Don’t write off Lance Armstrong but the facts are worrying

SPARE a thought for Maggie Barton – who claims to be Lance Armstrong’s biggest fan and boasts a tattoo to prove it.

BACK IN THE DAY: Lance Armstrong pulls on the yellow jersey during his last Tour de France win in 2005. But will it ever happen again, current evidence makes for worrying reading for his legion of fans (Getty Images)

As her hero struggled on the Alpe Di Suisi during Tuesday’s Giro d’Italia, she was back at her Texas souvenir shop in an out-of-town shopping mall on the outskirts of Austin.

In the days before Armstrong’s bid to win a record seventh Tour de France, Maggie was busying with her stock.

She sells cowboy boots, cowboy hats and even cowboy chaps, which are available for ages three and upwards.

And for just $20 you could buy one of her specialty Armstrong T-shirts with slogans like “In Lance We Trust’ or “Call it the Tour de Lance and be done with it”.

But the best seller came in any colour – as long as it was yellow.

On the front it proclaimed: “France 0 USA 6” while the back featured Armstrong’s image surrounded with the words: “Don’t Mess with Texas”.

Back then, Maggie was in no doubt that ‘her man’ would be triumphant on the Champs Elysees.

“It’s a done deal, dahling,” she drawled.

And she was right.

But she was also in no doubt that he would promptly retire and finally enjoy some well-earned rest.

She was wrong.
TOUGH DAY: Lance Armstrong lost three minutes on the leaders during stage five of the Giro d’Italia – Russia’s Denis Menchov won the stage (Getty Images)

Armstrong has made dogged single-mindedness a personal and commendable trademark and has inspired millions in the process.

So it would be unwise to write him off following a couple of disappointing days in the Dolomites on his comeback Grand Tour.

However, it’s hard to avoid comparisons and facts and evidence are stubborn things.

Armstrong has also made no secret that his role in Italy is to support Levi Leipheimer, considered Astana’s best hope for the maglia rosa.

Leipheimer put in a solid shift on the Alpe di Siusi, finishing just nine seconds behind stage winner Denis Menchov.

But team orders seemed bizarre.

While he battled at the front of the field with only Chris Horner for support, Armstrong was nursed up to the summit by a protective posse that included Janez Brajkovic, David Navarro and Jose Luis Rubiera.

But remember he has only just returned from a broken collarbone, which put his Giro participation in severe jeopardy just a few weeks ago.

While Armstrong has also made timing his run to form to July – when the going in the Tour starts to really steepen – an art-form.

Too many times have his rivals started to doubt him, only for the script to be all too familiar by the time they reached the Champs Elysees.

Jan Ullrich even wrote a book on it.

But that was then and the glories of the past shouldn’t shout louder than the facts of the present.

Armstrong admitted before the stage that he might lose two minutes on the leaders.

In the end he lost three – ‘it’s not bad considering’ he twittered from the team bus.

Not bad considering what?

Not bad considering I’ve just returned from a collarbone injury and my focus in on the Tour de France.

Or, not bad considering I’m 37 years old for Christ’s sake and this is my first serious bike race in four years.

Time will tell which is correct.