He has outraced cancer for almost five years and the rest of the world for the past three. But there is one opponent Lance Armstrong may never beat.
It's suspicion, and no matter how many times his tests come back clean, Armstrong knows suspicion never really goes away. He was prepared for that the day he set himself up as the beacon for drug-free performance in a sport shrouded by it. He's been asked to prove it over and over. So far, he's produced the goods.
If Armstrong isn't clean, his is the most audacious bluff since Milli Vanilli. And think about this: Even if he's clean, there's still no way to leave suspicion behind. It's easy to prove what's true, impossible to prove what's not. The best Armstrong can do is keep suspicion in his rearview mirror. And that's where it was Sunday, when he zoomed down the wide boulevard of the Champs-Elysees as Tour de France champion for the third year in a row.
''It's the best feeling of the last three,'' Armstrong said, struggling with the French words. ''As always, I am happy to finally arrive, to finally finish the Tour. It's a special feeling.''
What he lacked in proficiency for the native tongue, Armstrong more than made up for with his command of France's premier sporting event. He is the greatest racer in the world at the moment, Tiger Woods on pedals, still young enough that some of the sport's all-time greats see him winning several more before calling it quits.
Said Eddy Merckx of Belgium, who won four of his five in a row, ''He can rewrite the history books.''
And all along the way, there will be questions. How Armstrong got here no longer interests his critics as much as how he's managed to stay there. When Armstrong mounted his first successful run in 1999, the Tour was decimated by yet another drug scandal and in need of a fresh face. Promoters declared that year the ''Tour of Redemption'' and Armstrong, a cancer survivor with no drug allegations clouding his past, won the Stage 1 and quickly became their poster boy.
There was no suspicion then. The first and the ninth stage, his second win, were time trials over flat courses, and Armstrong had been the road-racing world champion in 1993, before testicular cancer struck. Beginning with stage 10, the mountains was supposed to bring Armstrong back to the pack. Instead, he went out and locked up the race with a dominating ride into the Alps. Suspicion latched onto his trail like a shadow.
What aggravates his critics is that Armstrong has become, if anything, even more dominant in the mountains. He entered the Alps 22 places behind the overall leader this year and left the Alps as the overall leader. His chief rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany, shook his hand and conceded a week ago.
''I tried everything to seek out the slightest weakness,'' he said, ''but Lance didn't have any.''
At least not on the bike. More and more, Armstrong has turned up on the fringes of some troubling circles. The Sunday Times of London published a Who's Who of Armstrong's shadier associates, including Dr. Michele Ferrari, an Italian awaiting trial on charges of providing illegal drugs to riders.
The newspaper also details accusations by others, named and unnamed, saying that Armstrong, his current coach, Chris Carmichael, and much of the U.S. Postal Service team advocated using EPO, a popular performance-enhancing drug implicated in the death of several European riders a decade ago. Armstrong has denied those accounts, even as he continues to defend Ferrari.
''Let's get all the evidence on the table,'' he said a few days ago. ''And then let's decide who's a sinner or a saint.''
Armstrong continues to insist he is neither, just an athlete who outworks everybody else. And at least he comes by his pain threshold honestly.
Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour, in 1986. He won it twice more in 1989-90 after returning from a hunting accident that nearly took his life. He said a climb in the mountains didn't seem as daunting, somehow, once you'd spent hours on an operating table while buckshot was being delicately carved out of your back and lungs.
Armstrong had something just as vile carved out of him, and you can bet he remembers how it felt. For a vicarious thrill, check out the training regimen on his Web site -- lancearmstrong.com.
A log of workouts from last winter shows him in the cold and wet of the mountains, training 70 of a possible 90 days. He only took two days off in February. On four rides, his recorded heart rate and aerobic conditioning numbers that look like he's testing the limits of human performance.
And leave it to sponsor Nike, the most cynical member of Armstrong's entourage, to come up with an ad that cuts right to the heart of the controversy.
''What am I on?'' Armstrong says in the voice over as he pedals furiously. ''I'm on my bike.''
He'd better be.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him firstname.lastname@example.org
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