What Lance Armstrong is attempting to do at the Tour de France — now 14 days into its 23-day odyssey — can be said to be the greatest comeback in sporting history. No other champion has returned to his sport four years after leaving it and attempted to win that sport's elite title at an age older than any other previous winner. Armstrong is two months shy of his 38th birthday; the oldest Tour winner was the Belgian Firmin Lambot, who was 36 when he won the famed bicycle race in 1922.
The first two weeks of the 96th Tour de France were closing Friday in a rain-soaked stage through the Vosges mountain to Colmar. At the start of the day Armstrong was sitting in an incredible third place overall in the field of 180 athletes, only eight seconds behind the current race leader, Alberto Nocentini of Italy, and just two seconds behind his Spanish teammate, Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour winner.
On his return to the Tour, Armstrong has received mostly warm welcomes wherever he goes. Among the banners I saw last weekend held up by French spectators at the roadside were: "We love you, Lance" and "Lance: Yes You Can!"
But how can he win the Tour a stunning eighth time, four years after his already record-setting seventh victory in 2004? It won't be easy, that's for sure. Ironically, his main opposition is coming from his own teammate, the 26-year-old Contador, who can climb the steep mountain passes of France faster than any of the opposition. He is also strong in the timed stages, the one-man-aganst-the-clock time trials — the discipline in which Armstrong has always excelled.
Armstrong knows that he will have to be at his very best in the Tour's third week, especially on three climbing stages through the Alps, which are immediately followed by the last individual time trial, at Annecy, next Thursday. That's the day Armstrong's fate could be decided.
With more than half the Tour's 3,460 kilometers completed, most of the pre-race favorites have gravitated to the top of the overall rankings; but all eyes are on Armstrong and Contador. The Spaniard is younger and can accelerate faster up steep mountain climbs, while the Texan has greater intelligence and tactical savvy on his side. The contest between them next week is going to be a fascinating one to watch.
The experts are split on how it will play out between the two. But one thing is sure: Armstrong has already proved himself to be a great champion in this amazing comeback.