Cycling legend Lance Armstrong said Wednesday he would join Kazakhstan’s Astana team for his competitive comeback — but he didn’t promise an eighth Tour de France victory.
“I will race in 2009 with Astana,” he told journalists in New York.
Armstrong, 37, said he would start with January’s Tour Down Under in Australia and close the season with the Tour de France in July, which he won seven times before retiring in 2005.
The cycling great, who successfully battled testicular cancer in 1996, dedicated the comeback to his Livestrong cancer prevention campaign.
“I cannot guarantee an eighth tour victory,” he said, “but I can guarantee that the Livestrong message will… touch all the different aspects of cancer.”
Attending a New York conference of celebrity activists hosted by former US president Bill Clinton, Armstrong described cancer as “a global health concern.”
“By racing the bicycle all over the world, beginning in Australia, ending in France, it’s the best way, the best way to get the word out,” he said. “This is the campaign to spread the word, spread awareness and hopefully save lives.”
He announced a Livestrong global summit in Paris after the Tour de France to promote cancer issues. But he downplayed the idea he might actually win the Tour, the sport’s greatest challenge.
“I don’t know, honestly. I’ve been off the bike three years,” he said. “I’ll be nearly 38 years old…. So I honestly don’t know. I will try to be as prepared as possible. I don’t know that that equals victory…. I have a fair bit of confidence, but not that kind of confidence.”
Nikolai Proskurin, the deputy president of oil-rich, ex-Soviet Kazakhstan’s cycling federation, said Armstrong would share Astana’s leadership with current leader, Spaniard Alberto Contador.
However, Proskurin acknowledged that the return of the cycling hero was causing tensions with Contador, winner of the 2007 Tour de France.
“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 sought to calm matters, praising Contador and saying: “I look forward to racing with him. Alberto is the best rider on the planet right now. We have to understand that, have to respect that. I’m not sure I can ride that fast right now,” he said. “I hope it works out.”
Off the bike, Armstrong has become a passionate and high-profile campaigner for greater attention to cancer, which he said would kill eight million people this year, but could be dramatically curbed.
His main reason for returning to the saddle, he said, was to add to the weight of his Lance Armstrong Foundation.
“I think it’s undeniable that an athlete in his prime or near his prime… can have more impact than a retired athlete,” he said. “Me being on the bike and me competing professionally increases the likelihood we will be able to make progress in these different countries.”
Asked where he got his legendary mental strength in defeating an often fatal disease and repeatedly winning in a grueling sport, Armstrong said: “The person who could answer that question is not on the stage and that’s my mother….. She has a certain mentality which is ‘never quit.’ It stuck with me.”
From New York City to…Las Vegas?
After the press conference, Armstrong is jetting his way across the country to attend Interbike, the annual bicycle trade show in Las Vegas. According to a recent report on Cyclingnews.com, of the many rumours swirling in recent weeks about Armstrong, one of them has included him racing cyclo-cross events this season. His manager Mark Higgins confirmed with Cyclingnews.com that his first race following the Clinton Global Initiative announcement will likely be the UCI category 1 Cross Vegas cyclo-cross race held in conjunction with Interbike Wednesday evening.
Armstrong racing cyclo-cross in December 2004
“We are going to try to make it,” he said. “It will be tight with so many heads of state at the Clinton Global Initiative [event] and then air traffic control as well.” While the events are scheduled for the morning New York time (EST) and the men’s Cross Vegas race does not start until 9 p.m. (PST), Armstrong’s private plane could be at the mercy of the US air traffic control system.
Even if he does make it to the race on time, having no UCI points from last year will mean he will likely start well back in the grid – in the middle at best.
He also is scheduled to be on “Late Night with David Letterman” this Friday as well, though Higgins said that was taped Monday and will not conflict with his travel.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008