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No news flash! Lance Armstrong back in Tour!

December 1, 2008 |  4:42 pm

Lance Armstrong at 2004 Tour de France

You knew all along that Lance Armstrong’s public dithering about whether his comeback would include the Tour de France was just a ploy to generate more buzz, right?

So you weren’t at all surprised on Monday when the Astana cycling team website’s "latest news" section led with: "NEWS FLASH: Lance Armstrong announces participation in 2009 Tour de France."

What point would there have been in Armstrong's returning to competitive road racing after more than three years if he were to skip the race that brought him both fame and notoriety?

(The latter is not good, even if the two words have mistakenly become interchangeable to most people.  In Armstrong’s case, "notoriety" refers to doping suspicions that have dogged him since the first of his seven straight Tour victories in 1999. He tested positive for a banned corticosteroid but was cleared by a therapeutic use exemption many feel was conveniently backdated).

All that yammering during a recent interview with a British newspaper about fears for his safety?  Clearly a way to manipulate sentiment when Armstrong rides the Tour next July.

He had voiced similar concerns in the past, concerns always legitimate in an event with virtually no crowd control. A free-for-all is one reason why the Tour appeals to spectators who wait hours for a few seconds’ glance of the riders as they whiz past.

But Armstrong needs the Tour de France, and he told the Associated Press that the race needs him.

The race certainly needs something after years of doping scandals (seven more riders caught last year, including the third-place finisher). It always will remain a part of French culture, but its competitive legitimacy has been severely compromised –- not the least by revelations that ex post facto testing (with no punitive consequences) found Armstrong had used the banned blood booster EPO in his 1999 victory.

Armstrong maintains he is coming back to get more publicity for his fight against cancer, a commitment that is unquestionable and laudable.

And he knows few would pay much attention to what happens in the other events on his 2009 schedule, including the Tour Down Under, the Tour of California and the Tour of Italy.

The Tour de France became water-cooler discussion material the last few years Armstrong rode –- and it will do so again next summer, especially with the expected headline-making controversy over who will be the Astana team leader in France -- Armstrong or Alberto Contador, reigning Tour of Italy and Tour of Spain champion.

Armstrong never has competed in the Tour of Italy.

At nearly 38 years old, he plans to ride the sport’s two toughest stage races.

Not since 1998 has one person won both:

Italy ’s Marco Pantani.

His 1998 Tour de France triumph was a footnote to the Festina affair, when an arrest of a performance-enhancing drug mule made it clear elite cycling was riddled with doping.

A year later, Pantani was booted from the Tour of Italy for a hematocrit level so high it screamed, "EPO."

That has been cycling’s main buzz since.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Lance Armstrong is shown leaving the podium before the 10th stage of the 91st Tour de France cycling race between Limoges and Saint-Flour in 2004. Credit: Paolo Cocco / AFP / Getty Images