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Armstrong ‘optimistic’ about Tour Down Under

Lance Armstrong is hoping that a difference of 10 days to comply with UCI rules doesn’t derail his planned comeback at the Tour Down Under in Australia, January 20-25.The seven-time Tour de France winner expressed optimism Monday that cycling’s governing body would apply common sense when interpreting rules that require a retired rider to register in the UCI’s anti-doping program six months before returning to competition.Armstrong, 37, confirmed that he officially enrolled with the U.S.

Giro d’Italia bid gaining steam

By Andrew Hood

Lance Armstrong is hoping that a difference of 10 days to comply with UCI rules doesn’t derail his planned comeback at the Tour Down Under in Australia, January 20-25.

The seven-time Tour de France winner expressed optimism Monday that cycling’s governing body would apply common sense when interpreting rules that require a retired rider to register in the UCI’s anti-doping program six months before returning to competition.

Armstrong, 37, confirmed that he officially enrolled with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency on August 1, but said his agent Bill Stapleton made contacts with UCI president Pat McQuaid in mid-July about Armstrong’s comeback bid. Armstrong would be eligible to race February 1.

“We’re not asking for any exception, but they don’t always apply this rule. We all remember Mario Cipollini last year at the Tour of California. This rule was not applied to that,” Armstrong said. “It’s a tricky situation. You’re talking about a few days overlap.”

Armstrong spoke publicly about the issue for the first time with journalists in a conference call Monday from Marfa, Texas, described as an art community in west Texas.

“One, we’re slightly confused. Two, we’re slightly optimistic,” Armstrong continued. “And third, we’ll respect whatever they come down with, but we have to be consistent with this stuff.”

The snafu is caused by a little-known rule that states than a retired or inactive athlete must register with a tracking program to comply with the “biological passport” program that includes announced, out-of-competition testing.

Rule 77 reads:

A rider who has given notice of retirement from cycling to the UCI may not resume competing at international level unless he notifies the UCI at least 6 months in advance before he expects to return to international competition and is available for unannounced out of competition testing at any time during the period before actual return to competition.
Armstrong said he’s fully complying with the rules and added that anti-doping controllers have already tested him in late August in his Austin, Texas home.

“The most effective way to combat doping is unannounced tests,” he said. “And if you’re not there, that’s strike one, two and three. You have Blackberries, telephones, everyone knows where everyone is. USADA knows that I am sitting here right now. I am constantly willing to be available for tests. If they come once, if they come a 100 times, great.”

The 10-day gap between Armstrong’s official registration in the out-of-competition testing program and the start of the 2009 Tour Down Under creates a delicate situation for the UCI.

Officials on hand for the Varese world championships this weekend in Italy realized that Armstrong might not meet the six-month requirement to begin his comeback at the Tour Down Under.

McQuaid was adamant that no exceptions would be made.

“And those rules state that he must be in the anti-doping system within a six-month period,” he said. “I don’t know on what date Armstrong asked to be registered on the program. But the UCI will apply these rules, regardless of the athlete.”

Armstrong’s decision to kick start his return to competition with the Tour Down Under was the biggest thing to ever hit the five-day Australian race.

Australian officials told VeloNews they would be deeply disappointed if the UCI sticks to the letter of rule when the difference is barely more than a week.

Race officials stepped up last fall when the UCI made a late request for the five-day Tour Down Under to become a ProTour race on short notice and taking away Armstrong’s return would certainly be a bitter pill for Australia.

Armstrong, who retired after winning his seventh Tour crown in July 2005, raced in the Leadville 100 mountain bike race in Colorado on August 9.

He later confirmed VeloNews reports of his return in mid-September and made a formal announcement at the Clinton Global Initiative on September 23.

Armstrong said the Australian race fit perfectly into his comeback plans.

First, he can initiate his worldwide effort to raise awareness about cancer as well as put in some race miles ahead of the Tour de California in February, in what will be Armstrong’s first U.S. road race since 2005.

“I’m very excited to come to Australia. We have a lot of things planned. There’s a bike race going, but more importantly, there’s a lot of stuff we can do in Australia, with the people, the government in the fight about cancer,” he said. “It’s my hope that I can get down there.”

Fighting weight
Armstrong said the comeback bid begins in earnest this week with plans to dramatically increase his training schedule to regain racing form.

So far publicly, Armstrong has hedged about what his real expectations are on whether he can fully regain his competitive edge, but a few comments Monday revealed that the Texan is going to be very serious about racing again.

“I started training June 1, mostly gym and power work, but in my mind it was not about racing. I was training for the Chicago marathon. I wanted to run 2:30,” he said. “I was just doing a mix of trail work and a little road riding, but straight up long-endurance runs. Then before Leadville, I really started to ride a lot. I spent a lot of time on the road.”

Armstrong must of have been encouraged by what he saw on his SRM. Within weeks, the idea of a comeback started to gel.

He reminded reporters that he would enter the off-season at 178 pounds and start the Tour at a lean 164 pounds. Armstrong now says he’s only 168 pounds and expects to be even lighter for the 2009 Tour.

“As of October 1, I am much better shape than I was before,” he said.

Giro plans taking shape
Armstrong said he still hasn’t finalized his complete 2009 schedule, but more bits are falling into place.

He’ll have his first face-to-face meeting with Astana riders and staff in a December training camp somewhere in Europe, most likely Spain.

“I need to sit down with Johan (Bruyneel) at a training camp in Europe,” he said. “Until then, it’s hard to talk to team, directors and look at when and where I’d like to go. Right now we have a shell, but right now I don’t think I’m ready to say every single race up and through the Tour.”

Whether or not he races at Tour Down Under, he’ll attend a training camp in California in late January and then race the Tour of California in February.

After that, Armstrong said it’s mostly likely back to Europe to race Paris-Nice, an event in South Africa and back to the United States for some time with his children and mostly like the Tour de Georgia.

A start at the 2009 Giro d’Italia is looking more likely than ever before tackling the Tour.

“Not participating in the Giro was a regret of mine. I would love to try that, with their 100th year anniversary,” he said. “I’ve never done it before. There’s no precedent, it’s definitely a departure. It depends on how you race a Giro. If you went to win and raced to win, I would be concerned that you couldn’t recover in time. Considering that I haven’t raced the past three and a half years, part of this is needing some race days, more than I normally got in other years.”