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COMMENTARY

Armstrong won't attend Tour but still loves what it represents

July 08, 2007|Jim Litke | Associated Press

Neither Lance Armstrong nor the No. 1 jersey traditionally worn by the defending champion will be seen at this year's Tour de France. Those two things aren't linked, but the absence of both hint at just how tough a hill cycling must climb in a bid to restore its credibility.

Two years after Armstrong's retirement, the sport has yet to find someone who even looks capable of replacing the popular and controversial seven-time champion. More troubling, the 2,200-mile, 23-day race launched this weekend in London without 2006 winner Floyd Landis. His nearly yearlong fight to retain that title in the wake of doping charges has been the most visible but hardly cycling's only scandal.

And talk about bad timing: There's a very good chance Landis' appeal will be decided by an arbitration panel in plenty of time to steal some thunder from the race.

"I'm not making a statement, not by any means. I have sponsor and charity commitments, and I've got kids. There's nothing more to it," Armstrong said about his planned absence during an interview Thursday with the Associated Press.

The Discovery team he once commanded and still owns a piece of will be led this time around by Levi Leipheimer, a 33-year-old regarded as America's best hope. Asked to pick a favorite, Armstrong named Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan and Andreas Kloeden of Germany, both members of the Astana team.

Armstrong, though, said he wouldn't offer any help or so much as meddle in Discovery director Johan Bruyneel's business. He warned against reading anything into that either.

"I'm not one of those guys who say the sport has no credibility, that it's like pro wrestling ... or any of that garbage. I don't believe the 'organizers' are truly organized," he said. "But the Tour is not a farce, and it's not a gimmick. It's hard. I believe it's still a great event, and I'll watch every day. I still love what it represents."

Yet Armstrong knows the number of sponsors and fans who share that view is falling precipitously. Too many see cycling's showcase event, and the sport itself, as riddled from top to bottom with performance-enhancing cheats.

Armstrong was hounded by doping allegations throughout his reign. Only two weeks ago, he defended himself yet again against a new book that he said contained "a demonstrably false string of sensational, untrue and fabricated allegations" recycled to cash in on cycling's tumultuous state and timed in conjunction with the Tour's start.

No other prominent cyclist has matched Armstrong's unbeaten streak in real courts and the court of public opinion, and a few haven't bothered to try.

Landis' defense against a positive test for synthetic testosterone stumbled coming out of the gate -- when he alternately suggested thyroid medication, cortisone shots and-or Jack Daniel's was responsible -- and has taken several strange detours since.

Over roughly the same span, 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis and a half-dozen riders from a German team acknowledged using the blood-booster erythropoietin, or EPO; 1997 winner Jan Ullrich, who maintains his innocence, retired under a cloud of suspicion after being banned from last year's Tour; and Ivan Basso, once Armstrong's most promising rival and the 2005 runner-up, was slapped with a two-year ban after being linked to the same Spanish doping investigation that implicated Ullrich.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme told the AP recently that, "Cycling must not only get its credibility back, but even more its dignity." Toward that end, 189 riders submitted to blood tests early Thursday morning, and none came back positive. Even if those results remain the same over the course of the 2007 race and its aftermath, cycling is hardly guaranteed to regain its dignity.

"On the heels of what happened just over the last 12 months in cycling, people will have questions no matter what," Armstrong said. "If you get a guy who's considered dirty, everybody will say, 'We told you so.' And what happens if a guy who's considered clean, comes along and races as fast as anybody ever has?

"Well," he said, not waiting for an answer, "then he's got to be dirty too. [Doping] goes on in all of world sport; ours just polices itself better than any other. But getting people to believe that is a lot easier said than done."

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