By Andrew Hood
Lance Armstrong wasn’t at Wednesday’s presentation of the route of the 2009 Tour de France, but he was on everyone’s tongue.
Whether or not the Tour is part of Armstrong’s future is very much up in the air.
Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel said the only thing certain about Armstrong’s schedule is that he’ll race at the Tour Down Under, the Tour of California and the Giro d’Italia.
“The Giro is sure, but after that, it depends on how he’s doing in the first races. Right now, his chances (of racing the Tour) are 50-50,” Bruyneel said. “What’s sure is that he’s in better shape on October 22 of 2008 that in the same period in 2003 and 2004.”
Others aren’t convinced that Armstrong still might race the Tour. Cycling legend and Armstrong close friend Eddy Merckx predicts the seven-time winner won’t be back for an eighth.
“Out of respect for (Alberto) Contador and the delicate relations he has with France and the French press, I don’t believe he’ll race,” Merckx told the Belgian daily La Soir.
Merckx said he spoke with Armstrong about his reasons for returning to racing after a three-year stop and the Belgian said he’s convinced “that Armstrong will not race the Tour.”
Ever since Armstrong announced last month he’d return to competitive racing, there’s been growing speculation of a showdown between Contador and Armstrong for control of the powerful Astana team.
Contador — who won the 2007 Tour and roared to victory in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España this year when his Astana team was kept out of the French race — has expressed his dissatisfaction about an Armstrong return.
Bruyneel shot down rumors that Contador was looking to switch teams in the aftermath of Armstrong’s stunning announcement that he would be returning to competitive cycling since retiring in 2005.
“We have a three-year contract with Alberto and he has two years left and I expect the contract to be respected by all sides,” Bruyneel said. “We want to win the Tour next year. We’ll bring the strongest team to the race and we’ll work for the strongest rider in the race, whether that’s Armstrong, Contador, Kloden or Leipheimer.”
Contador, who was among the Tour riders present for Wednesday’s official unveiling, said he won’t be waiting for Armstrong to make up his mind.
“He’s a great champion and he’s welcome to come to the Tour. I’m not sure what he will do, but it will be the road that puts everyone in their place,” Contador said. “I’m not sure when he’ll make a decision, but I suppose it will depend on what happens during the year. I believe that he will make a decision based on how the year develops.”
Contador confirmed to the Spanish media this week he’s staying with Astana, at least through the 2009 season.
Other riders agreed that if Armstrong does decide to race the Tour, he would be one of the favorites for victory.
“If anyone can come back at his age and win the Tour, it’s Armstrong,” said two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans.