Lance Armstrong, shattered, is surrounded by the press after hauling himself to the finish line at Morzine on Sunday. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
When a great champion cracks in the mountains it’s like the moment when a once-mighty battleship is superceded by a new competitor and rendered hideously obsolete. All sports have their moments like this and it’s always poignant even when you never cared for, or even disliked, the champion in question. As is often the case, cycling has an especially brutal way of showing this. It’s final and, like a broken-backed battleship sinking, just a matter of minutes. One minute you’re there, the next you’re not.
True, Lance Armstrong’s crack-up on the road to Morzine on Sunday wasn’t as dramatic as the day in 1996 when Miguel Indurain broke at Les Arcs but that’s because we knew it was coming. If it didn’t happen on Sunday it would have happened at some point during the Texan’s final Tour. Only the True Believers – though, granted, there remain many of them – will have been truly astonished.
And yet even so, even at the age of 39, it was a remarkable moment demonstrating, unanswerably, that an era has ended. Losing 12 minutes on a day that wasn’t as tough as some of those that will come is no false-positive. It’s over and was even before the Tour began. But though we knew (or "knew") this was the case, the strength of Armstrong’s grip on the Tour, the mystique that’s been built around him plus the recollection that in the past he’s found a way to prevail, meant many needed proof that the magic really has been exhausted.
Well it has. The rest of the race becomes a test of character for Armstrong. He doesn’t need to be doing this and perhaps shouldn’t be doing it either. When a Rosewall is destroyed by a Connors or a Liston by an Ali the vanquished party can, and with grace, retire immediately. Cycling is unusual in asking that you go out there again, already crushed, and finish the course. Oh, of course you can drop out, but that’s a sad, not a noble way to end it all.
It doesn’t end there. Not only is a great champion left a husk of his former self, he’s expected to begin working for a man who until yesterday was his subordinate. Armstrong, who built the Radioshack team to work for him, must now be a servant himself, doing all he can to assist Levi Leipheimer. The mighty are fallen but, in cycling’s particular theology, redeemed by pledging their services to others, just as they benefitted from others’ labours in the past.
Nevertheless, the psychological pressures of all this are enough, one might think, to leave some part of Armstrong secretly dreading the rest of the Tour. Once the chastening happens once, odds are it will happen again. It will be interesting to see how he reacts and how, now that he is beaten, his critics will respond if he produces a last flickering of greatness. With, I hope, generosity even if this might also be a sentiment infused with a certain hypocrisy. Nevertheless, one need not fear him any longer now that the danger – however small – he could produce another improbable miracle has passed.
In truth I don’t know how wise it was for Armstrong to have spent these last two seasons in the peloton. Yes, there’s the work of his foundation and raising cancer awareness and that’s important but I’m arguing in a sporting sense. It’s not the defeats that risk devaluing Armstrong’s reputation since, after all, the defeats were expected but rather the sense in which his return has reopened all the arguments about drugs and all the rest of it and, indeed, invited closer scrutiny of his record. Allegations against a retired Armstrong are worth much less than claims about an Armstrong still racing. And they’d also be yesterday’s news. Move on, people. But you can’t move on if the man is still there.
Then again, how much does any of it matter to the True Believers? Not much, I think. For them it’s Armstrong first, the rest nowhere and anyone who dares challenge him – on or off the bike – becomes the villain. That’s what made Contador’s victory last year so thrilling and, frankly, so complete.
Yes, Armstrong finished third but it wasn’t an ordinary Tour by any means: the Texan had a team supporting him, Contador was reduced to competing, more or less, as an individual having made the mistake of assuming that, as the best rider in the race, his team would support him, not Armstrong. That may have been naive, but riding as one against eight and enduring the pressure of being an outcast from the team he was putatively leading, reduced the margin of Contador’s victory and make it all the more heroic.
With Armstrong’s eclipse, the field is left free for Contador and the rest and cycling can begin to look to the post-Lance era. That is, in the end, a good thing.