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Lance takes a chance

By Tom Fordyce

What started with whispers among cycling insiders a few weeks ago, grew into a media frenzy and was then denied by all parties has now been confirmed - Lance Armstrong is coming back for another tilt at Le Tour.

His brief video statement on his website and interview with Vanity Fair, however, left most other questions unanswered.

WHY IS HE DOING IT?

The official reason Armstrong gave was "in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden".

But as with most things with the controversial Texan, there is more to the story than first meets the eye.

Within minutes, his lawyer, confidante and former manager at the Discovery team Bill Stapleton was saying, "We're not going to try to win second place."

Lance Armstrong
Armstrong's shadow still hangs over cycling

In other words, it was more than just the ultimate sponsored bike ride. The old competitive spirit, the desire to conquer the world, still burns strong.

You can probably rule out direct financial gain, even if the rumours that Armstrong won't ask for a salary turn out to be merely that. Armstrong's existing sponsorship deals with Nike and Trek bikes and his lucrative public speaking engagements have kept him in the style to which he became accustomed as the best-paid rider in the world.

Ignore too his comments a few years ago about threatening to return just to annoy the French. That's just Lance's bellicose idea of fun.

There's a theory doing the rounds that he's doing it in part to prove his previous seven victories were clean, although the counter-argument is that adding a few more negative tests to the piles of previous ones won't convince the doubters either way.

It's almost sad in some ways. You can't spend your whole life being a beauty queen

Chris Boardman
Britain's former Tour de France rider Chris Boardman, who wore the yellow jersey on three occasions after prologue victories in 1994, 97 and 98, believes there's something more complicated going on.

"My guess is that he's struggling with the cold turkey after being top of the world in cycling," Boardman told BBC Sport. "Suddenly you're out in the real world - what are you going to do with the rest of your life?

"Sportsmen who have retired can look back through rose-coloured spectacles and forget how hard it was, how small some of the differences were.

"It's almost sad in some ways. You can't spend your whole life being a beauty queen - it'll start to fade. There are other things in life. At some point, you have to move on."

Tellingly, just two months ago Armstrong told Cycling News: "I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the camaraderie of a team. Guys like George Hincapie and of course Johan Bruyneel were really important parts of my whole day-to-day set up."

IS HE TOO OLD TO BE COMPETITIVE?

Armstrong will be 37 by the 2009 Tour de France. Only one rider over the age of 34 has ever won the Tour before, and that was 87 years ago.

Few observers, however, think his age alone will be a major barrier.

"Most people retire in their early to mid 30s, because they just don't have the passion for it any more," says Boardman. "You've just had enough. That's the bit that gives out. But he's never really stopped.

"Whether there's any physiological aspect that would stop you at 37 that wouldn't have stopped you at 32 I would doubt."

606: DEBATE
BBC Sport's Phil Harlow

Robbie Ventura rode alongside Armstrong as part of the US Postal team and is now a coach.

"Physically, Lance can definitely do it," he says. "The hardest part will be to go back to the mental discipline of training, eating and sleeping with 110% commitment. Snapping your brain back into a mode of being perfect all the time is difficult."

In his interview with Vanity Fair, Armstrong referred to the examples of 41-year-old Olympic medallist swimmer Dara Torres and 38-year-old Olympic marathon gold medallist Constantina Tomescu-Dita.

Astana team doctor Pedro Celaya, who worked with Armstrong during his seven Tour de France wins, sees closer parallels within their own sport.

"(Spaniard) Joan Llaneras won two medals in the 2008 Olympics (gold in the points race, silver in the Madison) at 39," he says. "[Vyacheslav] Ekimov raced until he was 41. Davide Rebellin is still racing and he's 37."

Boardman for one is refusing to back against another Armstrong Tour win.

"Everything that we know about him would suggest that he doesn't do anything unless he's got a good idea of how it will turn out.

"But if he rides the same as he did before, he's probably got an even bigger gap over the rest than he did before. I'm sure there are a lot of riders who are thinking, 'Oh no, why can't he just go away?'"

WHO MIGHT HE RIDE FOR?

Throughout Armstrong's glory years, team manager Bruyneel was his key lieutenant, overseeing training schedules, race strategy and team tactics. So when Armstrong's comeback became public knowledge, it seemed obvious that the pair would once again link up, this time at Bruyneel's current team Astana.

Then the waters muddied.

Johan Bruyneel
Bruyneel this week described Armstrong as "exceptional"

"Armstrong is not part of our team," Astana spokesman Philippe Maertens said. "Team Astana has no plans with him."

Astana also carry no guarantee of an entry into next year's Tour, having been excluded from this summer's race by Amaury Sport Organisation, who run the event.

