Armstrong's visit prompts mixed feelings

 

CYCLING:AND SO Lance is back, confirmed as heading here in August for the Tour of Ireland and a Livestrong Global Cancer Summit. It’s huge news for the race, with Sunday’s announcement set to earn the kind of attention the organisers could otherwise only dream about.

An explosion of crowd numbers at the Tour Down Under and the Tour of California show the effect the Texan’s presence has on an event. That’s due in part to his winning seven consecutive Tours de France, in part to his recovery from cancer; but much is also due to a comeback story more suited to boxing than cycling.

Simply put, riders don’t come back. From injury, yes, from doping suspensions too – Floyd Landis was back in action last week in California, two-and-a-half years after testing positive in the 2006 Tour de France.

But post-retirement? It almost unknown at this level, and that’s a big reason for the headlines.

Theories abound as to why Armstrong returned, more than three years after he became the only multiple winner in the history of the event to retire undefeated.

The sceptics would put it down to boredom, ego, frustration in seeing his column inches turn from sporting matters to his dating of celebrities. Even political aspirations have been suggested,with the 37-year-old considering running for Texas governor and – it is believed – having a long-term eye on the White House.

Armstrong and his people insist otherwise, saying this return is all about the sport and, above all else, a mission to battle cancer. His Lance Armstrong/Livestrong Foundation has raised hundreds of millions in the fight against the disease, and he says this is his biggest motivation.

Sunday’s announcement focused almost exclusively on this.

The essence is that he’ll ride the Tour of Ireland, doing the August 19th-23rd event before then participating in the Livestrong Global Cancer Summit from August 24th-26th in Dublin.

According to that release, the summit “will make the case for acting urgently to address the global cancer burden and introduce new commitments to cancer control by bringing together world leaders, corporations, nongovernmental organisations and advocates in an unprecedented show of solidarity”.

Minster for Health Mary Harney and Irish Cancer Society chief executive John McCormack welcomed the news, while Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and former US president Bill Clinton have expressed their support for the initiative.

And, as expected, race organisers Alan Rushton and Darach McQuaid are hugely satisfied.

“The global sports icon that is Lance Armstrong last raced in Ireland in the Tour of Ireland in 1992,” said the latter, brother of UCI president Pat McQuaid.

“The Tour of Ireland could not be more proud than to have Lance Armstrong riding once again on Irish roads in the lead-up to his Global Cancer Summit in Dublin.

“The massive, positive public reaction to his comeback to the sport in Australia in January and California in February indicate that by the time Lance arrives in Ireland next August, the interest levels will be at fever pitch.”

For the race, it’s undoubtedly big news. Particularly if he wins an eighth Tour de France.

Armstrong’s presence here could elevate crowd and TV figures to a level unseen since the Tour start was held in Dublin 11 years ago. From that perspective – and the fight against cancer – the news is a very considerable boost.

And, yet, there’s an element of unease. Armstrong remains a divisive figure in the sport. He’s been dogged by rumours of doping, with l’Equipe claiming in 2005 he failed retrospective tests for EPO on 1999 Tour samples.

When he announced his comeback, he said he was determined to prove he races clean. To that end, he undertook to be tested every three days by prominent anti-doping scientist Don Catlin and to publish those results.

Two weeks ago Armstrong and Catlin announced that testing would not now take place, several months after it was supposed to have started. They cited logistical and financial challenges as the reason. A back-up plan is in operation, and he’s been subjected to a large number of out-ofcompetition tests.

Yet, that unease remains.

Much as one may want to join the fight against cancer, much as one may love cycling, and much as one may want the Tour of Ireland to prosper, these enduring questions leave this writer with mixed feelings.