Prudhomme welcomes American "in principle"
By Hedwig Kröner
The sensitive relationship between the seven-time Tour de France winner and the home country of the greatest bike race on earth, France, is once again put to the test with the announcement of Lance Armstrong's comeback in 2009. The American's bid to win the Grande Boucle once again after three years of retirement from the sport has triggered many reactions in the homeland of cycling; most of them not of a positive nature. Still, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said that Armstrong could participate in the race "if he complies with today's much more severe anti-doping rules."
The overall feeling within the French cycling community following the surprising news this week was one of bewilderment. Jean-René Bernaudeau, manager of Bouygues Télécom, could not understand Armstrong's decision and even cast a new shadow of doubt on the way the American was going to try to achieve his goal. "I don't know what to think of it," he told L'Equipe. "In any case, this kind of come-back does not fit into my view of the sport. Bernard Hinault would never have done this... With Armstrong, you get the impression that everything is easy: he stops for three years and then comes back as if nothing happened. That's not how cycling works. Now, we can ask ourselves what the recipe is..."
Speaking of Bernard Hinault, the five-time Tour de France winner was not as incredulous at the return of the 37 year-old champion. "Jeannie Longo is still there, and she's almost 50 years old," he commented. "Lance Armstrong has a lot of time in front of him, still. If I'm surprised at his comeback? Yes and no. Yes, because he had stopped the bike, and no, because he is not the first, nor will he be the last rider to attempt a come-back of this kind.
"Now, will he have the capacities to return to the highest level? I don't know. We shall see at Paris-Nice. Personally, I was never tempted by a come-back during my time. Instead of taking up competition once again, I think it is better not to stop in the first place."
Marc Madiot, manager of La Française des Jeux was puzzled even though respectful of Armstrong's motives. "He is dedicated to the fight against cancer, that is fine," he said. "That's good news. But I don't know if taking up competition at the highest level is the best solution for it... It appears completely surrealistic to me. We will see, but right now I can't imagine him winning the Tour de France again, or else the rest of them are all worthless... But before trying to win the Tour again, Lance Armstrong has to explain himself about what happened in 1999."
Indeed, the allegations of the American achieving his first Tour win with the help of performance-enhancing drugs (See the Latest News for August 23, 2005 as well as Cyclingnews' complete coverage of the L'Equipe claims) are still very present in the collective memory of the French cycling community. Even though the accusations were never confirmed by the International Cycling Union (UCI), most of the French public tends to believe the newspaper.
This is something even Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme noted as he commented that Armstrong was "welcome in principle" at next year's race. "If his yet unknown team as well as himself comply with today's much more severe anti-doping rules, then we will accept his participation," Prudhomme told AFP, even though "Armstrong's victories have been tarnished by suspicions since 1999."
The ASO official was mostly curious to see if Armstrong will be able to achieve an eighth Tour de France victory. "To me, this return is one of pure challenge. There are very few sportsmen who succeeded a come-back like Michael Jordan. It's a real challenge to come back after three years of retirement, even if he finished second in a mountain bike race recently. Moreover, there is his age. He will be 37 years old in one week. Now, you can always say that Raymond Poulidor came second in the Tour at the age of 38 years (in 1974), and third (in 1976) when he was 40. Still, it is now mid-September and a lot of things will be happening until the start of the next Tour de France in Monaco."