Astana's Contador cautious in welcoming Armstrong back from retirement

MADRID, Spain -- Former Tour de France champion Alberto Contador is ready to welcome disgraced cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov back to the Astana team but remains guarded about Lance Armstrong's return from retirement.

Contador, speaking in an interview with The Associated Press, said he wouldn't block Vinokourov from rejoining Astana even if the Kazhak rider's positive doping test at the 2007 Tour may have cost the Spaniard a chance to defend his title last July.

"He's finished serving his sanction, and really, there is always a lot of controversy over whether he will return or whether Astana could be left out of the Tour with his arrival," the Spaniard said. "But the truth is that the relationship I had with him whenever we happened to meet was always good.

"It would be like just another normal rider coming to the team," Contador said of his former Liberty Seguros teammate, who tested positive for a banned blood transfusion and served a one-year suspension.

Former Astana rider Andrei Kashechkin's subsequent positive test for the same doping procedure in August 2007 resulted in Astana being excluded from the 2007 Spanish Vuelta and 2008 Tour.

Contador won the Tour in 2007, and completed a career sweep of the sport's major multistage classics with victories at the Giro d'Italia and the Spanish Vuelta.

Armstrong, winner of seven straight Tour de France titles, is mounting a comeback after three years of retirement.

How race organizers would react to a Vinokourov return to Astana is Contador's main concern. Tour officials have yet to publicly confirm whether Astana would be welcomed back to cycling's premier race in 2009, even with Contador and seven-time champion Armstrong on the team.

Contador thinks teaming with Armstrong would be trickier to manage than with Vinokourov, whose return still has to be cleared by the International Cycling Union.

Contador described his working relationship with Armstrong as "very good" but said having two riders fighting for the same Tour title would create a "delicate" situation.

"The team ambiance could be affected by any tension ... but I think that whatever type of competition or whatever race, he is one extra teammate," Contador said.

He expects team leader Johan Bruyneel to assign clear roles by the time the team gathers for the first time in California in January.

"The only thing is that at the Tour de France, where we have the same objective, it's better that the whole team knows who the leader is," Contador said.

He dismissed suggestions that a pact had been made within Astana to appease the stars, with Armstrong to lead the team at the Giro and Contador at the Tour.

Even though Astana padded out its squad with Armstrong, that may not be enough to keep Contador with the Kazahk team for the final two years of his contract.

"Right now I have my doubts and I'll have to wait to see how it goes this year," he said. "I haven't planted the idea of leaving in my mind yet. I'd rather wait and see and then look at all the possibilities."

Contador said he will ride in at least six races this season: tours of Valencia, Castile, Leon, Basque Country, plus Paris-Nice, which he won in 2007, and hopefully the Tour de France. Last year's victories at the Giro d'Italia and Spanish Vuelta made up for missing the Tour, but he is unlikely to race either in 2009.

No other rider completed the sweep of the three most important races on the calendar as fast as Contador did last month when his Vuelta victory came 15 months after the Tour win.

Armstrong has said he is entering the Giro for the first time. Asked if the 37-year-old Armstrong could win the Italian classic, Contador paused before answering.

"It's difficult. You have to think about the inactivity, and the return to a certain level. There's an amount of preparation that is enormous," Contador said. "When he's at the maximum level, he's a difficult rider to beat. I think you still have to consider him as one of the favorites."

Armstrong's comeback will begin at Australia's Tour Down Under in January.

"I don't know what his idea is exactly with his objective for the Tour down Under is, but I know that he's stayed in shape with mountain biking," Contador said. "He'll be victorious. I don't know for the race, but at least for one stage."