December 5, 2008 / 3:00 PM / 11 years ago

Armstrong faces steep ascent back to top

TENERIFE, Spain (Reuters) - Lance Armstrong cannot be expected to show if he can win an unprecedented eighth Tour de France until well into 2009, according to the American’s Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel.

Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong of the U.S. (L) talks to 2007 Tour de France winner and team mate Alberto Contador of Spain as they ride together during a training session with Armstrong's new team Astana, in Tenerife, Spain's Canary Islands December 5, 2008. Armstrong is coming out of retirement and will make a Tour de France comeback next year. REUTERS/Paul Hanna

“Right now, the most difficult question is ‘how good can he be again?’,” Bruyneel said at Astana’s training camp on the Canary Island of Tenerife.

“But until he starts racing we won’t be able to have an answer. I would even say we will see something but not a lot at the Tour Down Under because it’s not a difficult race and the competition is not very strong.”

Cancer survivor Armstrong, the Tour winner from 1999 to 2005 who has come out of a three-year retirement, will start his season in Australia next month.

“In California (in February) we will see some more, but it will still be too early so we will have to wait and that’s the exciting part of this new project,” Bruyneel told Reuters.

Armstrong, however, is familiar with the impossible, having fought off testicular cancer before returning to competition in 1998.

“Every morning, I don’t wake up as a cyclist, I wake up as a cancer survivor,” he told reporters.

The 37-year-old Texan said both his passion for racing and his desire to raise awareness of his LiveStrong cancer foundation triggered his comeback.

“I have a passion for racing, I rediscovered, and after a couple of years of my foundation, we realised there is a place for LiveStrong around the world,” he said.

“Those two put together, Johan was receptive to the idea. I come here as a volunteer, I’m racing for free, there is nothing on the line for me.”

But Armstrong must face the fact that there is.

‘MUCH FITTER’

He could become the oldest rider to win the Tour, Belgian Firmin Lambot having prevailed at the age of 36 in 1922.

“He reminds me of sports people like Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. He is that special,” said Bruyneel.

“I don’t know how it will turn out, but he is much fitter than in 2005 at the same time of the year, although it is understandable since he will soon be back to competition.”

On Wednesday, Armstrong appeared quite at ease on the ascent of a hill in Tenerife during training, riding effortlessly in front of a small group against the wind.

A fierce competitor, Armstrong does not leave anything to chance. First, he made sure he would be working in the best possible atmosphere.

“I would not have gone to an infrastructure I would have had to introduce myself to,” he said when explaining why he rejoined Bruyneel, the man behind his seven Tour de France wins.

“After three and a half years, there was Johan, my soigneur. It’s been easy, as if it had been an off-season.”

Armstrong, who has had a difficult relationship with French crowds and faced unproven doping allegations in 2005, said nothing would divert him from his goal of raising awareness of his cancer foundation.

“I have been listening to the whispers for more than a decade. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. It doesn’t cause me to lose sleep.

“Most importantly, it hasn’t caused any negative effects to the things I love most,” he said, adding he was given a standing ovation in a restaurant in Nice last week.

“I said to myself, ‘hey, what the hell is the problem here?’ France isn’t full of haters. The most prudent thing to do is just to relax when it comes to that relationship.”

Even if he does not win the 2009 Tour, Armstrong has already succeeded in attracting all the attention.

On Tuesday, Armstrong’s Astana high profile team mate Alberto Contador, winner of the 2007 Tour, was standing in front of his Tenerife hotel, when a woman came up to him and asked: “Hola, hablas Espanol? (do you speak Spanish?)

- Yes

- Do you know if Lance Armstrong is here?”

Editing by Rex Gowar

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