Lance Armstrong Comes Back From Retirement

Lance Armstrong announced Tuesday that he will come out of retirement to try for an unprecedented eighth victory at the Tour de France.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The world's most famous and perhaps most controversial bicycle racer is riding back onto the competitive scene. American Lance Armstrong, who survived cancer and then won a record seven Tours de France, has announced he'll return to professional cycling next year.

Armstrong retired after his 2005 tour victory. He says he wants to win the storied race and eighth time while raising awareness about the disease that nearly killed him more than a decade ago.

We are joined by NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman to find out more. And, Tom, how much of a surprise was this announcement?

TOM GOLDMAN: Well, for those who know him, his competitive nature, his almost addictive need to overcome obstacles and win, probably not so surprising. Now for the rest of us who had settled into watching Armstrong run marathons and stay in the public eye mainly through the gossip column chatter about his liaisons with famous women, probably it is surprising.

But, you know, Renee, never underestimate the elite athlete's inability to stay retired. From Michael Jordan to, most recently, NFL quarterback Brett Favre and now Lance Armstrong, once you've been on top and grabbed the world's attention for your accomplishments, it's really hard to leave and stay away.

MONTAGNE: Since he's talking about raising awareness about cancer, though, it does sound like there's more at play here motivating Armstrong.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's true. I mean, he says he is truly motivated to make his fight against cancer a global effort, and being an active athlete will help keep him in the public eye to do that. He was successful in his home state of Texas in helping push through a bill that invests $3 billion in the fight, and he wants to see that kind of commitment worldwide.

MONTAGNE: And anything else that might be behind this decision?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, there is the elite athlete's fire in him. He said racing in a grueling mountain bike race in Colorado last month really kind of kick-started his engine. Plus, he was the guy who beat cancer. Now he's sounding as if he wants to be the guy who beat age.

He'll be 37 at next year's Tour de France, and in a Vanity Fair interview that appeared yesterday on the magazine's Web site, he cited 41-year-old Olympic-medal-winning swimmer Dara Torres, who had great success at last month's Beijing games.

But also, there's the issue of drugs. The Vanity Fair article mentions how a segment of the population considers Lance Armstrong an asterisk athlete. He won seven Tours de France, but did so with the aid of banned drugs.

Now there are lots of allegations, some seemingly quite credible. Many looked at his era in the 1990s and early 2000s and saw lots of cyclists who were caught for doping and some who admitted it. And how could Lance Armstrong be the pristine one, they asked?

Armstrong always denied the allegations, but he's using this comeback and what he hopes is another triumph at the Tour as a way to silence the critics.

MONTAGNE: And do you think it'll work?

GOLDMAN: Well, he says he's going to be completely transparent and open with the press, something he wasn't during his reign. He says he's going to make himself available for the most rigorous drug-testing and even chronicle it on video for a possible future documentary. But even if he proves that he's back in '09 as a completely clean rider, it's probably not going to have an impact on the suspicions from the past.

MONTAGNE: Okay, so he's got his sights on the Tour de France, 2009. What's he got to do to get there?

GOLDMAN: Well, we'll find out more about his specific plans later this month: what his competition schedule will be, which team he'll ride for. Now the team he's been linked to, Astana, which is run by his long-time cycling director Johan Bruyneel, that team was banned from the tour this year because of past doping problems.

Tour organizers are very sensitive to any doping connections these days. Armstrong himself might not be invited to the race. Now if that happens, he says he'll appeal to French President Sarkozy, who's an Armstrong supporter.

In the Vanity Fair article, Armstrong says: I've already put a call in to him.

MONTAGNE: NPR sports correspondent, Tom Goldman. Thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

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