- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

No other man has won so many times or dominated so long in the Tour de France. Few men, if any, overcame so many obstacles.

On Saturday in Monaco, that man returns to the event that made him famous, attempting to beat the odds again and add another remarkable comeback to his storied career.

Lance Armstrong, at age 37 and after a three-year absence, opens his quest for one more victory, an eighth Tour de France title. Armstrong has another motive as well: quieting critics who accuse him of using performance-enhancing drugs.

Armstrong won a record seven consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005. But it’s uncertain how he will perform this year after the long leave.

“There are probably eight guys in the race who will start with ambitions to win it,” said Phil Liggett, an analyst on Versus’ broadcasts of the race. “It has got the elements of being an extremely good tour.”

Armstrong, a cancer survivor, built his legend on unlikely comebacks and obstacles overcome. However, he faces a series of challenges entering this year’s race - some from his own team.

In all of his Tour de France victories, Armstrong has competed as the lead rider. This year, he will compete for Astana as a support rider for Alberto Contador, a 26-year-old Spaniard who won the Tour de France in 2007.

Contador also represents a major threat to Armstrong’s hopes of a full comeback.

“If Contador does come on to great form, I don’t think Lance will get near him anyway,” said Paul Sherwen, another race analyst for Versus. “I don’t think Lance can climb like Alberto can.”

Armstrong faces a new physical challenge as well: He broke his collarbone in March during the first stage of the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, a five-day stage race that takes place north of Madrid.

George Hincapie, who supported Armstrong in all of his Tour de France victories, thinks Armstrong can win again.

“He has the most amazing tour history… so I wouldn’t let anything pass him,” Hincapie said. “I think he is motivated and fit. I think he’s going to be on top. … I think this is probably one of the most interesting, exciting tours that we’ve seen in the past 10 years.”

With so much attention on Armstrong’s return, allegations of steroid use have re-emerged. Armstrong has denied using banned substances.

In August 2005, the French daily sports newspaper L’Equipe claimed Armstrong used the performance-enhancing drug EPO during the 1999 Tour de France. The paper based its claims on frozen urine samples obtained in 1999 from Armstrong, who was exonerated later that year.

In June 2006, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that Armstrong had admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in 1996. Armstrong said he used the drugs to fight the testicular cancer that had spread to his brain.

Armstrong has been tested for steroids multiple times since he announced last September that he would compete in this year’s Tour de France. No traces of performance-enhancing drugs have been found.

In March, Armstrong made headlines when there reportedly was a 20-minute delay before Armstrong gave blood, urine and hair samples to a French anti-doping agency tester who had arrived at his house. The samples were clean, and the agency cleared Armstrong in April to participate in this year’s Tour de France.

If Armstrong needs the race to prove himself and to clear his name, the Tour needs Armstrong’s popularity to attract viewers back to a sport damaged by three consecutive years of steroid scandals involving prominent riders.

Floyd Landis won the race in 2006 but was stripped of his title and banned from cycling for two years after he tested positive for testosterone. In 2007, leader Michael Rasmussen lied about his whereabouts for pre-race steroid tests and was sent home. Last year, third-place finisher Bernhard Kohl and five other riders were caught doping.

The combination of those scandals and the absence of Armstrong’s star power hurt TV ratings. In 2005, an average of 315,000 viewers tuned in each day. By 2008, viewership had declined by 55 percent.

Versus hopes Armstrong’s return will produce a ratings spike. The network will broadcast the Tour in high definition for the first time, a move it hopes will make the race more appealing to viewers.

“With the return of Lance this year, we believe in the event,” said Marc Fein, Versus’ executive vice president of programming. “As Lance is coming back into it, we think we’ll certainly enhance viewership for the event.”

That likely would be the case if Armstrong makes his way in position to win.

Based on Armstrong’s recent performances, Liggett said, he’s capable of doing just that.

“At 37, he proved to us in the Giro d’Italia that he was - by the time that race finished - probably the best rider in the race,” Liggett said. “Lance - I guarantee - he’ll be a reckoner in this race.”

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