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By Neal Rogers
Lance Armstrong will come out of retirement next year to compete in five road races with the Astana team, according to sources familiar with the developing situation.
Armstrong, who turns 37 this month, will compete in the Amgen Tour of California, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Georgia, the Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour de France — and will race for neither salary nor bonuses, the sources, who asked to remain anonymous, told VeloNews.
Armstrong’s manager, Mark Higgins, did not respond to questions. And an Astana spokesman denied the report to The Associated Press.
“He is no part of our team,” Astana team press officer Philippe Maertens told the AP in an e-mail. “Team Astana has no plans with him.”
However, sources close to the story have told VeloNews that an exclusive article on the matter will be published in an upcoming issue of Vanity Fair, expected later this month. Vanity Fair editors did not respond to requests for comment.
Rumors of Armstrong’s return swirled at last week’s Eurobike trade show in Germany and this week’s Tour of Missouri.
The rumor speculates that Armstrong will reunite with former team manager Johan Bruyneel at Team Astana — a viable option given Armstrong’s long-lasting relationships not only with the Belgian director but also Trek, Astana’s bike sponsor.
According to sources, the Texan will post all of his internally tested blood work online, in an attempt to establish complete transparency and prove that he is a clean athlete.
The rumor, which has been rampant for nearly a month, gained legs when former Discovery Channel team director Dirk Demol signed with Astana for 2009.
“I am excited to be reunited with Johan Bruyneel,” Demol said. “What Johan has been able to do this year with Team Astana is quite special and admirable and I look forward to being a part of his program once again. It will be a new team with some familiar faces, but I know the winning philosophy and structure have remained the same.”
Other rumors are that Armstrong will continue to pursue mountain bike racing, and may try his hand at cyclocross as well.
Should Armstrong return with Astana, it would bolster a squad that arguably boasts the sport’s best stage-racing team.
In Missouri, Columbia rider George Hincapie, a close friend of Armstrong’s and the only man to ride on all seven of the Texan’s Tour winning teams, simply smiled when asked what he knew about the rumor, saying, “I don’t know anything.”
Armstrong re-enrolled himself into the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s out-of-competition testing pool prior to August’s Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race, where he finished second to Dave Wiens, said USA Cycling chief operating officer Sean Petty.
USADA rules state that any athlete who wishes to come out of retirement must enroll in the USADA out-of-competition testing program for at least six months in advance of regaining eligible status.
A return to racing would no doubt bring large crowds to American races, and could perhaps save the Tour de Georgia, which is struggling to land a title sponsor.
Petty said that should Armstrong wish to return to racing, “it would be one of the most exciting things to happen to American racing since he won his seventh Tour. Depending on his plan, if that is what he wanted to do, it would be tremendously exciting and would generate a tremendous amount of attention on the sport, and on what he’s doing. People would be very interested to see how he would do in a comeback.”
The last big-name rider to return from retirement was Italian Mario Cipollini, who signed with Rock Racing and competed at this year’s Amgen Tour of California after three years away from the sport. Cipollini failed to win a stage, but took third in a field sprint and said, “This finish means as much to me as any victory.”
Following the race Cipollini had a contractual dispute with Rock team owner Michael Ball and left the team.