Lance Armstrong will announce his racing plans later today, but according to several sources, he is set to go to Astana. USA Today and AFP both report that Armstrong will join his former boss Johan Bruyneel on the Kazakhstan-supported team. This cut short efforts by Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere to secure the service of Armstrong.
The official announcement will be made in New York today where Armstrong is due to speak regarding his cancer-awareness agenda at the Clinton Global Initiatives conference. Armstrong is making his comeback to the sport in order to spread the message of his cancer foundation.
USA Today quoted Armstrong's agent Mark Higgins, "His first race in the comeback will be the Tour of Australia with the season ending goal of the Tour de France. More races will be announced in the coming weeks.
Armstrong is expected to announce more details on his 2009 return, aimed at raising cancer awareness through his Livestrong charity, today. The influential sports figure will announce his plans at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, USA, where world leaders are also gathered this week for the United Nations General Assembly.
Kazakhstan officials had thrown further weight behind a possible Armstrong-Astana hook-up. Defence Minister Danial Akhmetov, who is also the nation's cycling federation chief, gave his stamp of approval to Armstrong as a possible signing to the squad. "He is a great cyclist and he is also a great humanitarian and that makes him a perfect fit for our team," Akhmetov told Reuters.
Higgins also revealed that Armstrong has plans to create a development team. "In addition Lance will be announcing the creation of an under 23 team sponsored by Trek that will include young cycling star Taylor Phinney."
Phinney will be at the press conference as well as anti-doping expert Don Catlin, who will oversee the testing programme.
Lefevere loses out
Lefevere had started an effort to woo Lance Armstrong to the Belgian squad. Quick Step is losing star rider Paolo Bettini for next season, as it's unable to afford the Italian UCI World Road Champion, but Lefevere's sponsors have apparently said they would have been happy to foot the bill from Armstrong.
Lefevere already knew he was up against a difficult task. "It seems unrealistic, but it's worth a try," Lefevere he had told HLN.be. "There are still no concrete talks, but I have contacted the office of Bill Stapleton [Armstrong's adviser]."
"My two main sponsors, Quick Step and bicycle manufacturer Specialized, are in American hands," he added. "For them, Armstrong is very attractive. Even if he doesn't win the Tour, it would still have gigantic advertising return."
While sponsors might be happy to come up with the cash to employ Armstrong, the main stumbling block for Lefevere's bid is in fact his sponsor Specialized. The seven time Tour de France champion has a life-long deal with its rival American manufacturer Trek Bicycles.
The Trek connection already indicated that Armstrong would re-unite with team director Johan Bruyneel. The Astana boss has gone on record saying he can't imagine Armstrong riding with any other team.