For an unprecedented seven straight years, Lance Armstrong was cycling's Mr. July.
Armstrong was at his best, physically and mentally, when it mattered the most in winning his sport's grandest event, the Tour de France, from 1999-2005. And that was after he beat cancer.
But after pulling on the yellow jersey as he stood triumphantly on the podium in Paris four years ago, he pedaled off into the sunset. But Armstrong ended his retirement in September, and he has returned to France and a shot at his eighth tour title. At 37, he would be the oldest winner in the race's 96 years. (Firmin Lambot was 36 when he won in 1922.)
"I wouldn't say that I'm not going for the victory," Armstrong told the New York Times this week. "I will say, full disclaimer, that it's not been as easy as I thought. I think it's also fair to say that I'm not as confident in winning as I was in other years."
Don't tell that to the oddsmakers. In England, Armstrong is the second favorite, behind his Astana teammate Alberto Contador, the 2007 winner.
And don't tell that to those who know Armstrong best.
"I wouldn't put anything past him," said George Hincapie, who rides for Team Columbia-Highroad and was an Armstrong teammate in all seven of his tour wins.
"I think the riders are scared of Lance right now," said Phil Liggett, the voice of the sport and a mainstay in the booth for Versus, which provides wall-to-wall coverage of the tour for a ninth year beginning with Saturday's opening stage, an individual time trial in Monaco.
"Lance, I guarantee it, will be a reckoner in this race. … He's too good an athlete," Liggett said.
During his retirement, Armstrong ran marathons. In under three hours. Even without an expensive, specially-built Trek, the guy can flat-out go.
"Lance kept his level of fitness extremely high throughout his time away from the sport of professional cycling," said Paul Sherwen, a former tour rider and longtime broadcast partner of Liggett's on Versus. "I think what Phil said is quite likely."
Although Armstrong's return was derailed a bit when he crashed and broke his collarbone in March, he appeared to get stronger with each passing stage in the three-week Giro d'Italia and finished 12th.
"By the time that race finished, he was probably the best rider in the race," Liggett said.
He said his gut tells him that Contador and Armstrong could finish 1-2 when the tour ends in Paris on July 26, but that could hinge as much on how artfully Astana manager Johan Bruyneel keeps the nine-member team a cohesive unit.
Remember, Contador and teammate Levi Leipheimer were first and third in '07.
"Everyone on the team has a lot of pride and professionalism, and I don't think any of us would want to, for example, have the strongest rider in the race and lose because we weren't riding together as a team," said Leipheimer, who along with Armstrong, Hincapie and Team Garmin-Slipstream leader Christian Vande Velde (fifth in last year's tour) form a strong American contingent. "I think there's a lot of pride that goes along with that."
No matter if Armstrong finishes on the podium or well back in the peloton, his return is sure to crank up the awareness level of cancer research and his foundation, as well as the level of interest in the race in the United States..
Versus drew nearly 33 million viewers last year, and Marc Fein, executive vice president of programming, production and business operations, is confident Armstrong's presence will "certainly enhance viewership."
But like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Reggie Jackson, dubbed Mr. October for his flair for the dramatic in the World Series, Armstrong is a transcendent sports figure. He appeals to the general sports fan and cycling fan alike.
You watch him.
Especially in July.
"It's definitely going to be exciting to see how Lance rides," Hincapie said. "It's going to be one of the most interesting, exciting tours we've seen in the last 10 years."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.