By Paul Verkuylen and James Huang
Lance Armstrong's plans to return to the professional peloton in 2009 may be broader than he originally indicated. Speaking shortly after winning the 12 Hours of Snowmass, his second bike race in three years, the Texan revealed that he is planning on racing all over the world, including Australia and South Africa, in an attempt to increase the global awareness of his Lance Armstrong Foundation.
"The most important issue is taking the global epidemic of cancer really to a much bigger stage," he explained. "The best way to do that is to race the bike all over the world. So you race in Australia, South Africa, South America, Europe, America, um... that is the first priority."
Initially it was rumoured that Armstrong's return would see him ride just five events: the Tour of California, Paris-Nice, Tour de Georgia, Dauphiné Libéré and Tour de France. Now it seems that his return may see him race in events such as the Tour Down Under, in Adelaide, Australia.
"What's important is that we take the Livestrong message to all the other countries in Europe, all the other continents around the world, that's the most important thing," he continued. "At the end of the day, as I've said, we've had an impact in Texas, we've had an impact in the US and I think we'll have an impact around the world.
"If people can't sit back and appreciate that and applaud it, I don't know what they're going to applaud. That's my first priority," he added.
Just which team Armstrong will race for in the new season is still a mystery. Astana would be the obvious choice, due to the connection with former Discovery Channel manager Johan Bruyneel, but it would be a tough call to ask Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer to step aside for Armstrong to take over the reigns. The Texan is remaining tight-lipped about whether he will ride alongside the current leaders at Astana or on a rival team. "No idea," was his response when asked.
"I've said that all along; [Contador] is the best cyclist in the sport," he said. "That's why he should have been in the Tour de France this year. [The Vuelta's] not on TV so it's hard to watch; I just follow the results online and clearly their team is the best. Levi [Leipheimer] is the second strongest but they have a long ways to go. There are a lot of steps to figure out before that."
Eighth Tour not a priority - for Team Livestrong?
Another possibility is that Armstrong may well set up an entirely new team. Racing in an Astana jersey is not going to get his message out there as effectively as one embossed with Livestrong livery.
"It's be a mistake to say I'm coming back to win an eighth Tour; I don't need an eighth Tour," he said. "But we [Livestrong] were successful in Texas; we were successful in the United States. The next logical step is to take it global. And I still feel healthy enough and fit enough to go out and, perhaps... I can't make any guarantees. I've been off the bike for three-plus years and I'll be 37, almost 38."
Armstrong's return has also reignited the long standing debate surrounding his super-human performances. Many still believe that his seven consecutive wins could not have been done without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. An anti-doping program will be implemented as a means to make his performances as transparent as possible.
"We will have a comprehensive anti-doping program that will leave no doubt, if I'm successful," he said. "But I can not reiterate enough: nothing will change. In 2009, nothing will change from 2001. I never cheated. I'm not going to cheat in '01; I'm not going to cheat in '09. That's not going to change.
"We'll be able to validate it [now] we couldn't validate it in '01," he added. "[In] 2001, 2002, you had to try to prove a negative. They said, you have something that we can't find, you're sneakier, smarter than the other guys.' That's a very hard thing to work against."
Armstrong was also quick to squash the belief that all the riders from his generation raced dirty.
"It is a little silly to say that this generation is different," he said. "Look at Carlos Sastre; he comes from my generation, too. Do people say that about him? I read in a paper today that German TV said that I was part of the old generation; what generation is Carlos Sastre from?"