Lance Armstrong is ready to swear off the chips and salsa, climb back on the bike and win an eighth Tour de France. Three years after retiring, the 36-year-old says he'll return to competition and the Tour de France in 2009, giving up relaxed days of a few beers and Tex-Mex food for a self-described monk's life of disciplined training and punishing races.
In a formal statement Armstrong called his comeback an attempt to raise global awareness in his fight against cancer. Just as likely, it's also about his relentless desire to compete and win, especially at the Tour, the race he dominated with a record seven titles from 1999-2005.
Citing the slow pace of last year's Tour and the rush from last month's Leadville 100 race, Armstrong decided it was time to return.
"This kind of obscure bike race, totally kick-started my engine," he told Vanity Fair in an exclusive interview, referring to the lung-searing 100-mile mountain bike race through the Colorado Rockies. "I'm going to try and win an eighth Tour de France."
Armstrong's riveting victories over cancer and opponents on the bike, his work for cancer awareness and his gossip-page romances have made him a modern-day American icon.
Professional cycling and particularly the Tour have missed Armstrong's star power, even though skeptics refused to believe he could win without the help of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
This time, Armstrong's determined to silence the doubters and try to prove he really is clean.
He's even hired a video crew to chronicle his training for 2009, as well as his drug tests, for a possible documentary.
"There's this perception in cycling that this generation is now the cleanest generation we've had in decades, if not forever," said Armstrong, who's never tested positive. "And the generation that I raced with was the dirty generation. ... So there is a nice element here where I can come with really a completely comprehensive program and there will be no way to cheat."
And if he has his way, no way to lose.
"We're not going to try to win second place," Bill Stapleton, Armstrong's lawyer and longtime confidant, told The Associated Press.
Diagnosed in 1996 with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain, doctors gave Armstrong less than a 50 percent chance of survival. Surgery and brutal cycles of chemotherapy saved his life.
From there, it was determination and powerful self-discipline that led him back to the bike and his stunning 1999 Tour win.
Armstrong's goal every year was to win the Tour, and he dominated the Pyrenees and Alps like no other rider ever had. This time, he wants to win for his millions of supporters and more important, the 8 million who will die of cancer just this year.
"I am happy to announce that after talking with my children, my family and my closest friends, I have decided to return to professional cycling in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden," Armstrong said in a statement released to The Associated Press. "This year alone, nearly eight million people will die of cancer worldwide. ... It's now time to address cancer on a global level."
In a video on his foundation's Web site, Armstrong said details of the comeback _ such as a team and schedule _ will be announced Sept. 24 at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City.
The 2009 Tour "is the intention," Armstrong's spokesman Mark Higgins told The Associated Press, "but we've got some homework to do over there."
"I think it's great," said longtime teammate George Hincapie, who added he spoke to Armstrong on Tuesday morning. "He's done more than anyone for the sport especially in America and around the world."
But what will he have to do to make a successful comeback?
For starters, he plans to train in Aspen, Colo., in rigorous conditions similar to what he would face in Europe.
Armstrong will be 37 next week. Only one rider older than 34 has ever won the Tour _ 36-year-old Firmin Lambot in 1922. And Armstrong wasn't impressed by the crop of younger riders in the 2008 Tour.
"It's not a secret. I mean, the pace was slow," he told Vanity Fair.
Armstrong noted other athletes in his age range competing at a high level, specifically 41-year-old Olympic medalist swimmer Dara Torres and 38-year-old Olympic women's marathon champion Constantina Tomescu-Dita, of Romania.
"Ask serious sports physiologists and they'll tell you age is a wives' tale," he said.
Torres certainly agrees.
"To hear that he's making a comeback, that just shows what kind of athlete he is and that he doesn't think age is anything but a number," she said from her Florida home.
Armstrong also must line up a team. His U.S. Postal Service and Discovery teams were loaded with top lieutenants, such as Hincapie, when he won his previous titles.
On Monday, the cycling journal VeloNews reported on its Web site that Armstrong would compete with the Astana team in the Tour and four other road races _ the Amgen Tour of California, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Georgia and the Dauphine-Libere.
Armstrong's close friend and longtime team director, Johan Bruyneel, now with team Astana, sent a text message to the AP declining comment.
But there are no guarantees Astana will race the 2009 Tour. Race officials kept the team out this year because of previous doping violations. Tour director Christian Prudhomme did not return messages seeking comment on Armstrong's decision.
If Armstrong and his team aren't invited in 2009, he plans to appeal directly to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"I've already put a call in to him," he said.
Off the bike, the Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer awareness and survivorship programs. Its yellow "Livestrong" wristbands that started selling in 2004 are still seen everywhere _ with many copycats.
After he retired Armstrong took on cancer as a political issue, lobbying federal and state lawmakers and co-hosting televised forums with presidential candidates. He can rally millions of his "Livestrong Army" through his Web site to support cancer causes.
He was instrumental in persuading the 2007 Texas Legislature to pass a $3 billion fund for cancer research.
"This is a damn war for me. It's nothing other than that," Armstrong told The Associated Press in 2007.
His social life has done just as much to keep him in the spotlight.
After his divorce from wife Kristin, the mother of his three children, Armstrong has had high-profile relationships with rocker Sheryl Crow, fashion designer Tory Burch and most recently, actress Kate Hudson.
Associated Press Writer Jerome Pugmire in Paris and AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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