- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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Lance Armstrong's longtime coach Chris Carmichael said Tuesday that Armstrong is as driven as he was when he first returned to the peloton as a cancer survivor 10 years ago.
"It's like 1999 again," Carmichael told ESPN.com. "I don't know if I've ever seen him this motivated. He knows it's a big challenge. He knows he has to use his time well and he can't screw around with it."
Carmichael will help the soon-to-be 37-year-old try to regain his former supremacy at the Tour de France after three years away from professional cycling.
Armstrong won his first Tour de France in '99 after returning to cycling in '98.
Carmichael, who has known Armstrong since the seven-time Tour champion was a junior rider 20 years ago, said he watched and, at times, goaded Armstrong as the Texan came to the conclusion that he could be competitive in the peloton he left in 2005.
Armstrong's preparation for and second-place finish to a world champion at the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race last month sealed his desire to come back, Carmichael said, although Armstrong had already begun to lay the groundwork by registering for out-of-competition drug testing with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
"It wasn't like there was a grand scheme," Carmichael said.
Carmichael and Armstrong spent three weeks together in Colorado training for the 100-mile race, which takes place at altitudes above 10,000 feet. "At first it was, 'Let's see how I do,' and then with about a week to go, it was just like, 'Man, I gotta figure out how to win this thing,'" Carmichael said of Armstrong's evolving attitude.
That period coincided with the end of the Tour de France, which they watched with keen interest.
"I know how to push his hot buttons," Carmichael said. "Basically, I said, 'Look who's there at the end. These are all guys you raced with.' I felt like there was no reason he couldn't come back to where he was. Not to take away from [2008 Tour winner Carlos] Sastre or any of the top guys, but all that was within his grasp."
Rumors that Armstrong was contemplating a comeback began to percolate a couple of weeks ago, but his decision, which leaked out Monday in an unattributed VeloNews.com report and was confirmed Tuesday in an exclusive interview with Vanity Fair magazine, still sent shock waves through the cycling world.
Veteran rider Bobby Julich, a teammate of Armstrong's at Motorola in the 1990s, told ESPN.com he saw Armstrong in Nice, France, this summer and noticed that he looked extremely fit. The second-place finish in Leadville also impressed Julich from afar, but he said he never would have guessed Armstrong would launch a full comeback.
"He left at the pinnacle of the sport, a total ride-into-the-sunset finish, but obviously he didn't get it all out," said Julich, 36, who announced his own retirement Monday. "I don't doubt for a second that he'll be right there. I don't think he'll have a problem with the physical part of it. He's the toughest son of a gun I'll ever meet.
"But you're only as good as your last race. He's going to have a lot of pressure, but he feeds on that."
On balance, Julich said, the increased attention Armstrong could bring to the sport is probably good, but he wondered aloud whether younger riders like 2007 Tour champion Alberto Contador of Spain might feel it is their turn to be in the spotlight.
Julich said he thought the accomplishments of Armstrong's American ex-teammates Levi Leipheimer, who finished third at the Tour two years ago, and Christian Vande Velde, who placed fifth this year, probably made Armstrong miss competition that much more.
"Maybe he's doing it to prove that the Tour de France needs him, and he needs the Tour de France," Julich said.
Although Armstrong told Vanity Fair that he was "100 percent" committed to winning an eighth Tour, the question of which team he'll race for remains open.
Astana team leader Johan Bruyneel said Wednesday he already has begun discussions with Armstrong, a close friend.
"He won't have a problem finding a team. But it's clear that the relationship we have means that I can't allow him to go to another team," Bruyneel told reporters at the Spanish Vuelta. "For me it would be nice to be a part of this."
Rabobank team leader Adri van Houwelingen said the Dutch team had no interest in signing Armstrong.
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 following a positive test for an illicit transfusion. Bruyneel was brought in after the 2007 season to overhaul the team.
Armstrong was a part-owner of the management company that operated his last team, Discovery Channel. He and his fellow investors opted out of the sport in 2007 after deciding they could not find the level of corporate sponsorship they wanted.
Also unclear is the way Armstrong intends to back up a pledge to "create" an independent testing program -- in addition to tests conducted by official agencies -- that will show he is racing clean. The Astana team currently has a contract with respected Danish anti-doping researcher Rasmus Damsgaard, whose blood profiling program resulted in the team firing one rider for unspecified causes this season.
