Rick Reilly's annual exercise in mistaking Lance Armstrong for Saint Sebastian is upon us, and once again it finds our correspondent at his subject's massage table, taking in the view.
Remember last year's column?
Armstrong is pushing himself so hard on this Tour that if you want to see him, you have to see all of him, butt naked, on the massage table. And so it was to this famous rump I asked: What would be sweeter, the first one, after surviving 14 tumors, or this one?
Rub. Knead. Pound.
"This one," he finally said, "because, even to me, it seems impossible. Even in the eyes of the experts, this is absolutely crazy. You can't get away from the facts: I'm an old guy. But, damn, I've worked hard. If I win, I'll have worked harder for this one than any of the other seven."
Here's this year's edition:
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for one last look at the god, the cheater, the hero, the fraud, the miracle, the doper, the inspiration to millions, the brains behind the con, the greatest comeback kid ever minted.
That's him — on the little sofa in his hotel room, wearing just a hand towel, eating tuna out of Tupperware and checking his cell phone with a sigh.
You start to believe him. His body looks sharper, harder than it has in five years. "I'm better than last year," Armstrong says. "I'm stronger. I'm in better shape. I came in a little flat last year. Not this year. … I know most people think I can't do this, but there are a few people out there that think I can. Right, Richard?"
His masseur, Richard, looks up from tenderizing Armstrong's right thigh and flashes a huge grin. "Oh, ya! Absoloootely, ya!"
There are few more mutually beneficial pairings of author and subject in all of sports than Rick Reilly and Lance Armstrong. In Reilly, Armstrong gets a credulous sap who'll gussy up his festering persecution complex — at this point he's a cocker spaniel and a helicopter shy of Dick Nixon — and make him look like Gil Thorp. In Armstrong, Reilly gets a classic Rick Reilly hero, an after-school special on a bike. (This latest column goes hilariously off the rails when Reilly admits queasily to some doubts about Lance's chemical makeup: "And if [McGruffian crime dog Jeff Novitzky] can find proof that Armstrong doped — proof, not stories — then Armstrong would become the nail, not the hammer. Hang him off the Eiffel Tower." Only a child would be shocked that a former multi-cycle chemo patient trying to pedal a bike very fast up very big mountains on one testicle might seek out "unnatural" enhancement in a competition that wouldn't exist without it. Only an idiot would want to string him up for doing so. (Hell, if it were me, I'd cram a couple Walgreens pharmacies into the team car and let Prof. Julius Kelp ride shotgun.) For now, these two are perfect for each other, and maybe their tender moments at the massage table, weird as they may seem, offer an entirely fitting tableau: two asses, completely exposed.