Armstrong '100 percent' committed to return to cycling

Updated: September 9, 2008, 9:25 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

His competitive thirst apparently unquenched, Lance Armstrong has told Vanity Fair magazine that he intends to try to win an eighth Tour de France in 2009.

In a story posted on the magazine's Web site Tuesday afternoon, Armstrong told writer Douglas Brinkley he doesn't think his age -- 37 on Sept. 18 -- means he can't compete for the podium spot he once owned.

"Look at the Olympics. You have a swimmer like Dara Torres. Even in the 50-meter [freestyle] event, the 41-year-old mother proved you can do it," Armstrong said in a story excerpt. "The woman who won the marathon [Constantina Tomescu-Dita, of Romania] was 38. Older athletes are performing very well. Ask serious sports physiologists and they'll tell you age is a wives' tale."

Armstrong characterized his intention to compete in the 2009 Tour as "100 percent," although at this point, he is not affiliated with any professional team. VeloNews.com reported Monday in an anonymously sourced story that Armstrong would sign with Astana, which is run by his former boss, Johan Bruyneel, but Bruyneel thus far has denied direct knowledge of Armstrong's comeback.

Armstrong

Armstrong

The Tour "is the intention," Armstrong's spokesman Mark Higgins told The Associated Press, "but we've got some homework to do over there."

Added Bill Stapleton, Armstrong's lawyer and longtime confidant: "We're not going to try to win second place."

"Ultimately, I'm the guy that gets up," Armstrong told Vanity Fair. "I mean, I'm not going to lie … my back gets tired quicker than it used to and I get out of bed a little slower than I used to. But when I'm going, when I'm on the bike -- I feel just as good as I did before."

Armstrong told the magazine he decided to return to the professional ranks while competing in an event open to pros and amateurs, the grueling Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike event in Colorado last month. He finished second to world champion Dave Wiens in the 100-mile race, which is contested at 10,000 feet of altitude.

The Texan said he would use cycling to promote cancer research as a means of finding a cure for the disease that almost killed him 12 years ago. He also wants to answer the critics who say they believe he doped his way to his seven Tour wins. According to the magazine story, Armstrong has vowed to submit to vigorous testing both by outside agencies and an independent program.

"We're going to be completely transparent and open with the press," he told the magazine. "This is for the world to see … so there is a nice element here where I can come with a really completely comprehensive program and there will be no way to cheat."

The president of UCI, cycling's international governing body, said that Armstrong's manager contacted the organization this summer and asked how the retired cyclist would go about participating in anti-doping tests because he "had an interest in possibly racing next year."

UCI chief Pat McQuaid, reached by phone at the Paralympic Games in Beijing, said Stapleton requested information on registering for the biological passport program, in which athletes' blood tests are gathered and compared over time.

"We pointed them in the right direction, which was USADA," McQuaid told ESPN.com, referring to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which has testing jurisdiction over all elite-level U.S. athletes in Olympic sports.

McQuaid said he had no qualms about a potential Armstrong comeback.

"I have nothing but great admiration for Lance Armstrong as a man and as an athlete," he said. "He has huge numbers of admirers all over the world, and from a sports point of view, it would be a positive thing. However, whether he can still achieve at his former level, I don't know. I don't know if he knows."

Armstrong registered for USADA's out-of-competition testing pool in early August, according to agency spokeswoman Erin Hannan. Any athlete planning to come out of retirement has to have been in the testing program for at least six months.

Athletes registered for the program must provide a detailed account of where they plan to be for the next several months, commonly known as the "whereabouts" system, and can be tested at any time with no advance notice.

Armstrong's participation in the USADA program would make him eligible for elite competition in time for him to race in one of the events he is said to be interested in, the Tour of California in mid-February. The VeloNews report suggested that Armstrong also wanted to ride at Paris-Nice, a weeklong stage race in France in March; the Tour de Georgia in April; and the Dauphine Libere race, a Tour tune-up held in the French Alps in June.

Although Bruyneel denied having any plans to sign Armstrong, he said he wouldn't want him riding for another team.

