Tour: Door open for Lance, but he'll get no exceptions

PARIS -- Tour de France organizers are hardly thrilled at the prospect of Lance Armstrong returning for a shot at an eighth victory in cycling's showcase event.

Race director Christian Prudhomme said Wednesday the door is open for Armstrong to compete in the 2009 Tour, but he was cool on the idea and stressed the 36-year-old American must meet stringent new anti-doping standards to clear up the suspicions that dogged him throughout his career.

Armstrong, who won the Tour a record seven consecutive times from 1999-2005, announced Tuesday that he is ending a three-year retirement and aiming for another Tour victory in 2009. It is not yet clear for which team he'll ride.

Prudhomme told The Associated Press that Armstrong and his team must follow all the drug-testing rules "that are much more strict than they were before."

"If Lance Armstrong is at the start of the Tour de France, it will be the same thing for him and for his team, of course," he said. "I can't say anything else. There won't be any exceptions."

Many things still need to happen for Armstrong to actually make it to the starting line next July, Prudhomme said.

"You have to remember we are in mid-September and that much water will run under the bridge until the Tour de France departure in Monaco," he said.

The Tour director noted the doping speculation that dogged Armstrong when he was at the top of his sport.

"Suspicion has followed Lance Armstrong since 1999, everyone knows that," he said.

In 2005, the French sports daily L'Equipe reported that Armstrong used the banned performance enhancer EPO during his first Tour win in 1999. Then-Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the allegations discredited Armstrong and that there was relief in the sport that he would not be returning.

The next year, a Dutch investigator appointed by the UCI exonerated Armstrong of any doping infractions during that race.

Armstrong has never tested positive and always has maintained he was clean, having passed hundreds of drug tests during his career. Since his retirement, rules and anti-doping measures have been further tightened in France and in cycling.

Noting that four of Armstrong's former teammates later "got caught" for using banned substances, Prudhomme told reporters, "It means that the anti-doping fight has really made progress."

"We are not afraid of keeping out one rider or another," he said at the headquarters of the Amaury Sports Organization, which runs the race.

This year, blood tests were carried out on all riders just days before the start in Brest.

"All the Tour riders, and Lance Armstrong if that is the case, they will have to submit to rules that were harder than they were before, because it is necessary," Prudhomme said.

The Tour has been plagued by doping scandals since Armstrong retired.

Floyd Landis -- a former Armstrong teammate -- was stripped of his 2006 Tour crown after testing positive for testosterone.

In 2007, Alexandre Vinokourov, then with team Astana, was caught using a banned blood transfusion. Race leader Michael Rasmussen was expelled before the finish for allegedly lying about his whereabouts when he missed pre-Tour anti-doping checks.

This year, Italian rider Riccardo Ricco was kicked out for using EPO after winning two stages.

Armstrong has been linked to the Astana team, which is run by his close friend and former sporting director Johan Bruyneel, who helped the American win all his seven Tours.

Bruyneel told The AP by telephone Wednesday that he would welcome working with Armstrong again.

"My relationship with him goes beyond the professional rider-director relationship. I don't see myself running a team and having to race against him," Bruyneel said. "It's all happening so fast, so it's a little difficult for me now. I don't want to run too fast, but I can say that I cannot imagine him being on another team. We are obviously going to have to speak a lot in the next few days."

Astana, however, was barred from this year's Tour after a series of doping scandals at the 2006 and 2007 Tours, and the team's entry for the 2009 race would still need to be approved.