- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

Lance Armstrong is coming out of retirement to sully his reputation, questionable as it is in some circles of cycling.

These comebacks after an extended absence rarely turn out well, Michael Jordan being the obvious example in Washington, D.C.

Brett Favre’s return is different from Armstrong’s in that respect. Favre was retired from the NFL for what amounted to a couple of cups of coffee in the offseason. Favre did not retire so much as he equivocated around the notion, his annual rite of the spring the last few years.

Armstrong walked away from the sport on top after winning his seventh consecutive Tour de France in 2005. He also walked away with a cloud of drug suspicion hanging over him, which goes with a sport long steeped in the performance-enhancing culture.

Armstrong has endured the European-based attacks and the thinking that his remarkable success was too good to be true, especially after he beat testicular cancer and returned to cycling the first time in 1998.

That was the same year Jordan won the last of his six championships with the Bulls after sinking the game-winning shot over a cleared-out Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

There could be no better ending for Jordan, and there wasn’t, as his two-year stint with the Wizards confirmed.

Jordan should not have tempted Father Time, which has an undefeated record.

Armstrong, who turns 37 later this month, will be attempting to become the oldest winner of the Tour de France next summer, a record held by then 36-year-old Firmin Lambot in 1922.

The 2,241-mile race is unkind to the most cardiovascularly fit. Armstrong’s coach, Chris Carmichael, insists the Texan still has a solid cardiovascular base, which is what he is paid to say.

This is not to discount the well-documented determination and intestinal fortitude of Armstrong, who thrives on dismissing the skeptics in his midst.

Count Christian Prudhomme among the skeptics.

The Tour de France race director said Armstrong and his team will be required to “follow all the rules today, [which] are much more strict than they were.”

That is hardly a flattering endorsement.

Prudhomme even questioned whether Armstrong will make it to the start line in July.

“Suspicion has followed Armstrong since 1999, [and] everyone knows that,” he said. “But in this proposed comeback … you have to remember we are in mid-September and that much water will run under the bridge until the Tour de France departure in Monaco.”

The Tour de France’s drug-testing procedures may be improved, but the black-market research on beating the tests never abates.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Armstrong said part of his motivation to return stems from those who believed he used performance-enhancing drugs all those years.

“There’s this perception in cycling that this generation is now the cleanest generation we’ve had in decades, if not forever,” he said.

That perception has been stoked by the high-profile busts of Armstrong’s former rivals and former teammate, Floyd Landis.

“I can understand why people look at that and go, ‘Well, [they] were caught - and you weren’t?’ ” Armstrong said. “So there is a nice element here where I can come with a completely comprehensive program and there is no way to cheat.”

Armstrong did not make it clear in the interview whether he plans to go through with a previous pledge to submit to an independent-testing program, along with the one administered by the Tour de France.

As always, Armstrong believes he is the one to push the boundaries of the sport, to renew its relevance on these shores and show that he can beat both cancer and Father Time. He found sustenance in the performance of 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres in the Beijing Games.

Torres won three silver medals and the applause of mothers across the globe.

Armstrong, though, will be judged a failure if he finishes in second place next summer.

And he will be chasing a heavily favored foe.

That would be his younger self who set the race’s standard.

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