Lance quits lap of honour as Landis looms
It is a simple fact that most careers in sport end in failure. Losing your place in the team, a defeat in a final or an unsuccessful attempt to recover from injury, even the greatest of champions rarely get out when the going's still good.
Lance Armstrong was one who did, though. In keeping with his remarkable comeback from cancer, he defied the usual script to leave the stage unbowed when he retired after his seventh Tour de France victory in 2005.
Set up for life financially and more famous than he could have ever imagined, Armstrong the athlete, the icon, the survivor, had transcended his sport. Now he was achieving every sportsman's dream, truly going out on top.
And then he came back.
Armstrong retired after his seventh Tour de France victory in 2005 Photo: Reuters
Why such a blessed and busy man would choose to tug fate's tail like this has been debated ever since he announced his decision to return but one thing is certain, the American's "retirement 2.0" is a far less glorious affair than his original farewell.
Whereas the backdrop to that goodbye was the Arc de Triomphe, the most memorable image of this exit will be the scrum of reporters who surrounded him at last month's Tour Down Under the day news broke of fresh doping allegations at home.
A week later, the last overseas stop on his farewell tour was over. The world's most famous cyclist had finished 67th and was so tired of questions about drugs tests and federal investigations he dived into a team car and sped away.
But what were the chances of those events going any differently to the Tour Down Under? Slim is the honest answer, not that Armstrong would ever admit to such negativity.
"I really can't say I have any regrets. It's been an excellent ride," the 39-year-old said in an understated interview with the Associated Press this week.
"I really thought I was going to win another Tour (in 2009). Then I lined up like everybody else and wound up third."
Back in 2008, when he stunned cycling with his plan to return to the peloton, his stated aims were different. He said he wanted to raise cancer awareness around the world and to repair damage done to his reputation by claims he had used performance-enhancing drugs to win those yellow jerseys.
To do this he would ride a more ambitious schedule than he had during his pomp (when his focus was almost exclusively on the Tour de France) and work with a leading expert to develop the world's most transparent anti-doping programme.
The anti-doping part of the plan was quietly dropped with various reasons given for its failure to take off. Armstrong sceptics saw it as another example of his inherent untrustworthiness, whilst his supporters thought there was no harm done; he was already the most tested athlete on the planet.
The truth is more complicated than that but facts have almost ceased to matter when it comes to Armstrong. As the author Daniel Coyle observed in his biography, "Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force", the Texan has become a belief system, a matter of faith.
With this in mind, it is possible to view his comeback as either a noble effort to inspire millions with another athletic miracle, or simply the latest self-serving stunt by an unrepentant cheat. Black or white, no shades of grey.
On a purely results basis, you would have to class his return as a failure. Third place in 2009 was a fine effort for a man of his age, particularly after a long break, but he never really looked like winning and winning is everything.
Worse was to come in 2010, when he fell off his bike so often you wondered if he would quit by the side of the road. That he kept going is indicative of his spirit but finishing 23rd was a major disappointment for such a proud competitor.
Two points have to be noted, however. One, he did take his cancer-can-be-beaten message to new audiences and his tireless work in this area is all that most of his fans need to sustain their belief in his fundamental goodness.
And two, his return reignited interest in the sport amongst the general audience, especially in America. His struggles on the bike even made him more popular in France. It humanised him and the locals responded with a warmer response than he had been given when he was destroying the opposition.
None of that cut much ice with his detractors, though. For them the defining moment of his career came when former team-mate and disgraced Tour de France winner Floyd Landis finally confessed his own guilt as a doper and pointed a large finger at Armstrong too.
Like Zhou Enlai's remark about the effects of the French Revolution, it is too early to tell what impact these claims will have on Armstrong's legacy. But they have already instigated the now infamous federal investigation into a possible doping conspiracy at Armstrong's US Postal team, formed the basis of a series of damaging articles in leading US publications (the most recent being the Sports Illustrated "Case Against" that ruined his Tour Down Under) and caused the cancellation of the American stretch of his lap of honour.
Armstrong's camp have been busy giving the impression they are confident this will be the extent of the Landis fallout. In another scoop for AP last week, "lawyers familiar with the matter" said it was unlikely Armstrong, who strongly denies the allegations, would ever face charges.
"I can't control what goes on in regards to the investigation," said Armstrong this week. "That's why I hire people to help me with that. I just keep rolling right along."
And why shouldn't he? After all, he knows better than most that charges or no charges, most minds are already made up when it comes to Lance Edward Armstrong and faith can climb mountains as well as he ever could.