Lance Armstrong continues to inspire |

Lance Armstrong continues to inspire

Jim Scripps

Every year basketball star Charles Barkley steps up to the first tee box at the celebrity golf tourney at Edgewood, and every year he whacks a crowd-pleasing dinger that runs any which way but straight. But this year was a little bit different, as the bulk of the gallery was cheering from one hole ahead of the former NBA MVP.

The crowd favorite Thursday was clearly seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who continues to attract the sporting spotlight even in retirement. On the day fellow American cyclist – and former Armstrong teammate – Floyd Landis donned the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, “Lance” is still the name Americans attach to the European sport.

Coming off hosting the ESPY Awards on Wednesday night, Lance was a little hoarse and road-weary as he prepared to play 18, but he apparently tapped into his endless well of energy, engaging the crowd with handshakes and autographs, and played a decent round of golf even after a long respite from the game. “This is the first time I’ve picked up golf clubs in over a year,” he told a packed press conference Thursday morning.

Lance used his one-day stop in South Tahoe to promote the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which is associated with American Century Investments, the company underwriting the tournament. Retirement hasn’t exactly been retirement for the cyclist, as he has been jet-setting, using his visibility to draw funding to cancer research – tens of millions of dollars. He continued that theme on Thursday, turning away from questions about this year’s tour, instead focusing on his foundation’s mission.

“The thing for us now is to mobilize all those people who bought yellow wristbands,” he said, referring to the fashionable “Livestrong” bracelets. “With an army like that, you can make a lot of change.”

He referenced cuts in government funding of cancer research, which he is personally trying to reverse by pressuring politicians – he even addressed the subject during a bike ride with President Bush. “The headline now is ‘Now is not the time to cut back … now is the time to accelerate,'” he said.

His passion for the subject is evident. “This is my new Tour de France,” he said. Cancer has had no greater foe.

Lance was scheduled to leave Tahoe on Friday for a quick couple days rest at home before jetting off to Europe for the final week of the tour. He said he had planned to lay low this year, but controversies over doping that disqualified some top riders, and slumping viewership, have inspired him to again use his name-recognition to bring viewers back to the sport he loves.

But even with the great Armstrong ratings absent from the tour, Lance remains optimistic about cycling’s future in the United States. Besides Greg LeMond, no other American rider has done as much as Lance to promote and enliven American interest in what is traditionally, and remains, a European sport.

“I think it’s significant that (Americans) are some of the best in the world at a sport that’s not our sport,” Armstrong said, referring to the efforts of general contender riders like George Hincapie, Landis and Levi Leipheimer. Local favorite, Reno-resident Bobby Julich, withdrew from the race after crashing and breaking his wrist in the tour’s first individual time trial. Lance went out of his way to give Landis props. “Although Floyd’s no longer on our team (Team Discovery), he’s in the yellow jersey now,” he told members of the press. “I hope he wins.”

What separates Armstrong from other cyclists, and even other elite athletes, is his ability to inspire, on and off his bike. That explains the throng of fans who followed him around the course. “Lance is better than the other golfers,” one kid in the gallery said. “He rides a bike.”

I couldn’t agree more.

– Jim Scripps, managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be reached at

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