AUSTIN, Texas - Look out France, Lance Armstrong is making a comeback.
The 36-year-old Armstrong is breaking out of his three-year retirement and aiming to win yet another Tour de France in 2009, a move sure to shake up things across the Atlantic and give a boost to a sport that has missed its biggest star.
In a formal statement Tuesday, Armstrong called his comeback an attempt to raise global awareness in his fight against cancer. Just as likely, it’s also about his relentless desire to compete and win, especially at the Tour, which he won a record seven times from 1999-2005.
Citing the slow pace of last year’s Tour and the rush from last month’s Leadville 100 race, Armstrong decided it was time to return.
“This kind of obscure bike race, totally kick-started my engine,” he told Vanity Fair in an exclusive interview, referring to the lung-searing 100-mile mountain bike race through the Colorado Rockies. “I’m going to try and win an eighth Tour de France.”
Tour director Christian Prudhomme told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Armstrong would be treated just like any other competitor, and must “follow all the rules today, that are much more strict than they were.”
“If Lance Armstrong is at the start of the Tour de France, it will be the same thing for him and for his team,” Prudhomme said. “There won’t be any exceptions.”
Armstrong’s riveting victories over cancer and opponents on the bike, his work for cancer awareness and his gossip-page romances have made him a modern-day American icon.
Professional cycling and particularly the Tour have missed Armstrong’s allure, even though skeptics refused to believe he could win without the help of performance-enhancing drugs.
“Suspicion has followed Lance Armstrong since 1999, everyone knows that. But in this proposed comeback ... you have to remember we are in mid-September and that much water will run under the bridge until the Tour de France departure in Monaco,” Prudhomme said.
Armstrong is determined to silence the doubters. He’s even hired a video crew to chronicle his training for 2009, as well as his drug tests, for a possible documentary.
“There’s this perception in cycling that this generation is now the cleanest generation we’ve had in decades, if not forever,” said Armstrong, who’s never tested positive. “And the generation that I raced with was the dirty generation. ... So there is a nice element here where I can come with really a completely comprehensive program and there will be no way to cheat.”
“We’re not going to try to win second place,” Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s lawyer and longtime confidant, told The Associated Press.
Diagnosed in 1996 with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain, doctors gave Armstrong less than a 50 percent chance of survival. Surgery and brutal cycles of chemotherapy saved his life.
From there, it was determination and powerful self-discipline that led him back to the bike and his stunning 1999 Tour win.
“I am happy to announce that after talking with my children, my family and my closest friends, I have decided to return to professional cycling in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden,” Armstrong said in a statement released to The Associated Press. “It’s now time to address cancer on a global level.”
In a video on his foundation’s Web site, Armstrong said details of the comeback — such as a team and schedule — will be announced Sept. 24 at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.
The 2009 Tour “is the intention,” Armstrong’s spokesman Mark Higgins told The Associated Press, “but we’ve got some homework to do over there.”
“I think it’s great,” said longtime teammate George Hincapie, who spoke to Armstrong on Tuesday morning. “He’s done more than anyone for the sport, especially in America.”
Armstrong, who plans to train in Aspen, Colo., will be 37 next week. Only one rider older than 34 has ever won the Tour — 36-year-old Firmin Lambot in 1922.
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Sept. 9: Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong announced today that he is coming out of a three-year retirement to race again. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
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