FAUX STORY LINES. Lance Armstrong's return to the Tour de France was thought to be a novelty. The story had nice lines to it. A has-been champion coming out of retirement to once more ride in the race he once dominated. A senior on the PGA tour. Michael Jordan trying to get back in the game. A publicity stunt for cancer research. What harm could it do? You really couldn't take him too seriously. He was along for the ride.
THE JESTER STRIKES AGAIN. Some of these are story lines Lance himself has perpetuated since announcing his intention to come out of "retirement" last fall. And once again, the Texan with an unquenchable desire to dominate and a chip on his shoulder half a mile wide, along with a seasoned ability to seduce his rivals and the press with bait-and-switch tactics, has turned the tables. The jester strikes again.
TO BE RECKONED WITH. Four stages into the 21-stage Tour, Armstrong has emerged as the virtual leader and positioned himself as the man to beat. Again. Whether or not he ultimately wins is beside the point. The point is, Lance is back in full force, full physical capacity, full intimidating control. He is the man who will be reckoned with. Like it or not.
MAKING ADVANTAGE. By taking--or making--advantage in an opportune breakaway in Stage 3, Armstrong put himself into serious contention, moving from 10th to 3rd place. After Team Astana's dominating ride to win the Stage 4 Team Time Trial on Tuesday, it moved five riders into the top ten positions and severely diminished the chances of some of the Tour's top contenders. More importantly, it brought Armstrong to within 2 hundredths of a second of donning the Yellow Jersey.
THE WAY IT IS. Fabian Cancellara will wear the Maillot Jaune for a few more days. But Cancellara cannot climb mountains well. The Swiss champion is not in contention to win the Tour. Armstrong is the virtual Tour leader. Any doubts about that will only fuel his anger and bring humbling consequences to the riders and teams who seek to prove otherwise. Apparently, that's just the way a Tour with a healthy Lance Armstrong in it is.
FORGET ONE STORY LINE. No doubt, several main story lines remain. The rivalry between Armstrong and Alberto Contador is real and will play out. Astana's ability to hold together amid that rivalry is real. Armstrong's ability to respond to attacks in the mountains from contenders is a question mark. But forget the story line about the old man who made a cameo appearance in the most demanding sporting event in the world.