Lance Armstrong will be able to compete in next year's Tour de France as long as he fully submits to the latest anti-doping controls, the race's director Christian Prudhomme said on Wednesday.
The 36-year-old American rocked the world of cycling on Tuesday by confirming that he was planning an audacious comeback with a view to winning a record eighth Tour de France next summer.
His seven previous wins from 1999 to 2005 have often been cast into doubt by unproven allegations that he took illegal performance-enhancing drugs and he voiced fears that the race organisers, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) could bar him from competing again as part of their crackdown on doping.
Prudhomme, however, indicated that provided he played by the rules, he would be allowed to compete in next year's race which starts in Monaco.
"As long as his team, which we don't know for the moment, and he himself abide by the rules concerning doping and anti-doping which have considerably evolved in the last few years, we will accept him," Prudhomme told AFP.
"But under no circumstances will we accept a cyclist who refuses to abide by these rules which are stricter and of a different nature than previously," he added.
On his general sentiments about an Armstrong comeback, Prudhomme said that it would be a huge challenge for the American.
"There are very few sportsmen who have successfully managed to make comebacks of this nature - like (former National Basketball Association superstar) Michael Jordan," he said. "It's a huge challenge to comeback after three years of inactivity, even if he did finish second recently in a (mountain bike) race.
"On top of that there is his age. He will be 37 in one week. I suppose you can always point to Raymond Poulidor who finished second in the Tour at 38 years (1974) and third (in 1976) at 40. Let's remember though that we are mid-September and a lot of water can flow under the bridge from here until the start of the next Tour in Monaco."
In Spain, news of Armstrong's decision was welcomed by the 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador who rides for the Astana team that reports have identified as the team Armstrong could join.
"I would welcome him into the team with open arms because a cyclist like him would fit in anywhere," he said.
Contador said he was convinced that Armstrong believes he can once again compete at the highest levels otherwise he would never have taken the decision to make a comeback. And he insisted he would have no problems with a potential rivalry between the two in the same team contesting the Tour de France.
"I have always had the higheest regard for him and would be delighted to be in the same team as him," the 2008 Giro d'Italia winner said.
Armstrong Astana bound?
By Gregor Brown, with additional reporting by Bjorn Haake in Calahorra
Lance Armstrong is close to sealing his return to cycling with Johan Bruyneel's Team Astana. Bruyneel and Armstrong's relationship dates back to the 36-year-old's cancer comeback, before the two went on to win seven editions of the Tour de France.
"I spoke to Lance yesterday evening, and he confirmed that he wanted to make a comeback into professional cycling. I said to him, 'there are a lot of things we have to talk about. If you are a professional cyclist I can't imagine you would make a comeback with any other team.' ... I don't know if Lance can come back at the highest level. He has been training and keeping in shape, it is different than riding at the highest professional level," said Bruyneel Tuesday morning.
He noted yesterday that he believed Armstrong would race with his team. He added today, "I will talk to the sponsor today or tomorrow." The Belgian took over management and reorganised the team after its doping-related problems in the 2007 Tour with Alexander Vinokourov.
Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), organisers of the Tour, stated it was this 2007 link that led to the 2008 non-invite. The Luxembourg-registered team instead dominated the Giro d'Italia in May with Contador and looks in good position to do the same in the Vuelta a España, which concludes on September 21.
With an already impressive line-up of Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden, could it be the case of too many cooks in the kitchen? Contador was quick to dispel any such idea. "I was surprised by the news. I don't know that Lance will be back at the highest level. ... Will I have problems being his team-mate? No, what problems... If he returns I will open the door," he said.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008