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Monday, September 8, 2008
Updated: September 9, 11:57 AM ET
What will Lance gain if he returns? That's a loaded question

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

Lance Armstrong has done nothing to quash rumors he wants to return to the Tour de France in 2009 after three full years of sitting on the sidelines watching his sport convulse, nearly crash out of contention and then scrape itself off the asphalt and try to move toward a more credible future.

If what VeloNews.com reported first is true and Armstrong plans to break the news in the monthly magazine Vanity Fair, some may find the name of the outlet fitting.

Confusion reigned as the rumors -- still unconfirmed by any of the principals -- bloomed like algae on the surface of the mainstream media. What in the world could be motivating him? It couldn't be money, and it couldn't be titles. Could it be ego? Altruism, in the form of increased revenue for cancer research? Boredom? Enough with the tabloid headlines and the blondes, already. The need to respond in a different way to the doping innuendo that never dies, even though Armstrong never tested positive, and that stirs afresh every time some ex-teammate gets caught?

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong might be plotting a comeback to cycling.

Chances are that if this story moves from the realm of the theoretical into the concrete, there's a bit of all of the above at work, but the last item on the list is the most elusive.

The seven-time Tour winner is said to be planning a comeback with Astana, where his former boss, Johan Bruyneel, runs the show. Last year, Bruyneel contracted with respected Danish anti-doping researcher -- and certified cynic -- Rasmus Damsgaard to put his riders under the microscope, in the form of rigorous out-of-competition blood testing that is designed to show suspicious deviations from an athlete's normal biological parameters.

The VeloNews report suggested that Armstrong will race in five big events, including the Tour of California, and put his testing numbers online to offer proof that he is not cheating. In so doing, he would be jumping on a bandwagon that got rolling only after he left the sport.

When the careers of other top riders began imploding one by one because of doping revelations, the industry realized it needed to take drastic measures to keep sponsors from bailing completely. Even Armstrong's own team, Discovery Channel, folded after it could not nail down the financial support to which it had become accustomed.

It was Bjarne Riis -- the 1996 Tour winner and Team CSC-Saxo Bank director who has copped to his own tainted past -- who first approached Damsgaard and implemented an independent program to back up standard anti-doping controls being done by the standard enforcers. Two U.S.-based teams, Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle, followed suit with a different testing agency, and there's little doubt that someday soon all of cycling will be under a similar umbrella.

As Armstrong's critics will be quick to point out, riding clean now would have no bearing on whether he was riding clean before. Half the peloton is probably in the same position. And it would be fascinating to see the reaction to his results. If he were to do exceptionally well, unlikely as that seems at age 37, some might draw the entirely logical conclusion that he was always the superior athlete of the bunch -- whether he was a clean guy among other clean guys or the other way around.

Then, picture the explosive debate if Armstrong couldn't perform at his former level. It makes you ponder what he has to gain, especially if he races in France, where lab technicians and L'Equipe writers must be dancing on tables right about now at the prospect. If he's aiming to raise funds and consciousness for cancer research, a cause everyone can get behind, why take the risk of re-entering an arena where so many things could go wrong and even his considerable skill at controlling the message isn't always effective?

Perhaps Armstrong is counting on the daring and unexpected nature of this exploit to make Act III of his career an irresistible draw. Perhaps he relishes the dilemma it would present for race organizers who have been trying to tighten their entry requirements and pick and choose who comes to the party.

It's doubtful that Armstrong would have to start a letlanceride.com campaign as supporters of his former teammate Levi Leipheimer did when their man, while not implicated in any scandal, was denied a chance to compete in the Tour because of Astana's exclusion. Wherever Armstrong goes, big money and big crowds follow. Cycling in Europe and North America is in far too tenuous of an economic position to refuse that possibility.

There's the small matter of how this would work in practical terms. It's a bit hard to imagine Armstrong riding in support of Leipheimer for a week or Alberto Contador for three weeks. But hey, Armstrong has surprised us before, and he likely wouldn't be alone in his novelty value, especially on the domestic circuit. Dethroned Tour winner Floyd Landis is eligible to compete next January and is reportedly team-shopping, his doping-related exile over. Rock Racing's Tyler Hamilton, banned for two years for blood doping he continues to deny, will be wearing the Stars and Stripes jersey of the national road champion after outfoxing the field to win in a photo finish a couple of weeks ago.

No matter what anyone says on the record, some people who love cycling are sure to be ambivalent about this Armstrong bombshell. No publicity is bad publicity for what is still essentially a niche sport, and Armstrong is a transcendent star. But it might be hard to avoid a sense that cycling, which has struggled so mightily to go forward, would be shifting into reverse.

It's as if an ex-president -- say, one whose tenure is remembered both for economic prosperity and a lurid sex scandal -- were to announce he was running again. It's as if your first serious squeeze -- the one you'd sort of rather remember the way they were, but secretly might be curious enough to see again -- sent you an e-mail. To paraphrase the slogan of a recent Internet ad featuring Armstrong, it might make you tired of being tired before it even starts.

Armstrong has every right to come back -- as Michael Jordan came back, as Brett Favre came back -- no matter what our fevered opinions may be on the subject and what tribal warfare might ensue. It's his legacy and his legs that would be on the line. If you think about it, it's not really that shocking. Absolutely nothing in this man's life has convinced him he can't win.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.