Professional cycling is set for an injection of star power with the announcement that Lance Armstrong is breaking out of his three-year retirement and aiming to win yet another Tour de France.
In a formal statement, the 36-year-old Armstrong described his comeback as 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 de France, the race won a record seven times from 1999-2005.
Citing the slow pace of last year's Tour and the rush from competing in last month's domestic Leadville 100 race, Armstrong decided it was time to return to the Tour in 2009.
"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."
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, has missed Armstrong, even though sceptics refused to believe he could win without the help of illegal performance-enhancing substances.
This time, Armstrong is determined to silence the doubters and try to prove he really is clean.
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."
And if he has his way, no way to lose.
"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.
Armstrong's goal every year was to win the Tour, and he dominated the Pyrenees and Alps. This time, he says he wants to win for his millions of supporters and more important, the eight million who will die of cancer just this year.
"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 on 24 September at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City.
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. "He's done more than anyone for the sport, especially in America and around the world."
Armstrong, who turns 37 next week, plans to train in Aspen, Colorado in rigorous conditions similar to what he would face in Europe.
Only one rider older than 34 has ever won the Tour — 36-year-old Firmin Lambot in 1922. And Armstrong wasn't impressed by the crop of younger riders in the 2008 Tour.
"It's not a secret. I mean, the pace was slow," he told Vanity Fair.
Armstrong noted other athletes in his age range competing at a high level, specifically 41-year-old Olympic swimming medalist Dara Torres and 38-year-old Olympic women's marathon champion Constantina Tomescu-Dita of Romania.
Armstrong also must line up a team. His U.S. Postal Service and Discovery teams were loaded with top lieutenants, such as Hincapie, when he won his previous titles.
On Monday, the cycling journal VeloNews reported on its Web site that Armstrong would compete with the Astana team in the Tour and four other road races — the Amgen Tour of California, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Georgia and the Dauphine-Libere.
Armstrong's close friend and longtime team director, Johan Bruyneel, now with team Astana, sent a text message to The AP declining comment.
But there are no guarantees Astana will race the 2009 Tour. Race officials kept the team out this year because of previous doping violations. Tour director Christian Prudhomme did not return messages seeking comment on Armstrong's decision.
If Armstrong and his team aren't invited in 2009, he plans to appeal directly to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"I've already put a call in to him," he said.
Off the bike, the Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer awareness and survivorship programs. Its yellow "Livestrong" wristbands that started selling in 2004 are still seen everywhere — with many copycats.Reuse content