It starts now. In December, on snowy mountain roads around Tucson with his graying, balding posse riding shotgun, Lance Armstrong is back at it, all in, no doubts, head of a new cycling team but with the same goal as always -- to win the Tour de France.
Seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong, 38, has gathered seven of the men who rode with him in last year’s comeback. He also has a dynamic young nemesis, a Spaniard named Alberto Contador, a 26-year-old who has won four Grand Tours, including the Tour de France twice, and who is unafraid to say that he’s not a fan of Armstrong the man or the teammate.
“The buildup is going to be big,” Armstrong said Tuesday after his second day of training with the newly formed Team RadioShack.
Last year, Armstrong and Contador were contentious teammates on the Astana squad. After Contador proved his strength in the Alps and marked himself as clearly the dominant racer, Armstrong rode in support of Contador until the end.
After the race, Contador complained that Armstrong had not been a good teammate, that his relationship with Armstrong was “non-existent,” and that even though he considered Armstrong a great cycling champion, “I have never had admiration for him and I never will.”
Last week, Armstrong told an Australian magazine that he and Contador have not repaired their relationship.
“It’s no secret, we are not friends,” Armstrong said. “Young guy, tons of success, never faltered. I called his PR guy and said, ‘I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I don’t think that’s such a good thing to say. That’s stupid.’ ”
Contador is still riding for Astana but without Armstrong or three-time Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, two-time Tour de France runner-up Andreas Kloden or team director Johan Bruyneel by his side.
As Bruyneel noted, eight of the nine men who raced for Astana in France last year are now with RadioShack. Contador was the ninth and he will be meeting his new Astana teammates next week at a training camp in Italy.
Armstrong is both a smart man and a sports fan. He stands on the sidelines now and then for a big Texas football game. He understands how tennis has benefited from Roger Federer against Rafael Nadal. He says what every boxing fan is thinking: “Pacquiao-Mayweather, that’s what you want.”
In other words he gets that any sport, team or individual, is better with drama.
“It’s what you pay attention to,” Armstrong said. “Come game day, you need a bit of that buildup. No matter what they say, a coach always posts up what the other team says in the press. We did that. Some was real, some wasn’t, but we used it to our advantage.
“There was conflict last year, a personality conflict. Not to say that mine is good or bad or his is good or bad. Just different. Now we’re on separate teams. I think he’s glad he went left, glad I went right.”
Chris Horner, a 38-year-old American who raced for Astana last year and is now with RadioShack, rubbed his hands together and said, “This is going to be fun.” Horner said he looks forward to some trash talking between Armstrong and Contador.
“It’s the thing about riding with Lance,” Horner said. “It’s never boring.”
Leipheimer, 36, said he felt Contador had been a bit disrespectful in suggesting that he hadn’t had the full support of the Astana team last year. “He had all the support he needed to win,” Leipheimer said.
Armstrong was mostly demure in speaking about the 2010 season. He said Contador is “clearly” the strongest cyclist in the world. He said, “Those days are gone,” when asked about being on a team built for him. He wanted to make sure that 2009 Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck wasn’t left out of the conversation. But he also returned to the topic of how that “buildup” will go.
“A lot depends on how my prep goes,” Armstrong said, “how successful I am early in the season. The more success, the bigger the buzz. I think that’s good for cycling. All that matters for both of us is the Tour. That’s the one that’s 50 times bigger than anything else.”
And if Armstrong truly doesn’t think this new team is configured with his winning in mind, Leipheimer has another view. “I think this team is built around Lance,” he said. “It wouldn’t exist without Lance.”
Last year Armstrong’s comeback almost derailed when he crashed during a prep race in Spain and broke his collarbone.
Bruyneel, who has mentored and coached Armstrong since 1999, said Armstrong nearly quit after the crash. The two spoke by phone while Bruyneel was in a hospital waiting for his wife to give birth.
“I quoted Lance back to himself,” Bruyneel said. “He had once told me, ‘Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.’ I told him quitting wasn’t what he stood for. At a certain moment you make a decision and you have to go till the end.”
As for the balancing act between Contador and Armstrong last season, Bruyneel said, “It was doable.” It was the result that mattered, he said, Astana cyclists first and third and the team ranked No. 1.
Would he want to do that again, coach Armstrong and Contador together? “No,” Bruyneel said.
So Bruyneel and Leipheimer and Horner and Kloden and Yaroslav Popovych and Jose Luis Rubiera and Tomas Vaitkus and Gregory Rast and Sergio Paulinho, all from Astana, are now all in Tucson for a weeklong training camp and whatever Armstrong said, they are here for a reason.
“Lance’s team,” Leipheimer said.