The official reason given was that the positive test of former rider Alexander Vinokourov in 2007 had brought the Tour into disrepute, yet some cycling insiders say it was also because of issues ASO had with Bruyneel.

Then there's the fact that Astana already have a high-profile number one rider, 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador, as well as Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer.

Speculation began to mount that Armstrong might be about to put together a new team - only for Bruyneel to admit that he'd spoken to Armstrong on Tuesday night.

"I said to him, 'There are a lot of things we have to talk about,'" said Bruyneel. "'If you are a professional cyclist I can't imagine you would make a comeback with any other team.'"

Contador then said that he would "open the door" if Armstrong wanted to join his team. "I would be proud to race with him," he said.

In Boardman's mind, there's no doubt. "He'll go with Astana," he says.

"There's no point making work when you don't have to. Everything's set up for him.

"There's no other option for him. With where he's starting from now, regardless of who he is, it's too late. Riders have signed contracts, manufacturers are in place, so are the mechanics and the people who'll drive the cars.

"He'll have to choose an existing team, and that's the only one for him. I can't believe he hasn't announced it already."

Bob Stapleton, manager of Team Columbia, agrees.

"Anything other than Johan or Astana is very unlikely. It doesn't make any sense otherwise. It is much easier to go back and put together what he had."

WHERE COULD THE COMEBACK START?

There are reports that Armstrong will race five events in 2009: the Amgen Tour of California (14-22 February), Paris-Nice (March), the Tour of Georgia (April), the Dauphine Libere stage race (June) and the Tour de France (July).

"He's being very selective," says Boardman.

"The only slightly dodgy one might be the Dauphine, because it's like a mini Tour de France. You have to be very disciplined and not try to be there at 100%.

"Although it's been done before, winning the Dauphine is usually a precursor to doing badly at the Tour. The start of the Dauphine to the end of the Tour is usually eight or nine weeks, and you just can't stay at the top of your form for that long."

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR CYCLING?

Enormous publicity, for starters. Whether it's good publicity or bad depends on your point of view.

For those who see Armstrong as one of modern sport's great heroes, it's the best thing that could possibly happen to a sport that has lacked household names and good news since he retired.

To those hoping for a clean break from the Armstrong era, a time when so many of his contemporaries (Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Iban Mayo, Vinokourov) were caught up in doping scandals, let alone his former team-mates (Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Roberto Heras, Frankie Andreu), it's an impediment to the sport moving on.

Regardless of what you thought of him, he was more professional than anyone else

Chris Boardman
Armstrong carries baggage, whether he likes it or not. His feud with the sports newspaper L'Equipe, most of France and anyone who dares question his reputation has barely died down in the intervening years.

If he rides the Tour and loses, it might tarnish his proud record. Unlike Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernhard Hinault and Miguel Indurain, Armstrong never lost a Tour after winning his first.

If he rides and wins, it throws an unflattering light over every other rider in the sport.

"Regardless of what you thought of him, or any of the shadows that surrounded him, he was more professional than anyone else," says Boardman.

"He thought faster than everyone else and he surrounded himself with the right people. He's a very good managing director of his own firm.

"The difference was that there wasn't a big take-up from other riders - no-one else seemed to follow suit. The sport when he left it wasn't that different to when he arrived."

WILL IT REALLY HAPPEN?

Until Armstrong makes a further announcement in New York on 24 September, no-one knows for sure.

His spokesman Mark Higgins admits that the 2009 Tour "is the intention, but we've got some homework to do over there."

Cycling's governing body is leaving the door open. UCI president Pat McQuaid says: "From our point of view, he's free to race. He can come back but the question is if he can return to the same level. Maybe he doesn't know that himself, maybe he just wants to see what he can do."

Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme was similarly cautious.

"As long as his team, which we don't know for the moment, and he himself abide by the rules concerning doping and anti-doping which have considerably evolved in the last few years, we will accept him," he said.

"Armstrong specialises in surprises," says Boardman. "And he also likes to drag things out."

After seven Tour victories, 83 yellow jerseys and 22 stage wins, no-one's ruling anything out.



see also
Mixed reaction to Armstrong news
10 Sep 08 |  Cycling
Armstrong looks to recapture past glories
10 Sep 08 |  Sport Homepage
Armstrong photos
10 Sep 08 |  Cycling
Armstrong to make shock comeback
10 Sep 08 |  Cycling
Contador would welcome Armstrong
10 Sep 08 |  Cycling
Au revoir Lance
25 Jul 05 |  Cycling
All hail the king
24 Jul 05 |  Cycling
Armstrong seals seventh Tour win
24 Jul 05 |  Cycling


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