PHILADELPHIA -- As Lance Armstrong was climbing steadily to the summit of professional cycling's holiest of Ziggurats -- reeling off two, three, four, five, "six, SEVEN straight wins in the Tour de France during his remarkable comeback from the cancer that nearly killed him -- followers, fanatics and doubters struggled to find an apt historical comparison within the sport.
The handiest and most recent was that of Miguel Indurain, the impassive Spaniard whose five Tour wins, the previous record held by Indurain and three others, were also consecutive. While the domination was similar, the riders were not.
Big Mig ground up the mountains with a massive engine and blew away the fields in time trials, but it was a day's work and nothing personal. When he tired of the thing, he smiled and walked away.
Armstrong always rode angry. He was angry at the French team that cut him when he contracted cancer, angry at those who always believed that he was a doper, angry at the competitors who dared to challenge him, angry at the Tour organizers who designed the route to beat him (or so he convinced himself), angry, angry, angry. He stoked that anger into a white-hot competitiveness that seared the field seven straight times.
The better comparison for the style of Armstrong -- and a fascinating one this year as Armstrong comes back to attempt an eighth Tour win starting on Saturday -- is with Bernard "The Badger" Hinault, a winner of five and the last Frenchman to take the honor.
"I race to win, not to please people," Hinault said famously, and Armstrong would salute that flag.
Hinault's last win came in 1985, when he was helped to the top step of the podium by young American teammate Greg LeMond. The following year, the 31-year-old Hinault pledged to return the favor and ride in support of LeMond.
It didn't work out that way, however; at least in the view of LeMond, who believed that his teammate betrayed him and tried to break him. LeMond still won the race, with Hinault finishing second, three minutes behind. Hinault always maintained he was working to destroy the rest of the field, not LeMond. Whatever, but the two men are not friends to this day.
The circumstances aren't exactly the same, but the dynamics are very similar on Armstrong's Astana team this year. Theoretically, the team, including Armstrong, will ride in support of Alberto Contador, who, at 26, has become just the fifth rider in history to win all three of cycling's grand tours.
Somewhere between Saturday's Stage 1 time trial and the Stage 20 summit of legendary Mont Ventoux, the wind-blasted, limestone blister that rises from the fields of Provence, it will become clear which rider is the strongest and who is riding for whom.
That's really the only question. The Astana team assembled by team director Johan Bruyneel, who guided Armstrong's wins with U.S. Postal and Discovery (as well as Contador's with Discovery), could be the equal of his earlier powerhouses.
"I cannot see who can beat Team Astana in the Tour de France this year," said former rider Paul Sherwen, who once again will handle the commentary on Versus along with Phil Liggett. "I think it's an interesting role for Johan, a role he's never actually had before, with (multiple) serious contenders to win the race."
Aside from Armstrong and Contador, the team has U.S. rider Levi Leipheimer and German veteran Andreas Kloden, along with former Discovery teammate Yaroslav Popovych. Those five riders have 16 podium finishes in the grand tours among them.
Contador wasn't all that happy when Armstrong announced his comeback in September and joined Bruyneel with Astana. The team director assured Contador he was still the team leader, but everyone knows the title is only as good as the previous stage.
"I think we will rally around the strongest rider," Leipheimer said. "Whoever that is will have the full support of the team. I think we have a strong enough team to support multiple leaders."
The Tour has drifted along a bit since Armstrong's retirement after his 2005 win. Oscar Pereiro became the default winner in 2006 when Floyd Landis tested positive for testosterone and was stripped of the yellow jersey. Contador won in 2007, but only after race leader Michael Rasmussen was fired by his team with four stages to go for suspicion of doping. Last year, the race was won by Carlos Sastre of Spain, who took only one chance in three weeks, albeit on the punishing switchbacks of Alpe d'Huez, and simply outlasted a field diluted by the absence of Astana -- which was not invited because of past problems -- and the absence, usually through their own fault, of many other top riders.
The thrill returns this time, however, largely because the presence of Armstrong will cast a glaring spotlight on the proceedings, probably enough to melt away challenges from other overall contenders such as Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), and Sastre (Cervelo).
In all probability, the strongest challenge for the right to lead the winning team down the Champs-Elysees will come from within the ranks of Astana.
Unlike Hinault in 1986, Armstrong has pledged only to ride as well as he can and do what is best for the team. If Contador proves himself the better rider, there is little doubt Armstrong will become a gracious teammate.
But there is also little doubt that Armstrong will make Contador prove it.
Therein lies the drama in a wonderful event that has been slightly lacking in drama for, oh, about four years. It marks the theatrical return of another man who races to win, not to please.
Open the starter's ramp in Monaco, if you will. Let them begin. This one should be very interesting.