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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

I watched Lance win those historic seven Tours de France, 1998 to 2005, and each time I found this almost miracle cancer survivor awe-inspiring, especially in his rabbit-quick, relentless cadence up the steep climbs that are unfathomable to us mere mortals. Yet each time I found this guy cold, arrogant, and highly unlikeable in his superiority. Each time I missed the affable Greg LeMond as our American cycling icon. Lance has been written and talked about by literally thousands of journalists, teammates, and fans. Praise has been heaped. Criticism has been peppered. But you will not find the words "warm," nor "endearing," nor "just plain likeable" associated with this champion.

Yet somehow my instincts tell me that these ungracious barbs about Lance from this year's Tour de France winner, Alberto Contador, don't fall into the same category as the long history of "unlikeables" that have been thrown Lance's way.

The Spaniard who won his second maillot jaune on Sunday has now said about his teammate, "We are totally incompatible. My relationship with Lance is zero. On a personal level, I have never had great admiration for him and I never will." Scathing remarks rarely heard from a teammate in any sport. Contador further raised eyebrows when being interviewed by French television on the Champs Elysses after the race. The question posed: "What was the hardest moment?" Contador soberly replied, "It was in the team hotel".

Well, we aren't privy to the inner sanctum of the Tour's teams yet my suspicion is that the friction between Alberto and Lance is that of two giant egos on the same team, each of whom felt the other should have humbly stepped down and worked for the other coming into the race. And when neither got that bow of respect from the other, the line was forever drawn between them.

For me, this time, after a near four-year retirement interim, watching a more vulnerable Lance, a somehow more fragile 37-year-old with deeper crevices on his face, a more compelling grimace of pain on his visage coming up the vertical ascents, this time as the former embodiment of perfection now climbed onto the unfamiliar third-place podium, this time I was more impressed than at any of the seven victories.

One is hard-pressed to make a list of athletes retired this long who come back to full form. Swimmer Dara Torres is the phenom of those rare few. With as many as seven years at a time out of the pool, Torres is tribute extraordinaire to pure natural ability. (And by the way, commentary on the controversial buoyant swim suits now being worn at the World Swimming Championships to come next week.)

Back to Lance. Off the bike four years and legs a bit weary through this year's comeback, he never threw up any excuses. He valiantly put his head down, silent and stoic, even when his teammate Contador left him in the proverbial dust a couple of crucial times on the most pressing climbs.

It was an openly awkward moment, Armstrong climbing the third-place place podium and barely offering an insincere handshake to the victor. Yet Armstrong was magnanimous in stating that he might not have won seven Tours, had the supremely gifted Contador been competing over those years. This time, to witness a dash of humility, a trace of weakness, made for the humanizing of Lance Armstrong. One might not go so far as to call him "warm and fuzzy" but this time, Lance's performance over the demanding three weeks was more moving than ever.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.


Banner image: Race winner Alberto Contador of Spain and Astana celebrates with second place Alex Schleck (L) of Luxembourg and Saxo Bank and third place Lance Armstrong (R) of USA and Astana on the podium after Stage Twenty One of the Tour de France on July 26 in Paris, France. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

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