Astana lineup has Lance in support role

PARIS -- Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong will return to the Tour de France in the unfamiliar role of support rider after his Astana team chose 2007 winner Alberto Contador as its leader for the race.

Although the American will be given a secondary role at the July 4 start, Tour and Armstrong fans know that anything could happen during the three-week race that starts in Monaco.

Contador "has worked very hard, earning the right to represent our team as the leader this July," team manager Johan Bruyneel said Thursday on Astana's Web site.

The 27-year-old Spaniard has five stage victories this year, and won the Tour of Algarve in February.

Bruyneel, who coached Armstrong en route to all of his Tour victories, noted he was "very happy" with the Texan's form in his comeback season after three years of retirement.

"I know he is extremely motivated for the Tour de France," he said.

Support riders, also known as "domestiques" in cycling parlance, can have roles such as shielding the team leader from the winds in the flats, escorting him up mountain climbs, or even fetching water bottles from team cars trailing the racers. The goals is for the team to take home the yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader.

Armstrong was known for often-clinical use of his teammates during his record reign as Tour champion from 1999 to 2005.

On his Twitter page Thursday, Armstrong wrote "This is not 2004 or 2005. I'm not the leader of the team."

He also had a link to the Astana Web site for his 1 million-plus followers on the social networking site.

Bruyneel's selections have been widely awaited by many cycling fans because they suggest who he believes Astana should build its team around for the Tour. He also coached Contador to his Tour win.

Astana, as with previous Armstrong teams, is exceptionally strong this year. It will include past Tour podium finishers Andreas Kloeden of Germany and American Levi Leipheimer.

The team had already announced a list of six Tour riders, including Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych, the 2005 Tour's best young rider, and veteran mountain specialist Haimar Zubeldia of Spain.

The three additions Thursday were Dmitriy Muravyev, the only Kazakh rider on the squad and a Tour newcomer; Sergio Paulinho of Portugal -- a strong Contador ally; and Gregory Rast of Switzerland.

Bruyneel passed over Armstrong's friend Chris Horner, as well as Armstrong's former Discovery Channel teammate Benjamin Noval. Tomas Vaitkus and Jani Brajkovic also didn't make the cut.

"Horner is the man and we'll miss him. Period," Armstrong wrote.