PARIS // Tour de France officials responded with a typical Gallic shrug today at the news that Lance Armstrong will ride in cycling's premier event next year. The seven-time Tour champion, who is currently training with his Astana team in Tenerife, Spain, confirmed yesterday his ambitious plan to return to the Tour just weeks after riding in his first Giro d'Italia in May. Tour officials said nothing had changed since Armstrong's surprise announcement in September that he planned to ride in the Tour again - even though he had since publicly expressed doubts about that idea.
"We're in the same situation," the Tour spokesman Christophe Marchadier said. The Tour chief, Christian Prudhomme, refused to comment "because he'll repeat the same thing, and he doesn't want to repeat himself," Marchadier added. In September, Prudhomme said: "One cannot say that his comeback is good or bad news. But it really is news ... It's making noise everywhere" - and that nearly everybody seemed to have an opinion about it.
Despite his record-breaking success on the Tour, Armstrong is a controversial figure in France, with many suspicious as to how the cancer survivor could achieve such success without doping. Armstrong has repeatedly denied ever using banned drugs. Marchadier said Tour officials have not had any contact with Armstrong in a long time. "Nobody even met with him when he came to Paris last week," said Marchadier. "He's coming back, and if he abides by the rules, like all the other riders of the Tour, he'll be at the start."
French team leaders were even more standoffish. Eric Boyer, head of the International Association of Professional Cyclist Groups and sporting director for the French team Cofidis, said simply: "I don't want to react. It doesn't interest me." Speaking after wind tunnel testing last month in San Diego, California, Armstrong had suggested his safety might be at risk if he enters the Tour again as fans can get so close to the riders.
"If they hate you and you're on the roads and they want you, they can get you," he said. But in an interview published today in Le Parisien daily, Armstrong played down reports of his concern about safety, saying they were "like many stories that start small and end up very big." "We've had threats in the past. The French government and the (Tour) organisation have ensured protection," Armstrong said, according to a French translation of his remarks.
"So am I worried about that? No." Française des Jeux manager Marc Madiot mocked any concerns that Armstrong might have about safety, and took a not-so-subtle dig at his home state of Texas. "You can tell him simply that France isn't Texas. We're not in the Far West in France," Madiot said. "We are honest and respectful people. That's all." Giro director Angelo Zomegnan said he did not think Armstrong would overextend himself by competing both the Italian and French showcase races. "Judging from the great care with which he's preparing his comeback on the big stage, I think his return will not be a pathetic remake but a performance that will push the limits of mankind," he said. "From the physical point of view, he comes off three years of low to medium physical activity, so he's less tired than his younger colleagues." Brian Nygaard, spokesman for the Danish Saxo Bank team, said he "cannot see anything negative" in Armstrong's return to the Tour and that it would give the race an "exciting perspective." Many riders have said they want to see how Armstrong fares back on the road before commenting on whether he could present a real racing threat at the age of 37.
A spokesman for the Australian cyclist Cadel Evans said the 2008 Tour runner-up was still waiting to see how Armstrong will do. "It's a still long way off," said the spokesman, David Lyall. "Cadel has maintained the whole time since Lance announced his comeback that it's still a long way off. We'll see if he (Armstrong) gets to the Tour Down Under, then we'll see how he goes there and then we can talk about it."