News feature, December 5, 2008
It's undisputable that the second return of Lance Armstrong has attracted the imagination of both media and fans world wide. No aspect of the story so far has been examined closer than the supposed rivalry between the revered veteran and his teammate Alberto Contador. The former is a seven-time Tour de France winner while the Spaniard a three-time Grand Tour champion over the course of the past two seasons.
And while there has been speculation over the role of each rider in the team, both leaders appeared yesterday in public together for the first time. A press conference in the hotel Las Madrigueras on the island of Tenerife, where the Astana team is having its camp, was the setting for the 'unveiling' of the team's dynamic duo.
When Lance Armstrong announced his comeback, he made it clear he would try for an eighth Tour title, but then backed down to a point where it wasn't clear if he would actually race the July event. He emphatically stated his intentions to compete in the Tour earlier this week, qualifying the announcement by saying that he was committed to racing "for the strongest guy".
Today, Armstrong dispelled any notion of there being internal strife within the team by unequivocally supporting his young Spanish teammate, Alberto Contador. "I think Alberto has obviously a tremendous amount of natural talent, and can read a race," Armstrong said. "I have a lot of respect for this man. I can't say it any simpler. This guy is the best cyclist in the world."
"There are certain unwritten laws in cycling; the others ride to support the strongest rider. Whether it means supporting Alberto [Contador] or Levi [Leipheimer] or Andreas [Klöden], I'll do that."
Armstrong explained that the reason he and Contador rode in separate groups in training was not because of animosity, but for logistical reasons. "It is better to keep an open attitude, we are in different phases in our training. One guy was in hospital last week [Contador had surgery on his nose]; I am racing in a month – it is totally logical that we don't train together. That shouldn't lead to any conclusions or polemics."
Johan Bruyneel, the Astana team manager and long-time collaborator with Armstrong, agreed with the American's assessment. "If Lance is not the best, he will become the best teammate Alberto could ever have dreamed of," he said.
The return of Armstrong was a shock for Contador, and led him to think about changing teams. But the Spaniard, who turns 26 on Saturday, told Reuters that he has changed his point of view since then. "You analyse the situation and once the shock has passed you see the different possibilities Astana is offering you," he said. Aside from the fact that Bruyneel gave Contador no option to get out of his two-year contract, Contador has come to accept his situation.
"The Astana people have faith in me. Today I'm sure I'm starting the season having made the correct decision."
Jumping in with both feet
The first race of the season for Armstrong will be the Tour Down Under in January - this ProTour event kicks off an intensive early season which will include the Tour of California, several Spring Classics in Europe and the centenary edition of the Giro d'Italia. The Texan was asked about the impact racing the Giro might have on his ambitions for the Tour de France.
"Good question, and I don't know the answer," he began. "I had to be well trained, so I started training earlier. For the foundation it is better to do the high profile races. I asked other people about doing the Giro and the Tour... ask me again at the end of July."
Armstrong wasn't sure if he could win the Tour, but said that he has the advantage of experience. He admitted that he has been away from competition for a long time and it is hard to judge at the moment. "I haven't tested myself yet against the others, but the Tour is months away."
Armstrong will not run the risk of strategic mistakes and plans to scout the Giro route, although the mountain stages will be hard to tackle in advance due to the Giro's start in early May. Peaks at higher elevations will still be buried in snow leading up to the event, and as Armstrong explained, "Some roads will only open shortly before the race."
The 2009 Tour de France, however, will offer more familiar roads, going through many of Armstrong's old stomping grounds. "The Tour starts in Monte Carlo, and I lived in Nice for four or five years," he said. "I lived in Girona for four years. [The Tour ties] two places together where I spent almost a decade of my life."
Armstrong hasn't made up his mind yet how long the comeback will last, but doubted it would be more than two years. "Age will become a factor. Or maybe it already is..." he said. Armstrong wants to get even more support for Livestrong, and he felt the best way to do that is to race near the front of the peloton.
There were the inevitable questions about doping, and in response Armstrong maintained that he never cheated with drugs. He is also aware of the fact that some doubters will always think he was using an undetectable drug. In order to avoid answering the same questions over and over again, he decided to have independent testing done under former UCLA anti-doping laboratory director Don Catlin, but admitted that it is not welcomed by everyone.
"WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] is not a fan of independent testing. It is saying that WADA, USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency] and others are not doing a good job. There is some tension there."
Armstrong was disappointed that the efforts to combat doping, initiated by cycling's administrators, are not recognised by the rest of the sporting world. Consequently, most people continue to see cheaters being caught as evidence of the sport's problems rather than its attempt to clean itself up, prompting Armstrong to question whether the glass was half empty or half full. "For me, it is half full, but for many people it is half empty. Cycling gets no credit."
Despite his comments questioning his safety on the roads of France which caused a stir last month, Armstrong spent a week in Nice, in southern France, before heading to the island of Tenerife for the Astana camp. He said that he was not met with support rather than hatred from the French public. "I went to a restaurant that I like to go to and when I left, people stood up and were cheering for an eighth win."
He wasn't sure if the difference was regional, but emphasised that France was not a place he avoids or dislikes. But there are tensions with the French media and certain people in France. The directeur sportif of Française des Jeux, Marc Madiot, apparently had asked for people to block the French roads should Armstrong start the Tour in 2009. "Please don't do that!" Armstrong said firmly.