Even if you're not a Lance Armstrong fan, Sunday's eighth stage of the Tour de France was painful to watch. The worst part was the way his teammates, escorting him up the mountain, visibly soft-pedaling, kept glancing back at him over their shoulders: Really? Can't you go faster? By the end of the trek to Morzine-Avoriaz, during which Armstrong crashed hard and skidded across the pavement like a Sunday newspaper (at 0:03 in this spectator video), the seven-time champ had lost almost 12 minutes, likely ending his yellow-jersey hopes once and for all.
This was not the way it was supposed to go, at least not if you believed the American media hype that the 2010 Tour would be an epic showdown between Armstrong and his former teammate and rival Alberto Contador. The pecking order was clear back in March, when the two met at a hilly two-day race called the Critérium International. Contador had a terrible first day, finishing a full minute behind the winner. "He is not exactly in a very good mood," the Spaniard's team manager said, explaining that Contador was suffering from allergies. But he still beat Armstrong by nearly four minutes.
After that, Armstrong got sick and missed more racing, then crashed out of the Tour of California, scuttling a crucial part of his Tour de France preparation. And of course, Floyd Landis emerged from hibernation with a long list of accusations that Armstrong and his team had doped their way to the top. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the feds have started issuing subpoenas as part of their investigation into Landis' claims. (The Daily News reports that Trek Bicycle Corp., his longtime sponsor, may be a subpoena target.)
It's been that kind of year for Armstrong, which is why it was only fitting that his Tour would go off the rails. After a good start, he struggled in the third, cobblestoned stage, losing nearly a minute to Contador. Then came Sunday's ride, a gruesome outing that led the Texan to declare that his Tour was "finished." Armstrong was finally learning, after an amazing streak of good luck, a lesson that his competitors know too well: When things go wrong in the Tour de France, they really go wrong.
Armstrong could have crashed hard in 1999, when the race traversed a road that is underwater at high tide. He could have gone down with Joseba Beloki in 2003 or flipped off his bike into a ravine, like his team director Johan Bruyneel did in his racing days. Or he could have just clicked out of his pedals and retired to the team car, like his archnemesis Greg LeMond, who abandoned the race, and the sport, on a sad road in Normandy during the EPO-drenched 1990s. And despite a very frustrating day on Sunday, Armstrong at least avoided the cyclist's ultimate freakout, the epic bike throw.
Instead he followed his teammates in a dignified procession to the finish line, head slightly tilted, even managing a slight, wry smile at one point. He crashed, he bonked, and that was it. He was human after all. On the plus side, at least nobody could accuse him of doping—at least in this year's race.
Armstrong obviously has much bigger problems than failing to win an eighth Tour de France. If the federal investigation goes anywhere—and if his former friends and teammates corroborate any part of Landis' claims—he might wish he'd never come back to the sport.
The hardest thing about being an alpha athlete is knowing when to retire. Armstrong tried to quit once, when he was on top, after winning his seventh Tour. He couldn't stay away. By coming back, he took a shot at reclaiming his former glory, but he also invited new scrutiny of his Tour reign.
Yes, Armstrong's own PR team could hardly have come up with a better accuser than Landis, a visibly disgruntled, self-confessed liar. But to anyone who has followed the sport over the past decade, Landis' accusations are all too plausible. Armstrong won his Tours during what we now know was a period of rampant doping, in which cyclists were found to have used blood transfusions and EPO, just as Landis alleges Armstrong did.