"If his return is something serious and he decided to return to professional cycling, the only thing I can say is that I have a team and I can't imagine being at a race and seeing Lance with a CSC or Rabobank jersey," Bruyneel told reporters Tuesday at the Tour of Spain.

The Astana team was not invited to compete in this year's Tour after several previous doping busts, including that of prerace favorite Alexandre Vinokourov, who was kicked out of the 2007 Tour for an illicit transfusion. Bruyneel was brought in after the 2007 season to overhaul the team.

The Belgian ex-pro said he's uncertain as to whether Armstrong can return after three years away from professional cycling.

"He's continued training and he's done marathons, but he's coming in with a very different style of life to a sportsman," Bruyneel said. "Three years without competing is a lot."

Astana's Alberto Contador -- who won the 2007 Tour for his then team, Discovery Channel -- welcomed the thought of riding alongside Armstrong at cycling's most prestigious race next year.

"It would be an honor to be able to ride with Lance Armstrong," Contador told Europa Press news agency. "Nothing in this news seems strange to me. Lance Armstrong is such an important rider that you can allow for everything.

"He's a rider that you could propose as winning the Tour, but for the moment we can only classify these as rumors."

Armstrong said that if French officials were to try to keep him from racing in that country, he would make a direct personal appeal to French president Nicolas Sarkozy. "I've already put a call in to him," Armstrong told Vanity Fair. "Look it up. He's said strong things about me in the past."

Cycling has struggled to change course and rehabilitate its drug-crippled image in recent years. Should Armstrong return to high-level competition, UCI's McQuaid said he does not fear any negative repercussions from the questions about performance-enhancing drug use that have dogged Armstrong throughout and even after his career.

"I don't go with the Dick Pound, WADA, French scenario," McQuaid said, alluding to the World Anti-Doping Agency and its former head, whose retroactive testing of old Tour samples, ostensibly for research purposes, allegedly found the presence of the blood booster EPO in Armstrong's stored urine. Armstrong consistently has denied doping at any time in his career, and he waged a public battle to discredit the allegations. A UCI-appointed independent analyst later issued a report criticizing the procedures used in the research.

"If I catch someone, I want to catch them directly," McQuaid added.

Organizers of the U.S. races on Armstrong's wish list said that they had no direct knowledge of an Armstrong comeback but added that they would welcome the retired star. Armstrong won the Tour de Georgia in 2004. The Tour of California, regarded as the premier stage race in the U.S., debuted in 2006, the year after Armstrong retired. Amaury Sport Organisation, the French conglomerate that owns the Tour de France, recently purchased a stake in the California race, which will be expanded to 10 days from a week in 2009.

Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which owns the Tour of California, called the reports of a comeback "exciting and interesting," and added that a partnership with Armstrong's cancer foundation would greatly benefit and complement cancer awareness initiatives the race already has in place.

Amgen, the race's title sponsor, manufactures erythropoietin, a drug originally intended for therapeutic use in patients suffering from cancer and other diseases. It also has been appropriated by endurance athletes seeking to boost the oxygen-carrying capacity of their red blood cells.

Messick said he isn't worried that Armstrong might be bigger than the race itself or that he would bring controversy along with his celebrity.

"He's certainly someone who draws a crowd," Messick said from London, "but the race has developed a high enough profile that we don't think people would only be focused on him."

The race was criticized in 2007 for not having stringent enough anti-doping testing, and it did an about-face this year. Messick said teams that have implemented independent programs, including Astana, boost the sport's credibility. "We think that's the answer -- we always have," Messick said. "I see no reason to believe that Lance Armstrong isn't just as serious about it as we are."

Jim Birrell of Medalist Sports, which runs the Tour de Georgia, noted that Armstrong's 2004 win there "put us on the map." That race is seeking corporate sponsorship.

Armstrong's corporate sponsors also presumably would have much to gain from a comeback. Trek, his longtime bike sponsor, signed a contract with Astana before this season that runs through 2010. Scott Dauber, road bike brand manager for the Madison, Wis.-based company, said Armstrong rode Trek's new 9.8 Top Fuel mountain bike in the Leadville race but has not consulted with the company recently on future road bike designs.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympics sports and tennis for ESPN.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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