Lance Armstrong crashed in the neutral zone of Stage 13 — the short, ceremonial rollout that starts a stage before the kilometers are even counted — and once again on the day’s final climb faded from the lead group, finishing more than four minutes behind the contenders and dropping to 36th place, 25:38 behind yellow-jersey wearer Andy Schleck.
The seven-time Tour champion might be saving his energy for a stage win to close out his career, or to concentrate on supporting his RadioShack teammate, sixth-place Levi Leipheimer, in the upcoming and crucial Pyreneean stages. Or he might be, simply and finally, cracked by the Tour.
“For Lance, it is very sad,” his team director, Johan Bruyneel, wrote in a blog for De Telegraaf, the largest daily Dutch newspaper. Bruyneel went on to say he knows “very well that this is the end of an era.”
Even so, as I do daily radio interviews all around the United States about the race and the man, and talk to casual observers I meet, nearly everyone still asks if I really believe this is Armstrong’s final Tour. He hinted as much to me in 2009 when we spoke after the season, and earlier this year confirmed it.
The physical divide between him and the podium contenders, which didn’t exist with such clarity last year, no doubt contribute to some extent to making this retirement a concrete and immovable fact — as must the renewal and unprecedented severity of doping allegations against him, the impending birth of his fifth child, and whatever other numerous if small personal factors people take in account when making such decisions.
But there’s another reason I believe this year’s retirement is final and irrevocable: Armstrong found what he was seeking with his comeback. In a searching and surprisingly intimate conversation we had for my book, Tour de Lance, a chronicle of his return to the sport last year, Armstrong told me that he felt he’d lost something important during his retirement.
“I had spent basically three years not exercising much,” he told me. “On a regular basis but very little — I went from five or six hours a day down to 30 minutes a day. And I wasn’t happy with that lifestyle. My personal life was a little rocky. My business dealings became very serious and almost all of them became very successful.
“My life — keep in mind for 25 years — had been for four, five, six hours I’m riding a bike. Cycling, it’s one of those sports you can do eight hours a day. You’re going to be tired at the end, but if you did an eight-hour run you wouldn’t run again for a week. I think people are better, smarter, more present and more patient when they’ve done some type of exercise — that goes for an eight-year-old and a 68-year-old — and I need more, perhaps more than most people, to get the results I want. Bike racing is the thing that provides me with the most balance.”
Afterward, I researched the idea he was talking about and confirmed that this is not just some idiosyncratic theory of the good life Armstrong has cooked up as justification. There are some scientific indications that because cycling combines sustained aerobic exercise with complex brain functions such as balance, timing and spatial awareness, it might be ideally suited to soothe the brain.
In a 2008 study of 115 students at the Humboldt University of Berlin’s Institute of Sport Science, students who engaged in 10 minutes of exercise that required complex, highly coordinated movements performed better on a test measuring attention and concentration than students who did simpler aerobic exercise. (And both groups tested better than when they hadn’t exercised.)
Another study at Vanderbilt University found that after performing short, complex exercises that emphasized balance and quick reaction and decision making — all descriptors of what it takes to navigate a race peloton — adults were 40 percent more successful at solving a puzzle than when trying to do so after being idle.
In a 2005 survey of clinical trials and research held at a conference in Washington, D.C., among the presentations from scientists from Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins, the University of Wisconsin and Duke University Medical School were findings that the changes in the brain activity of meditating monks are directly comparable to the changes that occur during the act of pedaling a bicycle.
“It’s a simpler existence,” Armstrong said to me when we talked, “the life — not of an athlete — but that of a big-time endurance athlete. I train, I sleep, I get a massage, I eat, I take a nap. I have four kids so I balance them in, and some work with the foundation. And I also want to be able to have some fun, to sit down and have two or three glasses of wine at dinner if I want. The past four years, there were a lot of times when I’d be doing stuff but saying to myself, ‘What I really wish is that I was on a bike ride right now.’ ”
He paused and said, “What I have to get back to this year — I’m just talking to myself — is doing long rides alone. I did long rides in 2009 but very few alone. I’m always around people — teammates, fans, sponsors, donors — always surrounded by people. That time, a two-hour ride or a four-hour ride, a six-, eight-hour ride, that time alone is invaluable. In the old days I did most of my training alone. And that is probably the single most important thing I missed.”
I asked him what would happen when, as it did in this 2010 Tour, he could no longer compete at the top level — I reminded him that he could not stage eternal comebacks, that at some point he would really will be too old to have a shot at winning the Tour. I wanted to know if he would lose this balance he said he’d found.
“I won’t,” he said. “I won’t get back to that place where I wasn’t … I was really not an athlete. I won’t get back to that place. There’s a lot of guys — they’re not the best in their sport anymore but they still do it and they’re still competitive at their own level — a guy like Ned Overend.”
Overend, who was the first-ever world champion in the nascent sport of mountain biking in 1990, retired from full-time professional racing in 1996. In 2009, he finished second at the Mount Washington Hill Climb, the hardest uphill race in the world.
The New Hampshire mountain road climbs 4,650 feet in just 7.6 miles for an average grade of 12 percent — nearly the same elevation gain as Mont Ventoux in about half the distance. It has slopes as high as 22 percent, sections of dirt road, and near the top the winds are so high that riders are regularly blown off the road and crash.
Overend finished 16 seconds behind Phil Gaimon, a 6-foot-1, 148-pound pro with a resting heart rate near 35 beats per minute and a body fat percentage of 4.2. Gaimon was 23. Overend: 51.
“Go out and ride with Ned,” Armstrong says, “and he’ll kick your ass seven days a week because he’s Ned Overend and he rides every day and he cares about his lifestyle and his game. I lost sight of that for awhile.”
Maybe this is why, even when he’s dropped on this year’s climbs and losing time every day, he can been seen riding with a wry smile.
2010 Tour de France