- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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ANNECY, France -- Lance Armstrong's performance in Thursday's time trial was good enough to give him a toehold on the third and last perch of the Tour de France podium, which would be a welcome if unaccustomed spot for him in his comeback season.
Off the road, he established a much firmer grip on his own future. The announcement that Armstrong will race for a team sponsored by the RadioShack electronics chain in 2010 brings one of the world's most famous American athletes back under the corporate umbrella of a U.S.-based company, where he will receive all the comforts of home.
The deal is quite different from the last one Armstrong and his management company struck back in 2004, when the U.S. Postal Service bowed out and Discovery Channel backed up the Brinks truck. At the time, Armstrong was about to win his sixth Tour and was willing to commit to only one more season in the saddle. He said then that there would be two different prices for the team -- "If I continue, it'll be one level, and when I retire, I suspect it'll drop off to another level."
Now Armstrong's global brand is so entrenched that his value might not diminish appreciably even when he gets off the bike again. RadioShack clearly is gambling on that and has ponied up for the rights to sponsor him in other endurance events, as well as supporting his foundation's cancer-fighting efforts. Armstrong ran several marathons and competed in the Leadville 100 mountain bike race in Colorado during his three-year hiatus, and he has long expressed an interest in returning to his roots in triathlon by testing himself in Ironman competition.
The announcement leaves some intriguing questions unanswered. Will there be a secondary sponsor? We know Team RadioShack will feature Armstrong and his longtime road manager, Johan Bruyneel, but who is available to be recruited for the supporting cast? Contracts in cycling are notoriously fungible, but this is the stretch of the season in which rider transfers are generally signed and sealed, or close to it. It might be a little late in the season, even for a rich and powerful new organization, to start placing Help Wanted ads.
Armstrong's current team, Astana, is poised to implode and re-form around Kazakh star Alexandre Vinokourov, who is eligible to compete when his two-year doping suspension expires this week. (For those of you awakening from a cycling news coma, Tour leader Alberto Contador will not stay with Astana or go to any team that involves Armstrong or Bruyneel.) Some of the team's riders could be cast adrift, but some of those with strong loyalties to Armstrong and Bruyneel are older, such as Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner. Even Armstrong can sense cycling mortality on the horizon and will be motivated to try to lure a younger rider aboard to be his heir apparent in the gap between now and when riders on his under-23 development team would be ready for prime time.
At least two other deep-pocketed corporate entities are poised to enter the sport: London-based European television network SkySports and a Spanish team bankrolled by Formula One driver Fernando Alonso. If all the other Pro Tour teams retain their licenses, the field will get more crowded, making entry into the three Grand Tours more difficult and perhaps driving a bidding war for top riders.
The addition of RadioShack means there will be an unprecedented three U.S.-licensed teams at the elite level. Owners of the other two said they view the company's investment as a positive thing for the sport.
"We have to work it to the advantage of the sport in the U.S., which I think it will be," said Team Columbia owner Bob Stapleton. "Lance has brought the world's eyes back on cycling. It's good for awareness, good for enthusiasm and probably good for competition."
Doug Ellis, majority owner of Garmin-Slipstream, called the addition of RadioShack's household name to the corporate peloton "a vote of confidence for the sport." He added, "It demonstrates that we've made great strides to make corporate people comfortable."
Armstrong raced for no salary this season but received appearance fees totaling well into six figures for racing in Australia, California and Italy. He'll obviously be back on the payroll next year. Yet although the financial benefits are sure to be considerable (no terms were released for the RadioShack deal), the intangible asset of being back in control of his own fate is critical as well for an athlete who minds the details. There will be no more missed payments to the team and staff as there were at Astana this spring when some Kazakh sponsors embarrassingly reneged on their obligations.
In Thursday's action, Contador turned in an eyebrow-raising performance to edge heavy favorite Fabian Cancellara by three seconds to win the last individual time-trial stage, then refused to answer questions about his physiological gifts. As expected, Saxo Bank's Schleck brothers lost ground -- Frank tumbling into sixth place and Andy falling to more than four minutes behind Contador. That margin, if it holds up, would be the biggest for a Tour winner since Armstrong's last victory in 2005.
Garmin's British time-trial specialist Bradley Wiggins cramped during the stage, encountered headwinds on the descent to the finish line and managed only sixth in the stage, yet is a mere 11 seconds behind Armstrong in the overall standings. Armstrong's German teammate Andreas Kloeden is just two seconds shy of Wiggins but surely will work for Armstrong both for the short-term goal of the Texan's podium placement and perhaps the long-term goal of future employment.
Armstrong rolled across the finish line 1 minute, 30 seconds slower than Contador, leaving him 5:25 behind the Spaniard in the overall standings. Armstrong has said several times that he thinks he might be stronger at next year's Tour, contending that his time away from the sport eroded his form more than the additional birthday candles on his cake. We don't know yet whether that's true. But as he transitions from a team riddled with financial and personal chaos to an environment tailored for his success, it's likely that he'll be able to give himself a better shot.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.