Lance Armstrong leaves his relatively obscure sport with seven consecutive victories in the Tour de France and a series of doping allegations he zealously battles with a small battalion of attorneys.
That is the deal, fair or not, in the post-BALCO era of sports.
There is an aspect of the Texan that is too good to be true. He is both a survivor of cancer and a bionic-like figure who showed no weakness or fear in competition.
In a way, Armstrong came to be the Barry Bonds of cycling.
The two established an unthinkable record and defied Father Time amid a den of performance-enhancing questions. Both were prickly to the notion.
Unlike Bonds, the leading principal in the BALCO scandal, Armstrong has been able to remain distant to the suspicions and accusations. The distance is abetted by America’s limited knowledge of the sport whose moment on the global stage is brief.
We care about the Tour de France only because of one determined individual.
We will care about baseball long after Bonds has faded from the scene.
“The people who don’t believe in cycling — the cynics, the skeptics — I’m sorry for you,” Armstrong said. “I’m sorry you can’t dream big, and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”
When not sorry, Armstrong sticks his lawyers on the trail of writers and ex-employees who doubt his sanctity.
His grievance is understandable.
The public record shows that Armstrong never failed a doping test.
Yet that also was the repeated claim of Marion Jones going into the Athens Games last summer. Her failings there led to elementary assumptions following her Wonder Woman-like performance in Sydney in 2000.
As we now know, beating the test was essential to the viability of BALCO.
Beating the latest test is the inspiration of the performance-enhancement industry. It is the closed-door science that was systematically employed in the old East German state, notably with its female athletes.
Show a world-class athlete a drug test and someone in a lab coat can come up with a way to beat it.
Dr. Michele Ferrari was Armstrong’s medical advisor until being convicted of illegally acting as a pharmacist and sports fraud in Italy last fall. Armstrong responded with a contradiction. He cut his ties to Ferrari. He also defended Ferrari.
We never will know for certain whether Armstrong was as pure as freshly fallen snow, as his multimillion-dollar image demands.
We just know that his marvelous dominance often came with a series of qualifying comments, which went as follows: Even if he is not all he claims to be, he is incredibly special anyway. Besides, all the cyclists are tainted.
Cycling, after all, is the sport that has been comically exposed in the past as a medical laboratory on wheels.
Armstrong was a freak, no doubt, both physically and mentally. And he has the good sense to go out on top, assuming he sticks to his retirement. That, too, would make him unique.
Even Michael Jordan, one of Armstrong’s role models, sullied his perfect parting from the NBA in 1998 with his itch-scratching exercise in Washington three years later.
“At some point you turn 34, or you turn 35, the others make a big step up, and when your age catches up, you take a big step down,” the 33-year-old Armstrong said. “So next year could be the year, if I continued, that I lose that five minutes. We are never going to know.”
Armstrong fielded a congratulatory call from President George Bush and sipped from a bottle of champagne.
His story is stirring, his single-mindedness unquestioned.
And yet, whether because of the sport or the brushfires, Armstrong makes his exit with a trace of doubt accompanying the joy.
His unparalleled achievement should not go down that way.
But that has come to be the conditioned response around barrier-busting athletes.