Lance Armstrong gave his first official press conference for the new RadioShack squad at the team's training camp in Tucson, Arizona on Tuesday and he had one point to clarify: the team is not built around him.
Armstrong fielded questions about his new team and his comeback year, describing how his "experiment" rekindled his passion for the sport and inspired him not only to continue racing in 2010, but also to put his weight behind the formation of the RadioShack team.
Despite the fact that he is by far and away the best known rider in the sport of cycling and achieved a podium finish after a three year absence from the Tour de France, he insisted that the team, even at the Tour, will not be solely focused on him.
"The days of this team being built around me are done," Armstrong said concisely. "I'm 38 now, I'll be 39 this season - it would be irresponsible to build it around me. Going into the Tour we have to look at Levi [Leipheimer], [Andreas] Klöden, the tactics, the ideas that we use..."
That said, Armstrong feels he will be even stronger in 2010 than this year after having raced a full season. "All the training, the Tour and the Giro [d'Italia], that will benefit me going forward in 2010. This December already feels different than last December."
The camp is the first time that the riders and the staff have come together, and Armstrong said everyone seemed excited and ready to race.
"RadioShack has been a wonderful partner and very supportive. We have a well rounded group for all the races. Obviously the Tour is the one everyone talks about, and the build up to that will be big, But the Spring Classics will be important, too, It's also important the team starts hard in Australia.
"We have the best team in the world. If you look at the Tour this year, we had the strongest team in the race. Of the 9 riders from last year's Tour de France squad from Astana, 8 are now on RadioShack. We took the vast majority of the riders from the team that we wanted, so it remains a strong team. We lack that super high level favourite like Alberto [Contador], but I like the chances with the strong guys we have."
The seven-time Tour champion talked about the difficult transition from retiree to Tour contender - a rocky experience which led to his first serious crash, first broken collarbone, and serious doubts about continuing to race. Doubts which his friend and manager Johan Bruyneel had to quash with a firm hand.
"The reintroduction into cycling in Australia was a bigger shock than I expected, the tempo, the positioning in the peloton, the day-in, day-out stuff was different," Armstrong admitted.
After crashing in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in March and having to undergo surgery to repair his broken collarbone, Bruyneel informed Armstrong that in order to be good for the Tour, he would have to race the Giro d'Italia - a race which at that time was just six weeks off.
The gravity of his situation nearly led Armstrong to give up on the comeback plan, but Bruyneel stepped in and gave him no choice in the matter - the Belgian informed him he could not give up on the comeback, reminding him of his own motto: "pain is temporary, quitting is forever". The advice stuck, and Armstrong went on to podium in the Tour and is now preparing for another full season of racing.
"I didn't expect to be racing in 2010, but despite the rough transition, I enjoyed it and I wanted to keep racing." Armstrong said. He will do so for his new team for the first time in January at the Tour Down Under after a season plagued with problems with the Kazakh-based Astana team: one that included payment problems that nearly ended the team before the Tour, and unexpected personality conflicts with the team's other star, Alberto Contador.
Rather than focus on the past, Armstrong is moving forward with the new project which adds the ProTour squad to the existing development team, Trek-Livestrong, that allows the new riders to have a path into the big leagues and gives Armstrong a chance to stay active in the sport when his next retirement date arrives - whenever that might be.
"We had an opportunity with RadioShack to put together a team that provides a platform for the young guys on Trek-[Livestrong] to advance into.
"These things came together, not overnight, but they came together smoothly. We'll stay firmly embedded in cycling, and I'm excited."
With some 20 nationalities represented amongst the riders and staff, the team is a prime example of how cycling has become more international that its previous Europe-only inclinations.
"Cycling is becoming more global," Armstrong emphasized. Teams registered in the US next season include Columbia-HTC, Garmin-Transitions and RadioShack, as well as the BMC team, backed by the Swiss bicycle company, to add to the Anglophile movement.
"With the Tour Down Under, it won't be long before an Australian multinational decides to put together a team and contest the Tour de France.
"Like everything it's cyclical, most of it depends on funding, and we just caught it at the right time ... you start to see these things, and you realize we're riding a wave, despite the tough international economy."
In 2010, Armstrong plans to race the Tour Down Under then in March he will head to Spain for the Vuelta a Murcia and Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, which moved from May to avoid conflict with the Tour of California.
He may do a Spring Classic before heading back to the Tour of California in May, then the Tour in July. "There will be other events to fill in around that. We have to see what happens in late-April, and decide between Tour de Suisse and the Dauphine in June."
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