Bruyneel: Armstrong, Contador will have to work together

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Lance Armstrong may have to accept a supporting role to Astana teammate Alberto Contador in next year's Tour de France, the team cycling director said Thursday.

Johan Bruyneel ruled out a departure from Astana by Spain's Contador, who won the Tour de France, Italy's Giro and Spain's Vuelta in little more than a year. The two will have to cooperate, he said.

"At the end of the day, the strongest rider will be supported, regardless of that person's name or what they've accomplished in the past," Bruyneel said in a news release.

And he left no doubt who was strongest now.

"Alberto has had a magnificent year and is currently the best professional cyclist in the world," Bruyneel said.

After leading Armstrong to seven Tour victories before his initial retirement in 2005, Bruyneel took Contador to victory in the 2007 Tour, and after Astana was denied entry this year, Contador won the Giro and Vuelta instead.

"Lance must prove that he has the physical ability to win big races," Bruyneel said.

"This is not the first time that big names have all been on the same team. It has worked out in the past and I'm confident for the same in 2009."

When the 37-year-old Armstrong announced his comeback and intention to compete for an eighth Tour title next season, it clashed with the ambitions of Contador, who insisted the leadership of Astana should be his.

The Spaniard let it be known he would leave if he was given a secondary role supporting Armstrong. Bruyneel ruled that out on Thursday.

"Alberto signed a contract with Team Astana through 2010," Bruyneel said. "I have invested a lot of my time into Alberto's development and he will remain with this team for the next two years. Actually it's pretty simple, there's a contract and there are no options to leave."

Bruyneel saw a blueprint for the 2009 Tour when Contador finished first in the Vuelta last month, with teammate Levi Leipheimer of the United States close behind.

"It's no secret that Levi Leipheimer could have won the Vuelta, but it was clear to the team directors that Alberto was the strongest rider," said Bruyneel "We have some big names and great leaders on the 2008 squad. Adding one more only makes us that much stronger."

Another addition that should strengthen the Astana team is Spanish climber Jesus Hernandez. He has been a training partner for Contador and should prove useful in leading Contador -- or Armstrong -- to the decisive stretches of climbs during the Tour.

Armstrong has been an inspiration for Contador. While the Spaniard was recovering from a blood clot in his brain in 2004, he drew hope from Armstrong's book recounting his comeback from cancer.

The two have not spoken to each other, Bruyneel said, but they are slated to go training together in December.

Meanwhile, officials of the Tour Down Under -- the Australian race which Armstrong had earmarked as his comeback event -- said they expected to know by Friday whether the American can compete.

Armstrong is hoping to return for the Jan. 20-25 race, but drug-testing regulations would not allow him to compete until Feb. 1, 2009.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) requires riders coming out of retirement to be in the sport's anti-doping program for six months before racing. Armstrong filed paperwork on Aug. 1 with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and said he already was drug-tested in late August.

On Thursday, Tour Down Under race director Mike Turtur said he was told by the UCI on Wednesday that they would have a decision "in about 48 hours."

"That was about 24 hours ago, so we're hoping to hear by Friday," Turtur told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We still don't know which way it will go."