- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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As speculation swirled that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong will return to competitive racing in the 2009 season, the champion himself remained mum, as did his closest advisers.
Quoting anonymous sources, VeloNews.com reported Monday that Armstrong, who turns 37 on Sept. 18, would return for several high-profile races next year, taking no salary and posting the results of blood tests on the Internet in order to prove that he is riding clean.
Armstrong, who recovered from life-threatening testicular cancer to rewrite the Tour record books, was dogged through much of his career by unproven allegations and circumstantial evidence that he took performance-enhancing drugs, charges he vehemently denies to this day. He never tested positive.
The report further said that Armstrong would ride for the Kazakhstan-financed, Belgium-based Astana team, managed by his close friend and former director Johan Bruyneel, who guided the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams during Armstrong's reign at the top. Several of Armstrong's former teammates still ride for the team, along with 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador of Spain.
Messages left for Bruyneel, Armstrong and his agent and business partner Bill Stapleton went unanswered Monday. A spokesman for Astana said the team had "no plans" with Armstrong.
"The Lance rumors exist already a few weeks," team press officer Philippe Maertens wrote in an e-mail from Spain, where Astana is competing in the Tour of Spain. "We know that he continued training hard after that mountain bike race. He will do some cyclocross races as well in the USA. I cannot tell you more. You better ask him. Lance Armstrong is no part of our team. Team Astana has no plans with him."
Armstrong is said to be interested in competing in five road races, including the Tour of California and the Tour de France. Astana controversially was not invited to cycling's biggest event this year because race organizers said they felt burned by the team's past doping offenses. Tour director Christian Prudhomme has said in recent months that race officials would reconsider that stance depending on the team's results and whether it steered clear of doping scandals. Contador won the Tour of Italy and his teammate, American Levi Leipheimer, is currently a close second in the ongoing Tour of Spain.
Reaction in the cycling world was cautious. The sport has been engaged in a concerted and desperate effort to rehabilitate its troubled image by ratcheting up testing. Two U.S.-based teams, Team Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle, have been among the leaders in that drive by instituting independently monitored blood-testing programs that supplement tests conducted by anti-doping agencies.
"It really just depends on what this is about," said Team Columbia owner Bob Stapleton, whose riders have won 74 races this year. "He's a potentially divisive force for sure -- a hero to millions, and others question him. I'd like to hear more about his goals and mission. If it's more about Lance winning the Tour, personally that doesn't excite me. He has the power to make a positive impact, but I don't know if any of this is anything other than fodder for another book."
Stapleton said he would worry about the "distraction" an Armstrong comeback might generate from progressive developments in cycling.
"It would allow both his supporters and his detractors to air their views," he said. "For me, it grows interest in the sport but deflects from the future of the sport."
Stapleton's counterpart at Garmin-Chipotle, Doug Ellis, was somewhat more optimistic.
"He brings so much attention and such an incredible fan base to the sport that I think the way we would look at it is, a rising tide lifts all boats," he said. "He attracts a lot of media attention, and we'd have to fight for our share of that. But we have athletes who would really look forward to competing with him. I think we should expect him to be very competitive."
Steve Johnson, CEO of USA Cycling, the sport's national governing body, said he had heard rumors that Armstrong's main purpose in returning would be to raise money for cancer research and education, the focus of Armstrong's foundation best known for popularizing the ubiquitous "Livestrong" yellow rubber bracelets worn by millions.
"I can't think of a better way to do that than getting back on a bicycle," Johnson said. He said he is not concerned that an Armstrong comeback would reignite the polarizing discussion about whether he raced clean. "From what I've read, it sounds like he's going to do everything he can to mitigate those concerns," Johnson said.
Garmin-Chipotle leader Christian Vande Velde, a former support rider for Armstrong, said he was shocked when he first heard the rumors but believes Armstrong would take racing very seriously if he came back. "Believe me, if Lance can't be competitive, he won't race," Vande Velde said.
"Both the American teams have a lot of momentum after this year's Tour de France, and this can only add to it."
Vande Velde's Scottish teammate David Millar, an ardent spokesman for clean sport since his 2006 return from a two-year suspension triggered by the admission that he had doped early in his career, said he found the news "odd" but was trying to regard it in an optimistic light.
"I thought he had his life fairly dialed and organized after cycling," Millar said. "Perhaps cycling meant more to him than he thought. I can say from personal experience that it's easy after you've been away from it for a couple of years to look at it through rose-colored glasses and forget all the suffering and hardships of the sport, but Lance has been through all that already.
"It can have a positive impact. It's up to Lance how positive he makes it, if he's coming back for the right reasons and declaring his love for the sport, if he wants to prove to people that he's doing it clean and try to counter the negative debates and discussions that were left at the end of his career, or if it's a personal joyride."
Since his retirement after the 2005 Tour, Armstrong has channeled his competitive drive into running marathons. He has completed the New York City marathon twice and also finished the Boston Marathon this year. Last month, he finished second in the grueling Leadville 100 race, a 100-mile mountain bike event conducted at 10,000 feet of altitude in Colorado.
USA Cycling's Johnson confirmed that before racing there, Armstrong, who still has a U.S. professional cycling license, requested that he be reactivated on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's out-of-competition testing list.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.
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