Armstrong to join Astana

Comeback begins with Tour Down Under

American cyclist Lance Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner, was set to join Kazakhstan-based professional team Astana, according to an official from the country's cycling federation.

"On Wednesday Armstrong will announce his decision to join our team at a news conference," federation deputy president Nikolai Proskurin told AFP. "This case is a sealed one.

"I believe Armstrong will become a new sporting brand for Kazakhstan," he added. "He's a great sportsman and courageous man and he will exemplify Kazakhstan's rising talents in the best possible way."

Proskurin also said that Armstrong would share the leadership in the team with the current leader, Spaniard Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour de France winner who has won the Tour of Spain and Giro d'Italia this season.

"Currently there's certain tension in the team but I hope we are capable of keeping the situation under control," Proskurin said. "Armstrong will not be the only star, he will be one of the team's leaders."

Armstrong, who turned 37 last week, is poised to join the Astana team and compete in five road races, according to a report on VeloNews.com that cited "sources familiar with the developing situation".

Reports say that Armstrong will compete in the Amgen Tour of California, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Georgia, the Dauphine-Libere and the Tour de France, racing for no salary or bonuses.

However, organisers of South Australia's Tour Down Under announced earlier Wednesday that Armstrong would launch his comeback at their six-day event in January that covers more than 800 kilometres (500 miles) across southern Australia.

The move was revealed by South Australian Premier Mark Rann, who said Armstrong's participation would make the tour the biggest sporting event in South Australian history.

"What Lance wants to do is to use his comeback to really globalise his campaign to raise awareness and also raise funding for research into cancer prevention and cancer treatment," said Rann. "We will be very willing partners in that."

Armstrong is expected to reveal more information later today, at 4pm GMT.

"This guy is bigger than cycling in terms of what he has done," said Tour Down Under race director Mike Turtur. "In terms of athletes, he's a superstar of sport throughout the world. This is, to me, the biggest thing that has happened in sport in South Australia. He will have a massive pulling power."

Turtur said the Australian race would be a great way for Armstrong to start his preparation for the Tour de France. "There is enough in this race in terms of difficulty to really be right up his alley," he added.

Armstrong rocked the world of cycling earlier this month by confirming that he was planning a comeback with the goal of winning a record eighth Tour de France next summer.

© AFP 2008

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