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New spoils await Armstrong on the Tour

For those privileged and masochistic enough to take it on, the Tour de France offers private agonies in the most public of settings.

For Lance Armstrong, the price of torture has always been offset by the spoils of victory, as he wheeled an inexorable path toward seven titles and a permanent etching in history.

Yet as he returns after four years to the scene where his legend was created, Armstrong does so with less in the way of obvious tangible recompense for his muscle-wracking output.

Incredibly, this man who blitzed the field for so long with his iron spirit and metronomic cadence enters the 2009 Tour – which starts in the principality of Monaco on Saturday – without any realistic possibility of winning it.

The politics of cycling are intricate and time-honored, and this sport is not a simple case of "best man wins." From 1999 to 2005, Armstrong was the best man, yet he could not have enjoyed such an extraordinary level of achievement if not for the unheralded work of the team behind him.

This time, it is the 37-year-old Texan who is in the support role, charged with ensuring that the lead hope of the Astana team, Alberto Contador, is sipping champagne on the road to the Champs d'Elysees on July 26.

Contador won the 2007 Tour and if it weren't for Armstrong's unmatchable legacy and the stain of doping skepticism associated with modern-day cycling success stories, he would have been a huge international star already.

Without a pedal yet turned, the 26-year-old Spaniard is impossible to back at much better than even money to win the Tour, a line no doubt influenced by having cycling royalty in his corner.

Armstrong seems to be positively embracing the new role. But why will he not be out there leading the pack?

"Everyone has to go in and say, 'I'm going to do this right,' " Armstrong said. "By the unwritten laws of cycling, you support the best man."

Simply, it is felt that Contador's claims are far greater, such is the nature of the team setup in this complex sport and its figurehead race.

"It is hard to find a better stage-race rider than Alberto," team manager Johan Bruyneel said. "He has worked very hard and earned the right to represent our team as the leader."

It would take a severe mishap from Contador – a crash, a couple of bad days, illness – for the Astana plan to be redrawn. Even then, it may be Levi Leipheimer, rather than Armstrong, who would be handed the No. 1 spot.

Armstrong's performances since returning to the saddle have been mixed. He broke a collarbone in March and could only manage 12th place in the Giro d'Italia. The only victory of his comeback bid came two weeks ago in Nevada City, Calif. – not a major race.

However, by taking on the role of shepherding Contador, Armstrong could finally achieve something which he never managed during his peak – acceptance by the French people.

From the moment of his first Tour victory, he was never a popular champion, with a perception of coldness and arrogance turning off French fans. His inability to speak publicly in French fueled some negative sentiment towards him and even factors such as opposition to the Iraq war caused him to be singled out by detractors in latter years.

But by adopting the position of self-sacrificer, Armstrong may finally get a better response from the public, with Contador the beneficiary of his sporting largesse.

"Armstrong will probably be very good and play a great role in this Tour," said Bjarne Riis, director of Team Saxo Bank. "But to be honest, to beat young riders like Alberto in the climbs, I don't think it is possible. Astana is a very impressive team, but I believe that if they want to win the Tour they should have just one leader, and it should be Contador."

Armstrong also is appearing to embark upon something of a charm offensive. Regular updates on Twitter have given greater insight into his life and with some of the shackles of past pressure lifted, he has a somewhat chirpier persona these days.

Part of his reason for returning was to raise publicity for his cancer charity, and that is one mission in which he can scarcely fail. Armstrong and LiveStrong go hand-in-hand, wheel-to-wheel if you like, and whatever your personal opinion of the American it is impossible not to respect his triumph over the killer disease.

Armstrong also hopes the attention of his return can do something to repair cycling's shredded reputation after years of devastating doping revelations. He, like millions of cycling aficionados, wants the sport to be in the news for the right reasons.

He admitted recently that he doesn't want his children to grow up knowing him as a standard-bearer for a ruined sport, rather than one of the finest athletes in history. Yet it remains to be seen whether cycling's bid to regain credibility can realistically hope to bear fruit anytime soon.

In his farewell speech in 2005, Armstrong stood on the winner's podium flanked by Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich and demanded the public should "believe in these guys." Sadly, however, both Basso and Ullrich, plus countless others, have since been hauled up on doping charges.

Cycling's fight, like its most famous race, can seem endless and tortuous.