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The cycle of life

Lance Armstrong rode toward the Arc de Triomphe during the parade after Sunday's 20th and last stage, a 63.7-mile course from Longjumeau to Paris. 
Lance Armstrong rode toward the Arc de Triomphe during the parade after Sunday's 20th and last stage, a 63.7-mile course from Longjumeau to Paris.  AP

Lance Armstrong could never leave well enough alone.

For all his other traits, that restlessness still defines him. It propelled Armstrong to revolutionize a sport, become its greatest champion and a hero to cancer survivors worldwide. That impulse is what drove him to get back on his bike barely two years ago and risk it all.

Then, Armstrong was retired with his legacy largely intact, every bit as powerful and public a figure as he desired. He dated starlets, swapped text messages with Bono, testified before lawmakers and linked arms with Bill Clinton to announce a global initiative to combat the disease that nearly killed him almost 15 years earlier.

Yet this Sunday saw Armstrong shuffled to the background at the Tour de France, standing quietly to one side as the yellow jersey he wore seven years in a row was stretched across the shoulders of Alberto Contador.

Seeing his one-time teammate and rival atop the podium for the second straight year, and third in the last four, certainly hurt. Armstrong finished third to Contador in 2009, in his first comeback ride after a layoff that stretched back to 2005.

This time, he was plagued by cobblestones and flat tires, caught up in crashes and no longer a factor even before the midway point of the race. He faded to 23rd, almost 40 minutes behind the winner.

Armstrong, scraped up and sore as any 38-year-old could ever be, didn't quit.

But being an also-ran was never good enough for Armstrong. And the sting of this defeat could linger because of a federal investigation launched this year after accusations of doping by Floyd Landis, another ex-teammate, that one or more of Armstrong's seven tour titles were achieved by doping.

"In 10 years, when I look back on the 2010 Tour ... obviously I won't have a yellow jersey to remember," Armstrong said Sunday, before the final stage run-in. "I'll remember the team, digging deep to win .... I'll remember having my son here for a week at the Tour. I'll remember the bad luck, certainly, the crashes.

"But that," Armstrong added, referring to Landis' allegations, "won't be the thing that I'll take away."

Armstrong is perhaps the most frequently tested athlete on the planet and has never come back dirty. But he learned early on that wouldn't be enough to keep suspicion at bay.

Late in the first of his seven straight wins, in 1999, Armstrong was found to be using a corticosteroid — in a cream for saddle sores, he maintained — and for which he produced a prescription.

"They say stress causes cancer. So if you want to avoid cancer, don't come to the Tour de France and wear the yellow jersey," he said then. "It's too much stress."

Whether as plaintiff or defendant, Armstrong has won every court case he fought since, and pushed back hard against attempts to nail him by French anti-doping authorities, several damaging books and even questions about some of his associates.

As a result, he won benefit of the doubt and nearly every case he's contested in the court of public opinion, too. It didn't hurt that he proved to be as tireless and relentless a crusader for cancer research as he was a rider.

Yet the ongoing investigation, trumpeted in headlines even as he raced, have put both that record and his legacy in jeopardy.

"Legacies won't ever be written the same now, like they were before — in this era of 24-7 news and media, and blogs and speculation and the constant need for attention from the media," he said. But he said: "If Frank Sinatra lived today, he'd have a much more difficult time being Frank Sinatra."

Whether that applies to being Lance, time will tell.

During his run, Armstrong also boasted the most money, best team, support staff and state-of-the-art equipment. He might jet to train on the moonscapes of Tenerife, up to the tip of L'Alpe d'Huez, or rent a wind tunnel to find out if the material on his jersey bunched up too much.

"It was a very traditional sport, very old school, almost relaxed," he said. "We just wiped it all clean and said, 'We're going to analyze every little thing — if it's the composition of a team, if it's a diet, if it's reconn-ing the courses, if it's the tactics, if it's radios, whatever it is — we sort of led the push there."

When he walked away in 2005, he was determined not to let his accomplishments — and the controversies — define him. He is still so.

"I gave up fighting (public opinion) a long time ago," Armstrong said. "It's not going to stop me from running my foundation. It won't stop me from being a good father to my kids. It won't stop me from doing whatever I want to do with my life."