Astana meets the press

By Peter Cossins in Tenerife

What a difference a year makes. At the end of 2008 the Astana team was presented to a press corps about a dozen-strong. Today's presentation in the swanky setting of the Golf Las Americas country club in Tenerife attracted more than 10 times that number, almost all of them drawn by the second comeback of Lance Armstrong.

Astana may be a team that is now home to no fewer than five riders who've finished among the leading contenders at the Tour de France, but there's no doubt Armstrong is the man everyone wants to see and speak to. The first indication that the Texan was on the premises was a stampede of photographers as he entered the press conference. For the first couple of minutes photographers jostled, TV cameramen yelled as their view was blocked and no one could restore order.

When relative calm was brought, this press conference was tame compared to most of those Armstrong attended during the latter years of his seven-year-long run of Tour success. While doping would have been one of the main themes then, now there are new topics for the press to dig over...

Why is he coming back? What's he expecting when he does start back? Does he think he can win the Tour? And, above all, how are his goals going to mesh with those of Alberto Contador, who Armstrong described as "the strongest cyclist in the world at the moment"?

He said that he felt "OK for an old guy", and he certainly looks the part. Clearly, the marathon training he's done over the past three years that was more recently honed by his preparation for last August's Leadville 100 has been continued. He looks lean and is reported to be riding hard in a very fast group of Astana riders on this extremely mountainous island.

He reaffirmed that his two reasons for coming back are to boost the profile of the Livestrong organisation, whose colour he will continue to train in, and to enjoy the new-found passion he has for racing and training. If there's one thing that should make his potential rivals at the Giro and Tour sit up and think, it's Armstrong's declaration that he feels more motivated now than he did in 2004 and 2005.

As for Contador, sounding croaky after his recent throat operation, the Spaniard said all of the right things about having Armstrong back on the team. Asked whether he had the strength of personality to stand up to Armstrong's evident desire and determination, Contador said everyone has their own way of being and, although he may seem amiable and laid-back, underneath that he has plenty of character. Bruyneel was quick to back this up and later spoke at greater length about the huge impression the Spaniard has made on him.

All of the time he was doing this, Bruyneel was grinning like the Cheshire cat. And why not? He's got the two strongest stage race riders in the world on his team and they might just clean up all three major tours between them next season.

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