For Armstrong, it's now or never

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

ISSOUDUN, France – Back three centuries to the turbulent times of the "Sun King," Louis XIV, being sent to Limoges wasn't a whole lot of fun. The irascible monarch made a habit of exiling out-of-favor acquaintances to the central French city, where they faced public embarrassment and the termination of their political ambitions.

Fast-forward to modern times, and Limoges meant only one thing for Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France field – rest.

The first day off for this year's Tour gave riders a rare opportunity to ease their wearied legs on Monday. But as the wheels started turning once more on Tuesday, the conjecture and speculation surrounding cycling's biggest name had not died down any.

Armstrong is the main course at dinner-table conversation around France as this nation of bike-racing experts analyzes his chance of adding to his collection of seven Tour titles.

The latest topic of debate surrounded his recent comments on French television that this year's event is "probably not" his last, and what those remarks really mean.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with Armstrong saying he wants to come back for another crack at the Tour in 2010. However, those close to him say the only reason for returning would be if he fails to win this time and still wants to tick No. 8 off his to-do list.

In essence, he is giving himself an out.

Perhaps it is understandable. Armstrong may be frustrated that his collarbone fracture in preparation for the Tour left him undercooked – and that he would have been primed for glory if not for that misfortune.

Yet there is no guarantee that things would fall into place for him next year. Armstrong needs to realize that his last chance could be this one – and realize it quickly.

Astana teammate Alberto Contador is the only legitimate threat to his title aspirations this year. But 12 months down the line, there could be far more obstacles littering his path.

Another year into the legs of Contador, or rising Team Saxo Bank star Andy Schleck, is like gas in the tank. For the soon-to-be 38-year-old Texan, though, it is more potential for wear and tear at the end of a magnificent career.

Then there is the question of where Armstrong would wind up next year. Astana doesn't look to be a viable option again, with the team paymasters looking to build a squad of young riders from Spain and Kazakhstan as their future.

Riding for a French team would be unlikely and, given the resulting circus of attention that comes along with Armstrong, there may not be a swath of teams queuing up for his services.

Many strong squads already have team leaders in place – on long and lucrative contracts – and no longer could Armstrong claim to be on board to act as a back-up man committed to shielding another man to success. This year's episode with Contador has shown that situation is untenable.

No, Armstrong has to do it now. In reality, this should be the Contador era, and it may be that the Spaniard rides away on a mountain pass over the next week or so and proves impossible to rein in.

But if Armstrong wants this – and you can bet your last wheel spoke he does – he needs to wrest it away.

After team manager Johan Bruyneel effectively cleared his two top men to go head to head, Armstrong needs to use every weapon in his physical and psychological armory to unsettle his colleague-turned-rival.

Leaving things down to a straight battle on Contador's favored climbing routes in the Alps will not get it done. Armstrong needs to take risks like never before, perhaps gambling on being part of an ambitious breakaway or even going for it himself with a cutting attack when he feels the time is right.

Because time, for once, is something Lance Armstrong doesn't have in his favor. It is now or never.

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