Whatever is on Lance's list, the execution remains the big challenge
MADRID -- Johan Bruyneel knows the specifics of the plans Lance Armstrong will unveil this week at news conferences in New York and Las Vegas. Bruyneel was one of the first people Armstrong consulted about two months ago, although Bruyneel feigned surprise when word of Armstrong's comeback exploded in the media during the Tour of Spain.
"It was not supposed to leak during the Vuelta," Bruyneel said on Sunday, the last day of the Tour of Spain, while sitting in the lobby of the Astana team hotel in a residential area of the Spanish capital. "I had to juggle with the information as it came."
Still missing are the particulars of which team Armstrong will ride for, whose logo he will sport on his chest, his schedule and how he plans to link the 2009 cycling campaign to a larger cause.
Armstrong's fans and detractors have invested massive amounts of time and energy the past couple of weeks trying to parse his motivations. A large part of the answer probably boils down to a couple of very simple principles that apply to all great athletes: (a) It's hard to quit, and (b) Why not?
One reason Armstrong can contemplate this re-entry is that a majority of the people who had something to do with his success haven't gone away. It's as if he were to come back after renting out his house for a few years and find that almost none of the furniture had been rearranged.
Bruyneel, who ran every one of Armstrong's seven Tour de France-winning teams, is one of those people -- perhaps the most important person. It's not hard to deduce which team Armstrong will ride for. That would be whatever team Bruyneel is managing. Right now, that's Astana, which also coincidentally has two assistant directors with longtime ties to Armstrong, Dirk Demol and Viatcheslav Ekimov, on board for 2009. In a broad clue, Armstrong's faithful Spanish support rider Jose Luis Rubiera postponed retirement on the eve of his party and re-upped with Astana for another year.
The verbal parrying of everyone involved hasn't been very convincing. One of the chief mysteries that may be solved this week is whether Astana will remain Astana or morph into something else. As we're not the first to observe, it would seem odd to see Armstrong racing under another country's flag.
"The first time he talked to me about it, I told him he was crazy," Bruyneel said in Madrid.
"It was right before Leadville," he said, referring to the mountain bike race in Colorado in early August that relit Armstrong's competitive fuse. "I remember the first time he mentioned it to me, I said, 'At which party are you now? Are you sober?' I had no idea he was thinking about it. I didn't think he would ever consider racing again."
"Obviously, for him, it's about what is exciting. He really got the feeling and taste of the bike back when he started to train for this Leadville event. We talked a lot about it. He told me, 'This is what I like. I feel good, I enjoy being on the bike, I enjoy being outside, I enjoy being by myself, hurting myself.'"
As Bruyneel talked, Astana riders dressed in dark blue warm-ups went back and forth from a breakfast room. Levi Leipheimer, the veteran American who swept both Tour of Spain time trial stages and later finished second overall, headed for a massage. Alberto Contador, who clinched the race title on the Paseo del Prado at the end of a sprint stage later that day, consulted his cell phone as he walked by. The 25-year-old has captured all three Grand Tours in a record 15-month stretch. According to comments published in a Spanish newspaper, he intends to quit the team if Armstrong is brought in.
Clearly, Armstrong's arrival would further complicate Bruyneel's task of keeping all the talent happy, but he said he's not worried. "Don't think it's been easy to manage Nos. 1 and 2 in this race," Bruyneel said. "But normally, in general, problems get solved before they occur."
This reunion also has a lot to do with what's exciting for Bruyneel, who has a dozen Grand Tour victories on his director's résumé and isn't all that jazzed about being on the road anymore. He and Armstrong are both restless adrenaline junkies, and they also know this probably was the last time they could have revived their partnership in a way that vaguely resembled its former shape.
"What I have with him is never going to happen again." Bruyneel said. "We'll see. I don't know how far he can get, and he doesn't either. He doesn't have to win. I'm pretty sure he's going to be on a very good level. If he loses and he gets third or fourth or fifth, it's great, in my opinion."
Like Armstrong's competitive form, many questions will remain open even after the pair of pressers this week. How will the team dynamics shake out? Can Armstrong ensure he and his team will be invited to the Tour de France? Astana's controversial exclusion this year triggered a bloody battle between the Tour's parent company, Amaury Sports Organisation, and the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's governing body. The rumor mill has been in overdrive in recent days. It has spread speculation that ASO executives are being forced out, that Armstrong is investing in the company, that the former head of the UCI, Hein Verbruggen, an Armstrong ally, has a hand in these changes.
Armstrong also has let it be known he wants to address the never-ending, intense skepticism about whether his performances were fueled by performance-enhancing drugs. Such skepticism has turned up a lot of leads over the years. People's positions on the subject tend to be entrenched, and it seems unlikely that Armstrong can change minds about his past either way, but it should be interesting to watch him try.
The most significant shift in the cycling world since Armstrong's departure is in the approach to anti-doping policy. The approach has moved from mostly passive to desperately aggressive. Teams -- including Astana, whose riders underwent longitudinal blood and urine testing by Danish anti-doping researcher Rasmus Damsgaard all season -- are spending gobs of money to test their own riders over the long term, hoping to stop scandals in utero. Some results are available in the public domain.
Armstrong resents the portrayal of the current generation as cleaner than his, despite the many snowmen who melted around him under the heat of scrutiny. He has said he will make his test results "transparent" when he returns, appropriating the new vocabulary. It should be noted that, in this regard, he is following other people's wheels -- managers Bjarne Riis at CSC-Saxo Bank, Bob Stapleton at Team Columbia, and Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin-Chipotle, for whom losing Taylor Phinney, by the way, is a body blow.
Part of Armstrong's plans have been revealed to the world, and we'll know the rest shortly. Whatever he outlines, the one thing that is certain is that the biggest challenge will come in the execution.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.
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