Ron Agostini

February 18, 2009

Agostini: Armstrong's popularity has transcended sports

Let's find the most obscure place on the planet, the darkest corner of Way-Out-There Land, and quiz the citizens: Who floats your boat? Who has made a difference? Who rises above the rest?

Let's find the most obscure place on the planet, the darkest corner of Way-Out-There Land, and quiz the citizens: Who floats your boat? Who has made a difference? Who rises above the rest?

And here are the results from our oh-so-unscientific poll: Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Tiger Woods, Madonna, Michael Phelps, Mother Teresa, Paris Hilton, Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong.

Just kidding about Paris Hilton. Not kidding at all, however, about Armstrong.

He's a body of work in both the figurative and literal sense. When he rode into town -- as he did on rain-slickened streets Tuesday to wrap up Stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California -- Modesto took notice. And so did the rest of the world.

Armstrong has called the Amgen tour the "best race outside Europe." And even as he returns to the main stage after 3½ years of retirement, he still moves the needle like no other. He's more a brand name than an athlete.

Apparently, small things bore him. He deals with capital-letter stuff, like winning the Tour de France seven times after kicking metastasized cancer, then raising more than $250 million through "Livestrong" for cancer awareness.

You want "big," look up Lance Armstrong, which is why he belongs on the A-list.

So it hardly mattered that he didn't he didn't rock anyone's world during Stage 3's climbs over Sierra Road and Patterson Pass. For the record, Armstrong stayed in lurking position in the overall standings, behind Astana teammate and leader Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa.

"Nobody likes to ride in this," Armstrong said of the weather before the race. "At least we're (Astana) starting up front and dictating the race."

The scene post-race at the Townhouse Lodge, the Astana headquarters, became the temporary pulse center of international bicycle racing. More than 100 of Armstrong's best friends huddled in pouring rain, hoping for a glimpse of The Great Man.

There was none. Armstrong wasn't available after the stage.

Downstairs, mechanics washed bicycles, storing them for the trip south to Merced for the start of Stage 4.

Fact is, Armstrong, 37, has targeted his comeback for the twin monsters of European racing this summer -- the Giro de'Italia and, of course, the Tour de France. Then again, the mere fact he's returned to the arena, buzzing past Modesto Junior College and to the finish line a block from the Gallo Center for the Arts, says something about his appetite for greatness. Something like, "I'm still hungry."

In this way, he's no different from the rest of our established icons. Like Michael Jordan and others who couldn't let go, Armstrong boomeranged back to his comfort zone -- back on two wheels, feeling the burn, chasing self-imposed goals.

Not that he didn't try to walk away. Like we said, the man is not about understatement. You don't carry on romances with the likes of Kate Hudson, Sheryl Crow and Ashley Olsen and enjoy giving up the lead role. He thought he would be content retelling his amazing story and turning Livestrong into an empire.

Alas, he rediscovered who he really was, and he owned up to his restart. "We want athletes to be perfect and we want them to hit the game-winning shot, walk away and never come back," Armstrong told the Sacramento News & Review. "Sometimes, (the athlete) gets in the locker room and says, '(Bleep) it. I want to come back.' And that happened to me."

Armstrong, inspired last summer by 41-year-old five-time Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, reconnected last summer with longtime trainer Peter Park of Santa Barbara. At the time, Armstrong's weight had ballooned to 190 pounds -- 30 pounds heavier than his prime -- through weight work and, as Park put it, "core-eating habits."

"Right now, at this time of year, he's in better shape than normal," Park said. "And more important, his mind is clear. He knows he's clean (from all the drug allegations over the years) so that doesn't bother him."

There is evidence to suggest Armstrong must knock off some predictable rust. Questions linger about his renowned power in the climbs and his time-trial prowess. He placed 29th last month during the Tour Down Under in Australia. The conventional wisdom insists Armstrong is content being a "domestique" in California for Leipheimer, the 2007 and 2008 Amgen tour champion. So far, the game plan has held true to form, Tuesday's crash with Leipheimer notwithstanding.

"I'm delighted to help Levi," Armstrong said before the race. "I'm trying to get ready for July."

But Armstrong's pace will change at some point during the Tour's remaining five stages. Why? Because he's Lance Armstrong.

"He'll show his strength somewhere," Park promises.

In truth, Armstrong already has trumpeted his power. He's enlivened a great sport weakened in recent years by steroid charges and, of course, Armstrong's exit. Closer to home, his mere appearance further legitimized the revitalization of downtown Modesto, much less a 4-year-old event growing in stature.

It's enough for people, from Motown to all those faraway outposts, to echo the same sentiment about Armstrong: Thanks for putting more joy back in our ride.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at

or 578-2302.

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