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By Andrew Hood
Even Johan Bruyneel doesn’t know where Lance Armstrong is going to race next year in his comeback season.
The Belgian director – who led Armstrong to seven consecutive Tour crowns – said the news of Armstrong’s return caught him by surprise, but he’s already greasing the wheels for his return to Astana.
“I spoke with him yesterday and he hasn’t decided anything,” Bruyneel said before the start of Wednesday’s stage. “Considering the relationship that we have, we would not permit him to race with another team. There’s no way.”
Bruyneel said he spoke with Armstrong for about 15 minutes on Tuesday for the first time since the seven-time champion confirmed a story by VeloNews that he would return to competition in 2009.
“We’ll speak more in the coming days. I know that once he’s made his decision to return, he’ll be very clear about his goals,” Bruyneel said. “He wants to race free, without a salary and he’d have no problem at all finding a team, but our relationship is clear.”
Armstrong and Bruyneel have remained closed since the Texan retired after a record seventh Tour in 2005.
Following the closure of the Discovery Channel team when a new sponsor couldn’t be lined up, Bruyneel took over the troubled Astana team at the end of the 2007 season.
Despite being denied entry into the 2008 Tour, Astana has enjoyed a successful season with overall victories in the Giro d’Italia, Tour of California, Vuelta al País Vasco and other races under Bruyneel.
Bruyneel, who’s leading the Astana troops at the Vuelta a España, has been hounded by the media since the rumors of a possible Armstrong comeback started circulating late Monday.
At first, the Belgian director discounted the story as “rumor,” but admitted he had heard that Armstrong was mulling a possible return. Whether Bruyneel was completely in the loop on Armstrong’s decision to return is hard to read.
“From what he told me is that his preparation for the Leadville 100 cemented in his mind that he would be interested in a comeback,” Bruyneel said. “He really enjoyed being on the bike again. It’s been a long time since he’s trained so hard with a clear objective. This is what he loves to do.”
Like everyone, Armstrong’s return is full of question marks for Bruyneel.
“We don’t know how far he can go. Three years without competing at the highest level is a long time,” he said. “He’s lived a very different life the past three years. Everyone knows what he’s achieved. He’s very motivated, but at the same time, you have to make it a reality.”
Many wondered if Armstrong, who turns 37 this month, is too old to return to the highest levels of cycling.
“It’s not a question of age, it’s a question of motivation,” he continued. “I think that challenge of coming back is motivating him now. It’s this impossible challenge that will push him. We have to keep our feet on the ground. There’s still plenty of time to discuss things more calmly. Right now, we’re here to try to win the Vuelta.”
Finally, Bruyneel said the return of Armstrong is only good news for cycling.
“Whatever level he manages to regain, it’s only positive news for cycling,” he said. “It’s good for our sport. Everyone in the world right now is speaking about Armstrong and his return to cycling. It will be good for everyone, for cycling, for the Tour, for all.”
All, perhaps, except Armstrong’s rivals.