Is Lance Armstrong running for something? Had you shown up for the prologue of the Tour of California back in February you might have thought so.
Thousands of fans crammed against barricades to see Armstrong's first race on American soil in almost four years, a 2.4-mile loop around the state capitol in Sacramento.
They screamed their heads off and waved yellow placards — distributed by Armstrong's advance team — emblazoned with Lance's face on one side, and on the other, the slogan "Hope Rides Again." All along the route, yellow-shirted LiveStrong employees handed out boxes of yellow chalk, so that fans could scrawl their own "messages of hope."
Mobs gathered around Armstrong's RV, pushing and shoving for a glimpse of his yellow-and-black helmet. Armstrong, the hope rider, was using his cycling comeback to spearhead a "global cancer campaign" to culminate with a triumphal summit meeting in Paris, right after the Tour de France. At every major race, there would be events to raise cancer awareness — and, not incidentally, Lance Armstrong awareness.
He would personally lobby government officials for increased cancer funding as well as smoking bans and health care initiatives. Armstrong has blogged about his support for SCHIP and even made noises about backing universal health care, which is apropos, since he famously lost his own health coverage when he was diagnosed with cancer.
All of this should have been enough to erase his tabloid image, circa last summer, as an Olsen-twin-wooing heartbreaker. His splashy return to the cycling scene made anything seem possible — a run for Texas governor in 2010, or perhaps more likely in 2014, when he'll be just 43 and presumably retired from cycling again.
An even more interesting path would be an appointment to the Senate when/if Kay Bailey Hutchison resigns her seat to run for governor. In an interview with the Daily Beast's Mark McKinnon — who happens to be Armstrong's political and media guru — the cyclist explained that "(i)f you feel like you can do the job better than people who are doing it now, and you can really make a difference, then that's a real calling to serve."
Five months into Armstrong's comeback, his athletic career has taken a positive turn: He's just a fraction of a second off the lead in the Tour de France. His bizarre, histrionic behavior while off the bike, though, leaves one to wonder whether this guy is cut out for public life.
Lance actually shares a few traits with Sarah Palin. They both react to any criticism with extreme defensiveness. They demonize their enemies while at the same time cultivating nonstop melodramas that keep them in the news. And while they both periodically issue petulant threats to quit, you get the funny feeling that neither one is going away anytime soon.
During Tour de France broadcasts an astonishing Nike ad airs. Over somber piano music, we see black-and-white scenes of doctors at an operating table, cancer patients in hospital gowns, a bald man hooked up to a respirator, a man with one leg on a treadmill. All of this is intercut with scenes of Armstrong riding his bike. "The critics say I'm arrogant," Armstrong says. "A doper. Washed up. A fraud. That I couldn't let it go." Pause. "They can say whatever they want. I'm not back on my bike for them."
It is interesting what it tells us about Armstrong's psyche. It reinforces the idea that Lance is standing behind the victims of a disease that nearly claimed his life. It also, however, pushes the idea that Armstrong is some kind of savior. The ad also implies, disturbingly, that the cyclist's "critics" — and that includes everyone who thinks he's arrogant — are equivalent to cancer. It is not enough for him to ride his bike and lead a positive campaign. He can't help but go after his detractors at the same time. And you thought Sarah Palin was divisive.
In May, Armstrong turned on the entire media. After being criticized in the Italian press for leading a rider slowdown to protest a dangerous stage of the Giro d'Italia, Armstrong boycotted the press. He even blocked certain reporters from following his vaunted Twitter account.
So much for the global LiveStrong campaign and getting back on the bike in order to get the word out about cancer. At this point, he communicated with the outside world only in homemade videos on the Livestrong.com site. This prompted the European press to start calling him "Bin Laden."
And yet, if Armstrong gets the yellow — no matter how — it will mark a triumphal completion of his comeback, finishing the self-created narrative arc upon which every successful politician builds his career. In less than a year, he's transformed himself from tabloid joke to cancer-conquering messiah. And if he does enter politics — after a year of fighting the press, demonizing enemies and fending off personal scandal — at least he'll be well-prepared.