Lance Armstrong's final lie?

He would also like people to know he really was clean when he came out of retirement for the 2009 Tour de France. He cleaned up along with everyone else once the nearly foolproof doping-detection method known as the "biological passport" came in, which was why the whole antidoping inquisition was pointless. The problem was already solved. Before his comeback, he called the infamous doctor Michele Ferrari, subject of so many doping rumors and investigations, and asked if he could still win the Tour clean. Ferrari said he had to run some numbers. Later he called back. "If you're lucky."

The antidoping agency accused him of cheating anyway, saying there was a one-in-a-million chance that Armstrong didn't have transfusions of his own blood in '09. "Bullshit," he says. "They'll find out someday, 'cause they'll perfect that transfusion test. And I'll be the first guy to say 'Use it.' "

From Lance Armstrong in Purgatory: The After-Life in Esquire.

Two years ago I saw Alex Gibney's documentary The Armstrong Lie at TIFF. Betsy Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters were at the Q&A afterwards. One of the things in the documentary that struck me was that though Armstrong confessed all of his doping to Alex Gibney in an interview that was shot immediately after the confession to Oprah, Armstrong still insisted that he did not dope in his comeback to the Tour de France in 2009. He said he made a promise to his wife Kristin that if he came back to the sport he would do it clean.

Most everything that can be written or said about Armstrong has been already. This mystery remains: why does he hold on to his insistence that he raced clean in his comeback? Is it because he didn't win those two Tours in his two comeback years and, his competitive juices still flowing, feels he was racing against cyclists who were doping? Is it just a point of pride for him, one tiny consolation for those who feel the rest of his cycling career was tainted by the doping scandal?

In The Armstrong Lie, Gibney followed Armstrong on his comeback in 2009 and 2010. The 2009 Tour was not, given Armstrong's expectations, a success. When put to the test in early mountain stages, he could not stay with overall Tour contenders like teammate Alberto Contador or Andy Schleck.

He had one late minor triumph, however. On stage 20, which ended with a climb up the legendary Mont Ventoux, Armstrong stayed with the top Tour racers all the way to the top. It was like an aging superstar summoning one final hurrah. The next morning, the headline of L'Equipe read “Chapeau Le Texan” (hats off to the Texan).

Andy Schleck, who finished second in the 2009 Tour, just ahead of Armstrong, believes Armstrong raced clean that year.

"He made his comeback and he was beaten in the first year by Alberto and me," said Schleck, who is in Australia to ride the Tour Down Under, first event of the 2013 WorldTour.

"So, in my eyes, I was clean. I know I was always a clean rider and I keen on riding clean. So why should he be behind me?

"I believe in his comeback that he was clean."

Bradley Wiggins, who finished in fourth, just behind Armstrong, thinks the idea that Armstrong was clean in 2009 is bollocks.

“When he said that about 2009-10, I thought 'you lying b------',” said Wiggins, recalling two particular mountain stages in the 2009 event. “I can still remember going toe to toe with him and watching the man I saw on the top of Verbier in 2009 to the man I saw on the top of Ventoux a week later when we were in doping control together. It wasn't the same bike rider.”

Because 2009 was raced with under the new biological passport program, we have data with which to assess Armstrong's performance that year, and several people pointed out some suspicious values in the data.

Here are Armstrong's blood and urine test results from 2009:

Look at the scores from 7/2, just before the Tour de France started, to 7/25, or stage 20 of the Tour, which ended with the climb up Mont Ventoux.

The data that some flagged as suspicious were his Hemoglobin and Hematocrit % from July 2, just before the Tour started, to stage 20 on July 25, the day Armstrong kept up with the race leaders on the climb up Mont Ventoux, looking to be in better form than he had the entire Tour.

Most cyclists see declines in hemoglobin and hematocrit levels during the three grueling weeks of a grand tour, so the fact that Armstrong's levels stayed dipped some the first week of the Tour and then bounced back to pre-Tour levels, with a spike from July 11-14, indicates to those who were suspicious of Armstrong (and these days, it's hard to find anyone that isn't) that he performed blood doping or took EPO during the race.

One's hydration level can swing those scores, so it's not a foolproof data point, but if you're inclined to doubt, the value changes from 7/20 to 7/25 support a constructed narrative that have Armstrong, suffering to hold onto his podium spot, taking a bag of blood sometime before the stage up the grueling Mont Ventoux to hang onto the final step of the podium. Indeed, Armstrong finished the Tour in third place, holding off Bradley Wiggins by 37 seconds.

I suspect it's hard to find too many people who believe that Armstrong was really clean in 2009, and yet Armstrong still clings to that claim with his well-chronicled Texan defiance.

There is one other theory about why Armstrong hangs on to this one last story of competitive integrity, and that is a legal one. I've heard from reporters who've covered the Armstrong story that there is a five year statute of limitations and that Armstrong had to claim innocence in 2009 to prevent more organizations from coming after him for various prize and sponsorship money. Given the slew of legal actions against him, it could be that his innocence in 2009 is critical to him maintaining financial solvency.

Now that we're in 2014, that statute of limitations is close to expiring. Perhaps at that point Armstrong will confess to doping even in his comeback, and the final few tumbles from grace will complete themselves.