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New team for Lance, same nemesis

12/9/2009 - Olympic Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. -- If 2010 is truly it for Lance Armstrong, he has planned his finale well. He'll have a base that is perfect for him, a familiar, temperature-controlled environment, fully furnished and feng shuied. Taking his final shot with Team Radio Shack, as opposed to Astana, will be like hitting a tennis ball indoors as opposed to swatting it into a swirling wind, with a more predictable and precise trajectory.

Armstrong will once again ride under the commercial flag of a U.S. sponsor, one that presumably will pay on time and maintain a healthy bank balance instead of teetering on a financial tightrope as Astana did for much of the 2009 season. His "new" team staff, from Armstrong's longtime team director and alter ego Johan Bruyneel on down, is largely made up of people who helped shepherd him to seven Tour de France victories on the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams.

Radio Shack is stocked with proven support riders who know how to align themselves in formation, day after day, to win stage races. At a news conference during the team's first official gathering this week, Armstrong declared that the "days of the team being built around me are done," citing his age, his foreshortened competitive horizon and prominent teammates such as Levi Leipheimer who are big-race contenders in their own right. But the team as constructed certainly gives Armstrong a better chance to win another Tour than he had this past year.

No one on this roster will challenge Armstrong for supremacy in that race as long as he stays healthy. Finishing third in the 2009 Tour put an end to questions about his strength and stamina after three years away from racing, although it remains to be seen whether he's right about being better when he's a year older at age 38.

Everything is copacetic, with one major exception. At the moment, there's no evidence that Armstrong or anyone else in the peloton can beat his former teammate, defending Tour champion Alberto Contador of Spain, come July.

Contador tried to wriggle free of his contract with Astana, but the Kazakhs who finance the team held tight, and after months of drifting in quasi job-hunting mode, Contador has washed up on the same beach where he started. His supporting cast there has weakened. All eight of the men who rode the Tour with him bailed to go to Radio Shack, which may say as much about Astana's instability as it does about Contador. That left him with a mixed band of Spaniards, including recently signed veteran Oscar Pereiro, who was named 2006 Tour champion after Floyd Landis' doping conviction, and Kazakhs, led by the enigmatic Alexandre Vinokourov, himself fresh from a two-year doping suspension.

Yet if Contador continues to ride time trials as well as he has in the past year and keeps riding away from his peers in the mountains the way he did during the summer, he can win the Tour again with minimal help, and everyone knows it.

The 2010 Tour course favors climbers and, crucially, does not include a team time trial in which Radio Shack would have excelled and Contador's crew might have lost significant time. Along with attacking in the mountains, Armstrong and other contenders such as Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck and BMC's Cadel Evans will have to try to parlay microtactics into opportunities to gain ground, as Armstrong did a couple of times in 2009, jumping into crosswinds or making sure to be on the right side of a split. An early stage that includes several stretches of treacherous cobblestones is one logical place to do that.

Radio Shack is designed to be the kind of smooth-steering vehicle Armstrong needs to try to challenge Contador and other younger talents, a buffer against the unexpected that he sometimes lacked this year. Of course, there's no guarantee he won't hit more potholes next season. (One potential off-road complication is the possibility that he could become personally enmeshed in the ongoing legal battle between longtime nemesis Greg LeMond and the Trek bicycle company.) But Armstrong wants to do everything in his power to avoid the kinds of detours he took between the day he announced his comeback in September 2008 and the day he stood on the Tour podium 10 months later.

Armstrong's plans to submit to an elaborate independent drug-testing program run by eminent researcher Don Catlin collapsed. He battled with French testing officials who said he had conducted himself improperly during an out-of-competition test (and later dropped their objections). He struggled with his body position on the bike. His training was interrupted by a broken collarbone suffered in the most costly crash of his career.

His pledge to be transparent by posting the results of blood tests on his Web site backfired when those numbers came under intense and often negative scrutiny. An editing change in one entry during the spring prompted discussion on fan blogs and message boards. His blood values from tests during the Tour itself provoked intense debate when a Danish scientist publicly called them "suspect," although other experts disagreed. The results have since been removed.

Tuesday, Armstrong sarcastically derided his critics but said he no longer feels the need to participate in any supplemental anti-doping program or offer testing information.

"To be attacked like that and accused of something that's complete nonsense, it's not worth it," said Armstrong, who said he has been tested more than 50 times since returning to the pro ranks and expressed faith in the biological passport analysis undertaken by cycling authorities. "I think the testing we do through the international agencies and the domestic agencies is going to have to be enough in the future."

Armstrong recently admitted he had deliberately created conflict with former rivals such as Jan Ullrich as one more means to try to throw them off. This is not breaking news to anyone who paid attention during those years. Yet Armstrong, deep down, never doubted he was the best rider back then. The 2009 Tour and its aftermath were different, with real, not contrived, tension, a clash of ambition and ego amplified by both Armstrong and Contador and by media coverage.

That war likely will continue in a different musical key now that they are on different teams. But if Armstrong has his way, this second season of his second go-round will be a lot more straightforward. And he'll be operating from a home base that from afar looks a lot more like a man's castle than a mere shack.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.