TOULOUSE, France (AFP) — Disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong will be back on the Tour de France roads for a controversial charity ride Thursday, his first appearance since being stripped of his seven titles.
He will ride two stages of the Tour for a leukemia charity — from Muret to Rodez on Thursday and from Rodez to Mende on Friday — a day ahead of the competing riders.
The charity, the brainchild of former English soccer player and leukemia survivor Geoff Thomas, aims to raise about 1.4 million euros ($1.5million), mainly via sponsorship garnered by the 10 other amateur cyclists riding the route.
As of Tuesday, around 840,000 euros had already been raised, a member of the association told AFP.
The participation of Armstrong, who admitted in a stunning TV interview in 2013 that he had doped his way through the Tour de France throughout his career, has already sparked controversy.
The president of cycling’s governing body, the UCI, has warned that Armstrong “may not get quite the welcome he would like” in France.
“There are a lot of people already out on the course the day before the Tour and I am not so sure they would be delighted to see Lance Armstrong, so maybe he needs to bear that in mind,” Brian Cookson told AFP in Sochi, Russia, in April.
The UCI president renewed his call for Armstrong to give up the planned ride.
“It is undesirable, I think it is disrespectful. I think there are plenty of ways of raising money for charity that Lance could do,” Cookson said.
Armstrong himself dismissed any concerns about a return to the Tour de France — at least in an unofficial capacity.
“People think I have this bitter relationship with the country, with its people. I like going there. I love France,” he told a small group of journalists, including AFP, last month.
He also shook off Cookson’s comments.
“I don’t know Brian Cookson. I’ve never met him, never really had a conversation with him, don’t even know what his vision is for the sport,” Armstrong said.
“But I do know that me and Geoff riding in France for this cause is the least of his problems.”
Cycling has struggled to shake off suspicions of doping since Armstrong’s sudden revelations that rocked the sport in 2013.
Even before this year’s event started, there was a doping-related scandal surrounding the tainted Astana team of Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali.
And a scintillating performance in Tuesday’s mountain stage earned British rider Chris Froome (Sky) accusations of doping, to which the Kenyan-born former champion reacted angrily, stressing: “I know I’m a clean rider.”