Lance Armstrong Strikes Back
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On the eve of the Tour, perhaps the biggest unknown – and determining factor in Armstrong's quest for an eighth win – is who, finally, he'll race with. Loyal to his old coach Bruyneel, who guided him through his seven Tours on the United States Postal and Discovery Channel teams, Armstrong joined him at Astana, an unusual outfit sponsored largely by the government of Kazakhstan. Armstrong jokingly refers to Astana as "Team Borat," and the team has an almost comical history. Created largely as a showcase for the Kazakh superstar Alexander Vinokourov, Astana skulked out of the 2007 Tour when Vinokourov was caught blood-doping and was then prohibited from starting altogether in 2008. Bruyneel was hired to scrub up the mess. He brought in superb talents capable of winning Grand Tours, including Levi Leipheimer, a 35-year-old native Montanan who's won the Tour of California three times, and Alberto Contador, a 26-year-old Spaniard who won the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, and Vuelta a Espa–a over a two-year period and is generally regarded as the world's best rider.

Adding a 75-kilo gorilla like Armstrong to Astana was a delicate task. For all its focus on individual glory, cycling is thoroughly a team sport. Throughout a race, lesser riders (known as "domestiques") will work to protect the team's best racer, shielding him from the wind, trying to steer him away from crashes, and chasing down attacks by rivals. A winning team usually has a crystalline chain of command. Almost immediately, reports surfaced that Contador was stewing over Armstrong's hiring.

"Alberto's a confident young guy," Armstrong says. "He's 100 percent sure that he's the best that there is, which is the mentality you have to have. I don't think he was doing backflips when the news broke that I was coming back. Obviously that's created some tension. It's definitely been a struggle."

The tensions deepened this spring, after Contador suffered through a bad stage during the Paris-Nice race in France, and Armstrong, watching on television, Tweeted that Contador had "a lot to learn."

"I stand by that," Armstrong tells me. He says Contador didn't listen to his team director or teammates during that race and needlessly chased down rivals instead, losing energy. "It's like, 'Who fucking cares about these petty things?' Win the war. He's a strong kid, but he's strong-minded as well."

Though a headache for Astana, the rift with Contador has created a delicious scenario for cycling fans – the possibility that during the Tour, Contador and Armstrong, refusing to work for each other, will instead battle it out on the road. It's not unprecedented: American Tour winner Greg LeMond once dueled with teammate Bernard Hinault. Armstrong says he won't be the underminer. And he might not be working for Contador, either.

"Levi is as good as Contador," he says. "If I'm the third strongest guy on the team, I've got to do what's right. You start to jeopardize all that you've worked for."

Lance Armstrong, Tour de France domestique? It sounds laughable – the king riding with the cavalry. But strangely, sacrificing himself could bolster his reputation more than a win, especially in Europe.

"If I get fifth in the Tour and Alberto wins, it might make me the most popular man in France," Armstrong says. "It's not my objective, but it would."

By late May, there is yet another wrinkle. In Italy for the Giro, Armstrong goes public with the news that Astana's sponsors, rocked by the global financial crisis, haven't been paying the bills. Armstrong himself isn't taking a salary to race, but other riders haven't been paid in months. As a protest, Astana's riders at the Giro start wearing uniforms that obscure the logos of their deadbeat underwriters. Armstrong begins scrambling to find new sponsors, and it's possible he'll be riding for a new team for the Tour de France. Meanwhile, rumors are flying that Contador will jump to another team.

But amid the chaos, there is good news. Armstrong's fitness returns late in the Giro and suddenly no one rules him out as a Tour threat. "This performance is better than could have reasonably been expected," says Bob Stapleton, owner of the rival Columbia-Highroad Team.

But it's been a hard road back. If Armstrong returns (in 2010), he'd prefer a smoother ride.

"I'd like to have a strong American team that trains hard, races hard, wins, and doesn't whine," he says. "I think cycling needs that. You play by the rules, you've got the highest ethics, you fucking win bike races, then you shut up. I think that's the best."

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