Too soon to write Armstrong off

Lance Armstrong's decision to quit Paris-Nice strikes procycling editor Jeremy Whittle as the champi

Lance Armstrong's decision to quit Paris-Nice strikes procycling editor Jeremy Whittle as the champi
PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM You want to quit the 'Race to the Sun', because a). there is no sun; b). your throat is rasping like sandpaper in the freezing air; and c). you're so far off your best form that it's embarrassing. Trouble is, you're stranded in an apocalyptic whiteout, in the heart of rural France, with the biggest air traffic control strike for years looming just 12 hours later. If you're Just Another Guy in the peloton, you could, of course, climb wearily into a team car and drive home through the night to the wife and kids. If you're Lance Armstrong, however, you call in your private jet from sunny Spain, get the pilot to land gingerly in the snowbound Massif Central town of Le-Puy-en-Velay, and then head home to Girona to recover and regroup. Given his stature and profile, that was probably the best way for Armstrong to exit the 2005 Paris-Nice, and certainly not an enjoyable experience for the six-time Tour winner. There were slight echoes of Bernard Hinault's sneaky exit from the 1980 Tour de France under cover of darkness in Pau. Only back then, Hinault was at the time the biggest star in France and was also wearing the 'maillot jaune'. But by leaving when he did, Armstrong avoided a mini-frenzy among the media. There were no pictures of him climbing off at a feed zone and few, if any, awkward questions from the press. In fact, it was left to Johan Bruyneel, his team director to explain it all away. "After his sixth Tour win, things have been a bit crazy," said Bruyneel. "Lance was in such demand. So he needed to be in Europe to get back to work. Now that's done, I don't doubt his motivation or his seriousness. He's only thinking of his job." There's little doubt that this was a setback of sorts, as the team Discovery brought to Paris-Nice can be seen as a prototype of the most likely selection for this summer's Tour de France. As Bruyneel said in Rognes this morning, that 'in-race' bonding experience will have to be "postponed" until Armstrong returns to racing. "For his return to competition, nothing's yet been decided," said Bruyneel. "It's possible that he will ride Semana Catalana at the end of March or maybe some of the one-day races (GP E3, Paris-Camembert). One thing's for sure he will be at the start of the Tour of Flanders (see separate story)." How good Armstrong's form will be in early April remains in doubt. According to Patrick Lefvre, directorial guru at the Quick Step team, "abandoning Paris-Nice in March will have no effect on what happens in the Tour de France in July, but it means that you can't expect much from the Tour of Flanders in April." It's worth recalling that the Texan has been written off before; most notably in June last year when Iban Mayo handed him a hiding on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. It's timely also to remind everyone that the Texan went on to win the 2004 Tour with jaw-dropping ease. Of course, the record-breaking Armstrong legend will one day come to an end. But his extraordinary success story seems unlikely to have ended so anonymously, on a still and snowy March night in Le-Puy-en-Velay.

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