Armstrong told Vanity Fair that "revenge" against those who think he used performance-enhancing drugs is part of his motivation. "There's this perception in cycling that this generation is now the cleanest generation we've had in decades, if not forever," he said, noting that many of his one-time rivals have since been busted. "I can understand why people look at that and go, 'Well, [they] were caught -- and you weren't? So there is a nice element here where I can come with a completely comprehensive program and there is no way to cheat."
Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Armstrong and his team will have to "follow all the rules today, that are much more strict than they were."
"If Lance Armstrong is at the start of the Tour de France, it will be the same thing for him and for his team," Prudhomme said. "There won't be any exceptions."
Prudhomme noted the suspicions of drug use that followed Armstrong and suggested that it wasn't guaranteed that the former champion would make it to the start line next July.
"Suspicion has followed Lance Armstrong since 1999, everyone knows that. But in this proposed comeback you have to remember we are in mid-September and that much water will run under the bridge until the Tour de France departure in Monaco," Prudhomme said.
A statement released by Armstrong's cancer foundation said the Texan would clarify details about his team and racing schedule -- he is said to want to enter at least four other major races, starting with the Tour of California in February -- at a news conference in New York on Sept. 24. In the Vanity Fair story, he admitted he has been "combative," "unavailable" and "arrogant" with the media in the past, and vowed he would mend his ways.
Carmichael said he could not discuss Armstrong's team situation. But the coach, whose success with Armstrong helped him build a personal endurance sports coaching business that has expanded to three training centers, 80 coaches and 2,500 clients, was happy to talk about what Armstrong is doing to get into shape.
Armstrong still has a decent cardio base, Carmichael said. He has competed in three marathons (all completed under three hours) since his retirement and continued to enter local races as well as the recent grind at Leadville. He is concentrating on core training at the moment to build muscle, which naturally erodes with age, but come January will focus almost exclusively on training on the bike.
Carmichael said altitude training would be a priority. Armstrong recently purchased a home in Aspen, Colo., to facilitate that, and when he's at sea level will continue his past practice of sleeping in a hypoxic tent, where lower oxygen levels mimic conditions at altitude.
The coach shot down the notion that Armstrong has been bored in retirement, but said this was the ideal time for a comeback. Armstrong's foundation is well-established, his three children are school-age and he is single -- a status continually noted by the tabloid press, which has delighted in detailing his high-profile dating escapades.
Armstrong, who touted the joys of structure and discipline when he was at his peak, said he was looking forward to a more Spartan existence. However, as always, he has many endeavors in motion. In the Vanity Fair story written by his Austin, Texas, neighbor, historian and author Douglas Brinkley, Armstrong said he may be interested in running for governor as early as 2014. He has hired a film crew to document his Tour campaign, and Brinkley himself mentions a possible book deal.
The Vanity Fair interview indicated that Armstrong is confident his age will not be an impediment. He cited recent examples like 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres. "Athletes at 30, 35 mentally get tired," he said. "They've done their sport for 20, 25 years and they're like, 'I've had enough.' But there's no evidence to support that when you're 38, you're any slower than when you were 32."
What was slow, Armstrong told Vanity Fair, was the pace of the 2008 Tour, where team leaders tended to watch each other rather than make the kinds of assertive moves he was known for. But he did not finalize his decision to come back until after he consulted with his mother, his ex-wife Kristin -- who is the mother of his three children -- and an inner circle that includes agent and friend Bill Stapleton.
"We're not going to try to win second place," Stapleton told The Associated Press.
Diagnosed in 1996 with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain, Armstrong was given by doctors less than a 50 percent chance of survival. Surgery and brutal cycles of chemotherapy saved his life. A world champion in 1993 who altered his goals to win stage races after returning in 1998, he won his first Tour the following year and ran off six more, supported by teams that sacrificed all individual ambitions to help him.
"I think it's great," said longtime teammate George Hincapie, who added that he spoke to Armstrong on Tuesday morning. "He's done more than anyone for the sport, especially in America and around the world."
Only one rider older than 34 has ever won the Tour -- 36-year-old Firmin Lambot in 1922.
After he retired, Armstrong took on cancer as a political issue, lobbying federal and state lawmakers and co-hosting televised forums with presidential candidates. He was instrumental in persuading the 2007 Texas Legislature to pass a $3 billion fund for cancer research.
The Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer awareness and survivorship programs, but may be best known for the ubiquitous yellow rubber "LIVESTRONG" wristbands it began selling for $1 apiece in 2004.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Lance Armstrong's former coach Chris Carmichael says the cyclist is ready for a comeback.