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THE SECOND COMING

The Second Coming is only a few days old, but the tone has been set for the next year, or two, or however long it is that Lance Armstrong is going to pedal his cancer-beating message around the world.

We?ve already had the immaculate conception, when it was announced just before Christmas that Armstrong?s current girlfriend is pregnant. I?m half expecting him to walk on water before the end of the week.

Australia has rolled out the red carpet, TV crews have swooned, journalists have laughed at his jokes and everyone?s had a very nice time without having to get bogged down with the business of asking any awkward questions. There seems to be a general feeling that Armstrong is great for business so let?s all just fill our boots while it lasts, but that doesn?t mean we should all switch off our critical faculties and allow important questions to go unasked.

In the nick of time, on the eve of his racing comeback, Armstrong revealed that Dr Don Catlin, the anti-doping expert, has hammered out a testing programme. However, details are still scant other than that samples could be frozen for between two and eight years to enable further testing should new substances and doping techniques emerge.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators have turned out to see him and, unsurprisingly, far greater interest has been paid to Armstrong than his actual racing performances deserve. Last year Matthew Wilson was 64th in the Down Under Classic, Armstrong?s finishing position in Sunday?s Cancer Council Classic, but he wasn?t asked whether he thought the racing was too fast, or the weather too hot by dozens of reporters.

Armstrong will no doubt be delighted. He?s front page news, and he will tell everyone that if he is front page news, then the cancer cause he is riding for is front page news, and that is all that matters.

But there is something about this comeback that just doesn?t add up.

I simply cannot fathom why this global tour has not been turned into a huge fundraising exercise. Perhaps he was concerned that if he set out to raise money, he?d be accused of gathering cash from around the world and channelling it his American-based, American-owned charity.

Instead, he?s trying to raise ?awareness?, which is a nebulous idea. How will he measure success? It seems that this comeback will be deemed a success if he says it is. And everyone will accept that and move on to asking him about what it?s like to be back in the bunch.

He says this isn?t about Lance it?s about cancer, so how does he explain the paintjob on his Trek LiveStrong frame? It shows such a stunning lack of self awareness I?m surprised he didn?t step in and stop it from happening. In case you haven?t seen it, the black bike has two numbers painted on it in yellow.

1,274 refers to the number of days since Armstrong last raced as a professional.

27.5 is the number of people, in millions, who have died from cancer around the world in that time.

Think about that for a moment. Armstrong, or his advisors, have chosen to see some significance in the number of people who?ve lost their life to the illness while he?s been ?eating burritos and drinking beer on the couch? instead of ?busting his ass eight hours a day?.

Surely it is crass in the extreme to think that those two figures are in any way linked. What possible relevance is there in referencing the number of deaths that have happened during an arbitrary period of time when a man has not been riding a bicycle for a living?

Then there is the question of start money. Armstrong says he is not being paid by the Astana team, but how much is he being paid to race in Adelaide this week, and what is going to happen to that money? As I wrote last week, that would ordinarily be a matter for the race organiser, Armstrong and his accountant alone. But if he wants to come back on a cancer charity awareness ticket, then his finances become relevant. He needs to start being transparent about that too.

[Updated: Armstrong did not confirm rumours that he's receiving $1m (Australian) for appearing at the Tour Down Under, but did say that any fee he receives will not be donated to the Lance Armstrong Foundation. He added that the fee he was receiving was not a 'race fee' but was in line with what he has been paid for public speaking engagements in recent years.]

To return to the quasi-religious theme at the start, it has long been clear that Armstrong has a divisive effect has his devout followers who can see no wrong, and the vehement critics and sceptics.

It is depressing is to see the number of disciples among the peloton, those who already seem awe-struck by his presence, grateful to rub shoulders with him and bask in the glow of ?racing with Lance?, while telling everyone how great it is he?s back.

Let?s all try to keep it in perspective. One of the by-products of Armstrong?s era of dominance was that cycling was on the verge of becoming all about the Tour de France and the Tour de France was all about Lance. Stage winners and those who enjoyed a day or two of glory in the yellow jersey were patronised, perhaps not intentionally, and became seen as a side-show rather than key strands in the race?s rich tapestry. The term ?pack-fodder? referred to those who were simply making up the numbers and it was almost derogatory.

Well now Armstrong is back, let?s keep it all in perspective and afford him the recognition befitting a man who has finished 64th, 120th and 45th in his three days of racing so far, because obsessing over the minutiae of his every action and reaction instead of subjecting him to a healthy level of scrutiny is not going to do cycling any good. Let?s leave the hero worship on the roadside and keep it out of the media.

ON THE HOME FRONT

The British domestic season is shaping up to be fascinating this season.

After Russell Downing?s dominance last year, there?s a chance he may not have it all his own way this time. Rapha and Halfords have strengthened, Plowman Craven and Pearl Izumi have joined forces, and the number of small but well-organised teams has grown. Kinesis, Sigma Sport, Sports Beans, BMC, Corley Cycles and the new team being put together by Pendragon Sports in the south west will all want to make an impression.

And there?s more racing too. The Premier Calendar has expanded and there will be three separate, high-level criterium series.

Plowman Craven have pulled off a coup too, getting an invite to the Tour of Majorca next month where they will go up against a host of top professional teams including Quick Step, Caisse d?Epargne, Rabobank, Columbia and Cofidis.

That is going to be a very stern test for the Plowman Craven boys, but a great experience nonetheless. The only concern is that it proves too much too early in the season. After the disappointments of last year, they will be only too well aware they need to get the odd Premier Calendar win or two this season, which won?t be made any easier after losing Simon Richardson to Rapha-Condor.

The big picture looks extremely encouraging and we could be on the verge of another 1980s-style boom in domestic racing with televised criteriums, a national tour and a strong series of Premier Calendar events. And more importantly, teams and riders ready to get stuck in and challenge Russell Downing?s superiority.

RELATED LINK
British teams make pre-season plans

CAVENDISH?S RISE WILL CONTINUE

It?s early days yet, but I?m going to stick my neck out and say that Mark Cavendish will win Milan-San Remo and Ghent-Wevelgem this season.

It?s a bold prediction, but before he headed to Majorca for Columbia?s training camp a couple of weeks ago, he said he?d had his best ever winter, was lighter than ever at this time of year, and felt like he was flying.

Reassuringly for his fans, he explained that it isn?t a case of being in good form too soon, more that he feels he?s stepped up a level over the winter.

We?ll have to wait and see, of course, but there?s every chance he could get the season off to a winning start in the Middle East. The Tour of Qatar starts on February 1 and if previous years are anything to go by, once the opening team time trial is out of the way, there?ll be a sprint finish every day.

It could be a week of Cavendish versus Tom Boonen showdowns in the desert.

As we approach the 2009 season, Cavendish is the third most successful British pro rider of all time, in terms of race wins. He has notched 28 in just two seasons, just three fewer than Malcolm Elliott. It won?t be long before Cavendish is in second place, closing in on Chris Boardman?s total of 41.

This year, I won?t be surprised if Cavendish is in the mix at Milan-San Remo. Many people will suggest that at 298 kilometres it?s too far, and that the hills are too much for him. After six grand tour stage wins last season, it would be unwise to rule anything out. If Milan-San Remo ends in a sprint, Cavendish will be a contender.

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009
January 14 ? So, Sir Alan rides a bike?

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