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Armstrong welcome at Tour de France, California

The organisers of the Tour de France removed one likely hurdle to his quest at winning an eighth Tour de France: the issue of an invitation to his Astana team. Christian Prudhomme, the Amaury Sport Organisation's Tour director, said that as long as the team has no "ethical problems" in the coming months, the team would be at the Tour in 2009.

This year, Prudhomme refused to invite Astana, which had four separate doping cases during the 2007 season and was forced to leave the Tour that year after its leader, Alexander Vinokourov, tested positive for a blood transfusion.

Armstrong has fought off repeated doping allegations since winning his record seven Tours, and as part of his comeback he has enlisted the services of Dr. Don Catlin to carry out a comprehensive testing program.

Prudhomme admitted that Armstrong still has plenty of star power in France. He told the Associated Press that after visiting the Tour of Poitou-Charentes in Western France, "practically the whole day, people spoke to me about the return of Lance Armstrong."

"The fact that he is a star ... means that this touches everyone," he said.

Prudhomme added that he hopes Armstrong will show "humanity" in his return, rather than a super-human performance which make fans suspicious. "If you have that humanity with Lance Armstrong, then we will have a very beautiful Tour de France," he said.

Going back to Cali'

Armstrong also announced Thursday that he plans to race in the 2009 Amgen Tour of California with the Astana Cycling Team. The race, which has expanded to 800 miles over nine days will visit San Diego county for the first time, and was expected to draw record crowds even without the presence of the seven-time Tour champion.

AEG president Andrew Messick was delighted to hear of Armstrong's plans. "We expect it will bring an unprecedented level of attention to our race," he said. " The scene in Las Vegas today was a little bit crazy. It was not just people who care about cycling, but people who care about what Lance does and follow him. It's an opportunity and a challenge for us to rise to the occasion."

Armstrong made it clear in his press conference on Wednesday that he would only visit races in geographical areas where leaders have made a firm commitment to battling cancer. The Tour of California has held the "Breakaway from Cancer" initiative since its inception in 2006. Messick said that he hoped that they could work with the Lance Armstrong foundation. "We think Lance's efforts are consistent with our anti-cancer initiative," he said, but denied that the race had promised anything to lure Armstrong to their race. "We have not made any financial commitments to Lance's foundation," said Messick. "We have talked about ways we can work with them."

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