News reports following Lance Armstrong’s broken collarbone have emphasized that he still has a chance at “full recovery” to ride in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. We applaud the cycling community’s effervescent optimism. But let’s do a little reality-checking here.
We all know Lance is a tremendous champion and incredible physical specimen who has done great things in his career. But the guy is not Superman. Even without the injury, he was highly doubtful for completing both the Giro and Tour de France. Remember, at the top of his game, Lance didn’t even try to race both the Giro and the Tour. To suggest that he can come back from a broken collarbone to do much of anything in the Giro is simply wishful thinking. We can hope it will happen, but come on.
The Giro people understandably want to keep hope alive, especially given the PR value of Lance competing. But Lance himself already has cast doubt on the Giro. He may well “recover” in time, and may even be “fully” recovered. But recovered to where? At this point in the season he was in build mode, essentially training for the Tours. He still needs a bunch of road miles under his belt. A full recovery to this point in the season won’t be worth much in something as grueling as the Giro.
But health may be the secondary consideration to strategy here. If Lance rides the Giro, he opens the door to re-injury, whether by another crash or simply from riding in less-than-peak shape. If he suffers another bad break, it will put him out of the Tour for sure. Does he want to risk that? How much is the Giro worth to him if it means jeopardizing the Tour?
All this assumes some pretty big ifs as well. Broken collarbones do heal quickly. I had a similar injury at age 45 and was back on the bike, riding one-handed against doctor’s orders, within 10 days. After a month I could do pretty well. One thing about shoulder injuries is that they can actually make the shoulder stronger over time.
To suggest that Lance will be 100 percent within two to three weeks, though, is pushing it. The problem with a broken collarbone isn’t the healing, it’s the pain, especially standing and climbing. In the Giro, there’s plenty of that, and fairly early on.
Moreover, a recent crash does nothing for your confidence getting back on the bike. You cannot help but be a more cautious individual, your brain won’t allow it. I’ve seen this repeatedly with extreme sports mountain bikers. A bad crash or two pretty much ends their competitive career. In Lance’s case, the recent crash will play in his mind in any crunch situation, mitigating his past instinct to blast through.
There’s also luck. Lance had magical good fortune during his Tour years to avoid injury (he did crash a couple of notable times, but without hurting himself). The odds do catch up with you, especially as time passes and your skillz lose their edge, and your muscles their fast-twitch factor.
The relationship between steroids and other performance-enhancing medications and brittle bones also has been medically proven. To suggest a role here might be stretching it, and Lance continues to deny using anything. But many are skeptical, and the cloud of drug use over professional cycling throughout Lance’s career is well documented.
Finally there’s his age. Team doctors who say a rider can recover to top form within a month are talking about young riders in the prime of their career, and who are in top physical condition. Not only is Lance neither, he lacks the mileage base he could count on during his glory years. He hasn’t competed at world-class levels since 2005. That’s too long, no matter what his former accomplishments.
A sober, unflinching look at Lance’s chances suggests at the very optimum that he will show up for the Giro and ride till the going gets tough, then retire to focus on the Tour. As for the Tour itself, it’s all about the PR. Lance never did have a realistic shot at winning. But if he just shows up and actually finishes, especially given the injury, that will be a remarkable accomplishment in itself.