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Discovery team to cease operations at season's end

AUSTIN, Texas -- The Lance Armstrong era in cycling is over.

Citing fractious leadership in the sport, constant doping
allegations and the struggles of finding a new sponsor, Armstrong
and the owners of his former Discovery Channel team said Friday the
squad will disband after this season.

Armstrong said it was the perfect time to go out on top:
Discovery's Alberto Contador of Spain won the team's eighth Tour de
France title in nine years last month.

"It's a sad day for cycling. Certainly a sad day for American
cycling," Armstrong said. "We're proud of our record."

The decision shuts down the sport's only elite professional team
based in the United States. Armstrong retired from riding in 2005
but remained a visible co-owner of the team operated by Tailwind
Sports.

Discovery announced in February it would not sponsor the team
beyond this year. Team General Manager Bill Stapleton acknowledged
difficulty securing new sponsorship with the sport under the
constant pressure of doping allegations.

"It's not an environment right now that's conducive to a lot of
investment," Stapleton said, adding the team was in talks with
several potential sponsors. "This was a difficult decision, not
made any easier by our recent Tour de France success."

Armstrong said he believes a sponsor could have been found, but
the ownership group decided now was the time to quit.

Armstrong can turn his attention to his cancer foundation and
politics -- he is hosting a cancer forum with presidential
candidates later this month and is a key player behind a $3 billion
research initiative in Texas -- and team director Johan Bruyneel is
retiring.

"This is not about the lack of a sponsor," Armstrong said.
"Right now is a good time to step aside."

The team was a dominant force in cycling for nearly a decade.

Armstrong won the first of his record seven consecutive Tour de
France titles in 1999 racing under the U.S. Postal Service banner.
The team built cycling's top lineup as Armstrong and his
lieutenants powered their way through France and maintained that
dominance when Contador won the Tour and American teammate Levi
Leipheimer finished third.

Discovery will still ride in this year's Tour of Spain and the
Tour of Missouri, but the shutdown means Contador, Leipheimer and
the 25 other riders must find new teams for 2008.

"They leave with the Discovery stamp," Bruyneel said. "I'm
sure they will be very wanted."

Contador has been dogged by recent doping allegations, and on
Friday denied again taking performance-enhancing drugs and any
involvement in the Operation Puerto investigation.

"I've never committed a doping offense. I've never been
involved in any act of doping," Contador said. "My promise
against doping is absolute."

Although he never failed a drug test, Armstrong has been forced
several times in recent years to deny repeated allegations that he
use banned substances during his career.

Discovery also signed top Italian rider Ivan Basso in 2006 but
was later forced to drop him when he was caught up in the Spanish
blood-doping investigation.

"We had our share of controversies," Armstrong said before
ticking off a list of team victories over the years. "And not one
positive [drug] test."

Bruyneel oversaw each of the team's eight Tour victories.

"I'm going to miss the staff, riders and the excitement of the
races, but not all the infighting between the teams. This team has
become my family and it is very sad to think that we will not be
together next season," he said.