen of tests whose results would be posted online for all to see. Despite Armstrong having told reporters that "it's under way," the program was scrapped before it got started after being deemed too expensive and too complicated. Rather than trying to erase the significant, lingering doubts about his own ethics, Armstrong resorted to Twittering sarcastically whenever he got drug tested, as if he were being specially persecuted. In truth, he is not: Cycling has vastly increased its drug testing this year, and the sport is devoting more attention to higher-profile riders—not just the ones named Lance.
At the same time, he's used cancer to help him avoid questions about the sketchy past and dubious sponsors of his own Astana team, at least one of whose members remains under serious suspicion of doping. When a well-respected Irish sportswriter, Paul Kimmage, questioned Armstrong's support for convicted dopers Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis, he snarled, "I am here to fight this disease." Armstrong then added, "You are not worth the chair you are sitting on." (You can watch full video of the exchange here.)
In April—inevitably—he got into a dispute with a drug-testing official who came to his house. World Anti-Doping Agency rules forbid an athlete from leaving the tester's presence, but Armstrong did just that, going inside to take a 20-minute shower. "Showergate," as Armstrong dubbed it, prompted him to post this rather odd video on his Web site, warning that "there is a high likelihood that they [the French] may not let me ride the Tour." (The French are a favorite bogeyman; in an earlier interview, he fretted that angry French fans might physically harm him as he rode along in the Tour.)
All these incidents might be considered minor potholes on the road of life. But then, on the eve of the Tour de France, came this astonishing Nike ad.
Over somber piano music, we see black-and-white scenes of doctors at an operating table, cancer patients in hospital gowns, a bald man hooked up to a respirator, a man with one leg on a treadmill. All of this is intercut with scenes of Armstrong riding his bike. "The critics say I'm arrogant," Armstrong says. "A doper. Washed up. A fraud. That I couldn't let it go." Pause. "They can say whatever they want. I'm not back on my bike for them."
It's jarring, dramatic, and memorable—and not in a good way. While it's curious that a multinational company chooses to sell athletic wear in this fashion, the ad is even more interesting for what it tells us about Armstrong's psyche. On its surface, it reinforces the idea that Lance is standing behind the victims of a disease that nearly claimed his life. That is indisputable. It also, however, pushes the idea that Armstrong is some kind of savior. His Shepard Fairey-designed bikes are emblazoned with two numbers. The first, 1,274, is the number of days between his last race and his comeback. The second, 27.2, represents the number of people, in millions, who died from the disease during that time. Is Armstrong suggesting that there's some kind of causal link between him not riding his bike and people dying from cancer?
The ad also implies, disturbingly, that the cyclist's "critics"—and that includes everyone who thinks he's arrogant—are equivalent to cancer. It is apparently not enough for him to ride his bike and lead a positive campaign. He can't help but go after his detractors at the same time. And you thought Sarah Palin was divisive.
Who are these "critics," exactly? One is an Englishman named Andrew Hogg. Back in April, Hogg noticed that Armstrong had accidentally posted his personal e-mail address on Twitter. Unable to resist the temptation, Hogg tapped out a few choice thoughts—starting with "Johnny Pharmstrong—he's loved by the ladies, but has he lied to the fans?"—and hit send.
Within hours, Armstrong had responded to him—not by e-mail but in a videoposted to Livestrong.com. The cyclist quoted from the note and then spelled out Hogg's own personal e-mail address for his then-700,000 Twitter followers to do with as they wished. I tried to write to Hogg to see what kind of responses he got back from the LiveStrong crowd, but I got only a bounce-back in reply. Hogg is now, presumably, in hiding from Armstrong's army.
In May, Armstrong turned on the entire media. After being criticized in the Italian press for leading a rider slowdown to protest a dangerous stage of the Giro d'Italia, Armstrong boycotted the press. He even blocked certain reporters from following his vaunted Twitter account. So much for the global LiveStrong campaign and getting back on the bike in order to get the word out about cancer. At this point, he communicated with the outside world only in homemade videos on the Livestrong.com site (the for-profit arm of his LiveStrong empire). This prompted the European press to start calling him "Bin Laden."
Going into the Tour de France, Armstrong managed a respectable 12th place in the Giro, recently broken collarbone and all. Even so, the only races he really starred in were domestic contests like the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico, a low-ranked event that, technically, his team was not even permitted to enter. Despite this less-than-top-notch track record thus far, he comes to the Tour half-expecting to win it—an attitude that hasn't exactly endeared him to the real contenders.
Or to his own teammates, particularly one Alberto Contador, a boyish 26-year-old Spaniard who won the Tour de France two years ago (and the tours of Italy and Spain last year). Contador, who was the unquestioned leader of Team Astana before Armstrong signed on, is widely considered to be the world's greatest bike racer right now—by everyone except Armstrong. "Contador has a lot to learn," Armstrong told L'Equipe after his teammate blew a race in March. (Armstrong did add that Contador is "the best in the world" before saying that "[h]is only negative trait, and I say this with much respect, it's that he's too nervous.")
When he was at the top of his game, Armstrong demanded total loyalty and subservience from his teammates. That's not what Contador is getting from Lance. Take Monday's stage of the Tour de France, when Armstrong ordered his teammates to ride hard on the front, leaving Contador behind. It worked, almost: The tactic not only showed Contador who is boss, but it nearly helped earn Armstrong another yellow jersey on Tuesday's stage. If Armstrong had gotten the yellow—no matter that he stepped on his teammate's back to get it—it would have marked a triumphal completion of his comeback, finishing the self-created narrative arc upon which every successful politician builds his career. In less than a year, he's transformed himself from tabloid joke to cancer-conquering messiah. And if he does enter politics—after a year of fighting the press, demonizing enemies, and fending off personal scandal—at least he'll be well-prepared.