Armstrong Just May Take a Back Seat

By Jon Brand
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 4, 2009

Lance Armstrong has had many monikers in his cycling career: seven-time Tour de France winner, cancer survivor, philanthropist.

And as the 180-rider Tour begins in Monaco today, he appears prepared to add another title to the list: dutiful teammate.

The Texan ended a 3 1/2 -year retirement last fall with the Tour de France in mind. Yet he enters the race as his team's announced secondary option, behind Spaniard Alberto Contador.

Astana, the Kazakhstan-based team for which Armstrong rides, named the 26-year old Contador the lead rider over Armstrong, 37. The scenario might make Armstrong's already difficult quest for an unprecedented eighth yellow jersey even harder.

"Out of respect for [Contador], out of respect for the team and out of respect for the rules of cycling, I would do it with pleasure," Armstrong told the Associated Press earlier this week.

His proclamation did little to defuse the intrigue surrounding Astana.

Armstrong "has the most amazing tour history of any rider out there ever," said George Hincapie, an American rider for Columbia-HTC and a former teammate of Armstrong's. "I don't know if he's going to win the race . . . but it's going to be an interesting Tour for Astana because they have so many big guys."

It's another plot twist in a season that has held peaks and valleys for Armstrong, who is riding to raise awareness for cancer research in lieu of a salary this year.

He had a strong opening to the campaign, finishing the Australian Tour Down Under, albeit in 29th place. The performance seemed to announce that his famous fitness had not slipped.

"A number of times during the course of this season, he said, 'You know guys, I've been away . . . sitting on my backside, drinking beers,' " Versus cycling announcer Paul Sherwen said in a conference call Monday. "However, you must never forget that he finished up three marathons in sub-three hours" during his retirement.

In March, however, Armstrong suffered a crucial setback. He broke his collarbone at Spain's five-day Vuelta a Castilla y León.

A few weeks later, still in recovery, he skirmished with French anti-doping officials over an improperly administered drug test.

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