Armstrong to retire after ride in France

Six-time winner says this year's race will be his last as a professional


April 19, 2005|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUGUSTA, Ga. - His voice slipped a gear, just briefly. But Lance Armstrong has one of the world's great senses of balance, and he righted himself and rolled on with perhaps the second-most difficult announcement of his career.

The 2005 Tour de France "will be my last race as a professional cyclist ... win or lose," the six-time Tour champion said yesterday afternoon in Augusta, where he will take the start line today in the Tour de Georgia.

Winning would be his preference, of course - winning, he said, with the flair of Michael Jordan's farewell jumper in the 1998 NBA Finals.

"That's kind of like a dream for an athlete," Armstrong said. "We'll see if I can do it. No promises. There's 200 other guys who want to do that, too."

Jordan later altered that pristine image by coming out of retirement, something Armstrong insisted he won't do.

"The passion is there and the will to win is there and above all, the will to win one final [Tour] and then stop is pretty compelling," he said.

On the flip side and perhaps equally compelling is Armstrong's loathing of failure.

"All champions are concerned about losing," he said. "That's the fear that drives them and the fear that gets them up early. To look at your teammates, staff, sponsors and try to justify why you didn't win, especially a year like this when you won six times prior ... I don't want to face those types of questions from people very close to me. It's incredibly motivating."

Not since the 1996 news conference where a drawn but determined Armstrong, then 25, revealed that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer had he delivered news of such import. Beginning with his recovery, the Texan's ride has been straight, unequivocal and ever upward.

With his success in a sport long dominated by Europeans and his inspiring comeback from cancer, Armstrong became the first U.S. cyclist to transcend his sport and become a celebrity and marketing juggernaut. His stature has continued to rise despite repeated allegations of doping - none ever substantiated - and the divorce that ended his seemingly charmed marriage.

He said he is choosing to bow out now because he finds it more and more difficult to leave his three young children - a 5-year-old son, Luke, and 3-year-old twin daughters Isabelle and Grace - for long periods to race and train in Europe. He also said that at 33 going on 34, he knows the window of his prime is beginning to slide shut.

"The Tour, while it's an older man's race, it's not an old man's race," he said.

Yet Armstrong is still clearly getting used to the imminent new reality, blanching a bit when one reporter used a common verb. "Do we have to use the word `quit'?" he said.

Yesterday brought entirely different news for another prominent U.S. cyclist, Tyler Hamilton, who received a two-year suspension mandated by the International Cycling Union for illegal blood doping through transfusion.

Hamilton plans to appeal the ruling by an independent arbitration panel convened in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency hearing. If he does not succeed, the sanction could bring an effective end to the career of the 34-year-old Marblehead, Mass., native, who won an Olympic gold medal in the time trial event last summer.

Hamilton's problems began after he joined the Switzerland-based Phonak team as its leader last year. International anti-doping authorities notified Hamilton and his team that his blood tests showed some irregular results in the spring and summer of 2004.

After Hamilton's podium finish in the Olympics, his blood was found to be mixed with that of another person under a new test first administered in Athens. However, that test was nullified when the backup, or "B" sample, had been contaminated by improper storage and could not be analyzed.

Hamilton was tested again at the Tour of Spain in September and the result was positive again, this time confirmed by the "B" sample. Phonak fired him. Hamilton has vehemently denied cheating, claiming the test is unreliable.

Armstrong's friend and former teammate was perhaps the next best-known American currently riding.

After winning cycling's premier event for an unprecedented sixth time last summer, Armstrong began an internal debate about his next step.

He talked about taking a year off from the Tour to compete in other events or take a shot at the world hour record. He hedged until February before making a firm commitment to ride the Tour for the Discovery Channel team.

Last month, Armstrong began hinting that he had come to a major decision about his career. Speculation quickly spread that he had decided to retire after this season, or that he might ride in another event, such as the Tour of Italy.

Yesterday's announcement did not surprise several former teammates riding for other teams in Georgia, including Christian Vande Velde of Team CSC, who watched the announcement on television while receiving a massage.

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