Less than two weeks after announcing his return to professional cycling following a three-year hiatus, Lance Armstrong continues to attract a mix of plaudits and criticism.
Armstrong claims his return is geared towards spreading global awareness of the threat of cancer.
But a certain degree of mystery still surrounds the real driving force behind the man who built his legendary status and made millions dominating the world's biggest bike race.
Some simply can't wait to see whether Armstrong can cut it in 2009. "Lance Armstrong is a superstar in the same category as Tiger Woods," said Mike Turtur, a top official with the Tour Down Under, where Armstrong is hoping to make his competitive return in January.
Others believe his return will simply revive the old doping controversies that the American trailed in his wake throughout his impressive career.
"His return is not good news," former three-time yellow jersey winner Greg LeMond told AFP last week in Las Vegas. "It's like a nightmare that we have lived through all these years, returning."
Even within the team Armstrong has joined, Astana, his return is making waves.
Until recently, Contador was Astana's undisputed team leader. But now, Contador's future at the Kazakh-backed outfit seems clouded. One leading French magazine, Velo, even questioned whether Contador was "being made a fool of".
Contador has already expressed doubts about who will support who when it comes to racing alongside Armstrong next July. But it appears that Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel, despite his respect for the Spanish ace, is standing firmly behind Armstrong.
"Armstrong has a charisma that makes people want to go to war with him; sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the team," Bruyneel said on Thursday. "It's not a common characteristic and I think a lot of riders, especially the young ones, can learn from him."
Bruyneel, who helped steer Armstrong to all of his Tour triumphs, claims his hands are tied. "Alberto has had a magnificent year and is currently the best professional cyclist in the world," added the Belgian, "but people need to remember that I'm employed by our Kazakh sponsors, not Alberto Contador, not Lance Armstrong, not any one rider."
But whoever steers Astana to possible victory in 2009 might not matter come next July – it’s the fact that Armstrong has decided to return that’s of most interest.
Nevertheless, despite never having tested positive for banned substances, Armstrong has had no shortage of detractors. Books have been written, circumstantial evidence presented but Armstrong has never been sanctioned for drugs use, while vehemently denying ever using banned substances.
Astana has recently revealed that the results of future anti-doping tests on Armstrong will be made public, with the aim of total transparency, but it’s results from the past, not the future, that Armstrong is having trouble with.
Days after his seventh Tour victory in 2005, French sports daily L'Equipe alleged that several of Armstrong's samples, kept since 1999 and tested retroactively, tested positive for EPO (erythropoietin). Armstrong dismissed the claims, but the experts claim the tests stand up.
France's national anti-doping agency (AFLD), this week offered to re-test Armstrong's samples from 1999 to "prove his good faith". "The way these samples are preserved and the volume of them mean that you can do an analysis for the possible presence of EPO on at least five stages of the 1999 Tour de France," said an AFLD statement.
Armstrong spurned the offer, claiming "mishandling" issues with the laboratory and claiming the same lab, at Chatenay-Malabry, near Paris, also botched his 1998 samples.
"The 1998 and 1999 Tour de France samples have not been maintained properly," Armstrong said. "They have been compromised in many ways and even three years ago they could not be tested to provide any meaningful results."
© AFP 2008