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Armstrong's comeback road

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PASADENA, Calif. – The fine folks in California screamed themselves hoarse for Lance Armstrong over the past nine days, but the cycling legend’s mind was already fixed on a location far away.

More than four months remain before the start of the 96th Tour de France, yet Armstrong is already consumed by thoughts of Port Hercule, the area of Monte Carlo where this year’s race will begin.

Still in the early steps of one of sport’s most eagerly anticipated comebacks, the seven-time Tour champion’s gameface is firmly in place and preparations appear to be going smoothly.

His seventh-place finish in the Tour of California, won by his Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer, was a more than acceptable way to get some competitive miles in his legs at this stage of the season.

And though millions of eyes will tune in during July to see if the 37-year-old has what it takes to turn back the clock after three-and-a-half years away from racing, indications are that it is the same old Armstrong.

“There are two parts to the comeback,” he stated simply last week. “One is to race. But more importantly is the thought and the idea to take LiveStrong around the world.”

LiveStrong, the cancer charity Armstrong set up, is now the driving force in his life and he knows that a victory in France would be the ultimate publicity for the cause.

It will be his legs that provide the raw power and endurance to take him from Monaco to Paris, 3,500 kilometers over 21 grueling stages, once Tour action begins.

However, as always, it will be Armstrong’s steely mentality and single-minded addiction to winning that makes him so formidable.

For a man who has conquered a rival as devastating as testicular cancer, any other obstacle or irritation must seem trivial, even if they would be enough to distract most professional athletes.

Because Armstrong will not just be battling the best riders in the world as he traverses France. He is one of the most popular sportsmen in history, yet his critics are plentiful and vocal.

Armstrong has never failed a drug test in his career but there are many who refuse to believe that someone who displays such remarkable dominance in one of the toughest physical disciplines can possibly be clean.

Armstrong wants to use his participation in the Tour to promote cancer awareness, however, he will find there are significant elements of the European sports media who will not let the topic of drug use lie.

Irish journalist and former pro cyclist Paul Kimmage was involved in a heated exchange with Armstrong at the launch news conference of the Tour of California and the scrutiny will be even greater in Europe.

In California, Kimmage aside, no one wanted to talk about drugs, despite the issue being the most pressing in cycling, just like it has been for years.

One of the complaints aimed at Armstrong is that his celebrity and profile take the spotlight away from drug testing and cycling’s attempts to rid itself of the scourge of cheating.

Overall, the extent to which the topic of drugs was avoided during the Tour of California was extraordinary.

When Floyd Landis, who finished first in the 2006 Tour de France before being disqualified after testing positive for a high level of testosterone, addressed the media Saturday, journalists were ordered to avoid questions about the past. As soon as Landis got one, he walked out.

The crowds that followed the riders from Sacramento to Escondido didn’t seem to care that many of the competitors had previously tested positive. Armstrong’s participation drew huge throngs of support and generated a buoyant atmosphere along every stage of the tour.

“When Lance is here it brings something special to the event,” said Chris Horner, his Astana colleague. “People love coming out to see him and that makes it special for all the riders – to have that kind of following in the United States is amazing.”

While Armstrong was part of Leipheimer’s support crew in California, roles will be reversed in the Tour de France.

"He is an inspiration," Leipheimer said. "I will be proud to help him win an eighth title."