Armstrong's early return in January raises ire

Texan invited to race Giro d'Italia

The International Cycling Union (UCI) has come in for some harsh criticism after bending its own rules to allow American star Lance Armstrong to return to professional cycling at the Tour Down Under, while Giro d'Italia organizers have invited the Texan to race in 2009.

Armstrong's plan to break his three-year hiatus at the Australian race from January 20-25 appeared compromised last week when it emerged his return would not fall within the dates of strict UCI anti-doping procedures.

Cyclists who have been retired or inactive must register with an anti-doping agency at least six months before their first UCI race. Armstrong's registration with the American anti-doping authorities would have only allowed him to return to action on February 1, 2009.

Despite affirming less than a fortnight ago that "no exceptions would be made" to the rule, UCI chief Pat McQuaid gave Armstrong the thumbs-up for the Tour Down Under on Wednesday.

His decision has left some team bosses mystified, and others plain angry.

"It's scandalous. How can the UCI hope for the riders to respect the anti-doping rules when it doesn't even do so itself? What will this lead to next?" said one of several team bosses who wished to remain anonymous.

German cycling federation (BDR) chief Rudolf Scharping said the UCI had made a mistake in bending the rules for Armstrong.

"In these times, everyone should strictly obey the rules," Scharping told the DPA press agency.

Despite never being banned for a positive test, doping allegations followed Armstrong throughout his seven-year reign on the Tour between 1999-2005. And some of the 37-year-old's critics believe it is not the first time he is benefiting from UCI favours.

After a 'positive' test for corticoides in 1999, Armstrong produced a medical certificate to show he was allowed to use the substance. Some critics believe the certificate was rubber-stamped by the UCI, and its then-chief Hein Verbruggen, after the test.

"It's started again, Armstrong has got the UCI under his thumb," another team boss told AFP. "Armstrong's been given a favour, that's for sure," said another.

The UCI meanwhile explained its decision by saying anti-doping tests are more sophisticated than in 2004 when the six-month rule was implemented.

"... the UCI has taken into account the progress made in its anti-doping programme since 2004. As a result of the improvements implemented, riders are now subject to a much-reinforced system of monitoring compared to that of the past."

Armstrong won a record-setting seventh consecutive yellow jersey in 2005. Days later a report in L'Equipe sports daily alleged that several of his samples from the 1999 race, analysed retroactively, tested positive for banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin).

A subsequent inquiry, chaired by a top official who was close to former UCI chief Verbruggen, cleared the American of any wrong-doing.

Giro d'Italia organizers invite Armstrong to race in 2009

Giro d'Italia chief Angelo Zomegnan has paved the way for the maiden participation of Lance Armstrong by officially inviting the seven-time Tour de France champion to next year's race.

Armstrong never raced the Giro d'Italia during his Tour reign, but ahead of the Giro's centenary next year the American admitted he would like to take part in the 'corsa rosa'. His Discovery Channel teammate Paolo Savoldelli won the race in 2005, Armstrong last before announcing his return to the peloton in 2009.

"Not participating in the Giro was a regret of mine. I would love to try that, with their 100th year anniversary," Armstrong said recently after announcing his return to the sport after a three-year hiatus.

When asked if Armstrong has been invited to the 2009 edition, Zomegnan told La Gazzetta dello Sport Friday: "He has been invited."

Spaniard Alberto Contador, who rides for the Astana team which Armstrong has recently joined, is the reigning Giro champion.

© BikeRadar & AFP 2008 

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