Rules say Armstrong can't return until Feb. 1; Australian race is in late January


AUSTIN, Texas -- Lance Armstrong is hoping his comeback will indeed start in Australia.

The seven-time Tour de France winner wants to return to elite racing in next January's Tour Down Under even though he's not eligible to return until Feb. 1, 2009. The race in Australia runs Jan. 20-25.

Armstrong said Monday he's hoping authorities will grant him an exemption and allow him to ride.

"It's my hope that I get down there," Armstrong said by phone from Marfa, Texas. "We'll respect whatever decision they come down with."

The International Cycling Union (UCI) requires riders coming out of retirement to be in the sport's anti-doping program for six months before racing.

Armstrong filed paperwork Aug. 1 with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and said he's already been drug-tested -- in late August.

The UCI has said it will make a decision this week.

Armstrong has said he plans to race the Tour of California in February and the Tour de France in July. On Monday, Armstrong also mentioned Monday the Paris-Nice race, a race in South Africa, and the Tour of Italy as other possible 2009 events. He said he regrets not racing Tour of Italy in previous years.

"It would be nice to do a race before the Tour of California," Armstrong said. "I'm working off the assumption I'm going [to Australia]."

Armstrong spokesman Mark Higgins said Astana likely would ride the Tour of Australia even if Armstrong can't.