Lance Armstrong will be a guest of the race organisation at the 2018 Tour of Flanders and will be the keynote speaker at a new business conference organised by Flanders Classics two days before the race.
Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from sporting competition in October 2012, following investigations by federal agent Jeff Novitzky and USADA which outlined the scale of the doping programme on his US Postal Service team. The American eventually confessed to doping to win each of his Tours in a television interview in January 2013.
The terms of Armstrong’s lifetime ban from USADA preclude him from participation "in any capacity in a Competition or activity" and saw the Colorado Classic organisers drop their planned media partnership with the American’s podcast on this year’s edition of the race.
In a statement on Thursday morning, Flanders Classics head Wouter Vandenhaute defended his decision to extend an invitation to Armstrong for the Ronde.
"Lance Armstrong is and remains a great champion. I have felt for many years now that he was above all punished for his arrogance," Vandenhaute said.
"I met Lance Armstrong in Washington last October and found him to be a chastened man who has made peace with his fate. Of course, we in the cycling sport need to continue making every effort to combat doping, but we also need to come to terms with our past. I think it’s good that we continue to honour champions like Laurent Jalabert and Richard Virenque, so why shouldn’t we welcome Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich back into our big cycling family as well?"
Flanders Classics, the group which organises the Tour of Flanders, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Scheldeprijs and Brabantse Pijl, has expanded as a business. It has not shied away from controversial measures under Vandenhaute’s watch, not least the decision to drop the Muur van Geraardsbergen from the finale of the Tour of Flanders in 2012 in order to include circuits over the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
When Armstrong rode two stages of the 2015 Tour de France a day ahead of the peloton as part of Geoff Thomas’ charity ride, his presence drew many reporters and television crews away from the Tour itself. Vandenhaute is well aware that the presence of Armstrong, still the most famous (and infamous) name in cycling, will thus attract considerable interest for the inaugural ‘Tour of Flanders Business Academy’, which bills itself as “an event where business, society and cycling meet and cross-pollinate each other".
"With the ‘Tour of Flanders Business Academy', we aim to invite a top-class speaker to Flanders each year. This can be someone from the world of cycling, but could just as easily be a representative of another sport or another aspect of our society," Vandenhaute said. "The very first speaker we have invited is Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong is delighted to be visiting Flanders to tell his story and experience his favourite one-day race live. To him, this will also be a return to cycling and, as far as I am concerned, he is very welcome!"
In a video message, Armstrong described the Tour of Flanders as the "most special" Classic on the calendar. "I look forward to talking to you about cycling, talking to you about my experience openly, honestly and transparently," Armstrong said.
Armstrong’s appearance at the Tour of Flanders will come just five weeks before the whistleblower lawsuit against him goes to trial in Washington on May 7. The trial will determine whether Armstrong defrauded the US Postal Service by doping while it sponsored his team.
Former teammate Floyd Landis originally started the suit in 2010 under the False Claims Act which allows citizens with knowledge of fraud against the government to file action on its behalf and, if successful, gain 15-25 per cent of any damages awarded. The government joined the case in 2013 after Armstrong confessed to doping.
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