Maybe there’s something about the wait that makes it all worth while. Or so French cycling fans may be hoping. That’s because they still don’t know if seven-time champ Lance Armstrong will actually show for next year’s Tour de France.

Armstrong’s comeback may be as much about putting the fight against cancer in the international spotlight as an eighth title – though that’s what the Texan said he was targeting when he stunned everyone with his announcement he was coming out of retirement.

Last week he said he would enter the Giro d’Italia for the first time, which some observers seized on as ‘evidence’ that Italy might replace France when it comes to big-ticket tours as he returns to the circuit. Certainly, to judge from by his own words, there is room for doubt regarding a return to France, where many fans cannot accept that Armstrong’s seven-year reign was 100 percent clean.

“My main objective in 2009 is to bring about global awareness of a disease that kills eight million people annually worldwide,” said Armstrong earlier this month. “Nobody ever said that I need the Tour de France in order to try and achieve this.”

He insisted he loved France and the French people – but that love has not always been reciprocated. French media and fans alike, as well as race organisers, have never been able to believe the Armstrong story – yet as he said himself he was “never once found to be guilty of doping despite seven years of intense scrutiny. We won clean and fair.”

Jean-Etienne Amaury, who heads the Tour de France’s parent company Amaury Sports Organization, told French sporting bible L’Equipe that” we can’t say he (Armstrong) has not embarrassed the Tour de France.”

Armstrong is welcome but he would have to adhere to the sport’s strict anti-doping rules.

“We’ve got no qualms about Armstrong coming back to the Tour,” Amaury said. “But we’ll be playing close attention to make sure he respects all requests that are made in an anti-doping framework to the letter.”

Days after Armstrong’s seventh Tour victory in 2005 L’Equipe alleged that several of his samples, kept since 1999 and tested retroactively, tested positive for EPO (erythropoietin). Armstrong spurned that offer last week, claiming the French laboratory Chatenay-Malabry near Paris “mishandled” his urine samples. Armstrong says the lab also botched his 1998 samples.

The doubts deepened last Tuesday when Lance told the Gazetta dello Sport in Italy that “there are still doubts as things stand” on the Tour de France. “Everyone knows the importance of the Tour) but also the problems I have with the organisers, journalists and the fans.” He added that those problems could detract from his anti-cancer “mission.”

Therefore, “it’s possible the Tour of Italy will be the only three-week stage race I will compete in.”

Of course, with Astana, his team, having not been invited this year there is no knowing if they – and therefore Lance – will be welcomed with open arms – or indeed at all – in 2009.

“I hope there will be a diplomatic solution,” says the man who the French still harbour so many suspicions about – especially as he was accusd by Equipe in 2006 of doping in 1999.

What does seem clear is Lance is on the way back as he prepares for the Tour Down Under in January alongside an anti-doping expert, Don Catlin, who will follow and monitor his progress.

Catlin is expected to put Armstrong’s blood values and testosterone to epitestosterone ratio online in view of anyone who’s interested. But former US winner Greg LeMond is only one who believes an official body such as anti-doping agency WADA should come in and do that instead in the interests of as much transparency as possible.

Even if Lance does compete in France there will be blank screens on German TV – both national broadcasters ARD and ZDF said this week they will not show the event, opining that the residual level of cheating meant its “broadcast value has sunk” through the floor.

But the American is banking on his return – inside or outside France – will stir at least enough interest worldwide to give a massive boost to anti-cancer funding – perhaps now more important to the veteran than competitive sport.



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