The president of cycling's international governing body said Lance Armstrong's manager contacted the organization this summer to ask how the retired cyclist would go about participating in anti-doping testing in order to clear the way for a possible comeback.
UCI chief Pat McQuaid, reached by phone at the Paralympic Games in Beijing, said Armstrong's longtime agent Bill Stapleton requested information on how Armstrong would go about getting into the biological passport program, in which athletes' blood tests are gathered and compared over time.
"He had an interest in possibly racing next year, so we pointed them in the right direction, which was USADA," McQuaid said, referring to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which has testing jurisdiction over all elite-level athletes in Olympic sports in the United States.
McQuaid said he had no qualms about a potential Armstrong comeback.
"I have nothing but great admiration for Lance Armstrong as a man and as an athlete," he said. "He has huge numbers of admirers all over the world, and from a sports point of view, it would be a positive thing. However, whether he can still achieve at his former level, I don't know. I don't know if he knows."
Armstrong, who will turn 37 on Sept. 18, enrolled in USADA's out-of-competition testing pool in early August, according to agency spokeswoman Erin Hannan. He competed in a nonelite mountain bike race, the Leadville Trail 100, later that month, but the two events were unrelated, as he was not required to be in the testing pool to enter that race.
However, any athlete planning to come out of retirement has to have been in the testing program for at least six months. Athletes registered for the program must periodically provide a detailed account of where they plan to be for the next several months, commonly known as the "whereabouts" system, and can be tested at any time with no advance notice.
Neither Armstrong nor his representatives have commented on the rumors that he intends to make a comeback, despite repeated attempts to reach them. VeloNews.com reported Monday that the seven-time Tour de France winner would return to racing next year, probably with the Astana team now led by his former team director Johan Bruyneel. Both an Astana spokesman and Bruyneel himself have denied knowing of any plans to sign Armstrong, who retired after winning the 2005 Tour.
Bruyneel said Tuesday he considered it "very unlikely" that Armstrong would ride in the Tour again.
"He is a man who stays in good shape," Bruyneel said in Sabinanigo, Spain, at the Spanish Vuelta, according to national news agency EFE. "He also does cyclocross and has run marathons. But I see it very unlikely he will compete again in the Tour of France. For me it is just a rumor, although I will have to speak with him."
Armstrong's participation in the USADA program would make him eligible for elite competition next January, in time for him to race in one of the events he is said to be interested in, the Tour of California in mid-February. The VeloNews report suggested that Armstrong also wanted to ride at Paris-Nice, a weeklong stage race in France in March; the Tour de Georgia in April; the Dauphine Libere race, a Tour tune-up held in the French Alps in June; and the Tour de France itself.
Cycling has struggled to change course and rehabilitate its drug-crippled image in recent years. Should Armstrong return to high-level competition, McQuaid said he does not fear any negative repercussions from the questions about performance-enhancing drug use that have dogged Armstrong throughout, and even after, his career.
"I don't go with the Dick Pound, WADA, French scenario," McQuaid said, alluding to the World Anti-Doping Agency and its former head, whose retroactive testing of old Tour samples, ostensibly for research purposes, allegedly found the presence of the blood booster EPO in Armstrong's stored urine. Armstrong has consistently denied doping at any time during his career, and waged a public battle to discredit the allegations. A UCI-appointed independent analyst later issued a report criticizing the procedures used in the research.
"If I catch someone, I want to catch them directly," McQuaid added.
Organizers of the U.S.-based races on Armstrong's purported wish list said they had no direct knowledge of an Armstrong comeback, but added they would welcome the retired star. Armstrong won the Tour de Georgia in 2004. The week-long Tour of California, regarded as the premier stage race in the United States, debuted in 2006, the year after Armstrong retired. Amaury Sports Organisation, the French conglomerate that owns the Tour de France, recently signed a cross-promotional marketing agreement with the California race, which will be expanded to nine days in 2009.
Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which owns the Tour of California, called the reports of a comeback "exciting and interesting," and added that a partnership with Armstrong's cancer foundation would greatly benefit and complement cancer awareness initiatives the race already has in place.
Amgen, the race's title sponsor, manufactures erythropoietin (EPO), a drug originally intended for therapeutic use in patients suffering from cancer and other diseases, but also appropriated by endurance athletes seeking illicit means of increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of their red blood cells.
Messick said he isn't worried that Armstrong might be bigger than the race itself, or that he would bring controversy along with his celebrity.
"He's certainly someone who draws a crowd," Messick said, "but the race has developed a high enough profile that we don't think people would only be focused on him."
The race was criticized in 2007 for not having stringent enough anti-doping testing, and did an about-face this year. Messick said teams that have implemented independent programs, including Astana, boost the sport's credibility.
"We think that's the answer -- we always have," Messick said. "I see no reason to believe that Lance Armstrong isn't just as serious about it as we are."
Jim Birrell of Medalist Sports, which runs the Tour de Georgia, noted that Armstrong's 2004 win there "put us on the map." That race is seeking corporate sponsorship.
Armstrong's corporate sponsors also presumably would have much to gain from a comeback. Trek, his longtime bike sponsor, signed a contract with Astana before the 2008 season that runs through 2010. Scott Dauber, road bike brand manager for the Madison, Wis.-based company, said Armstrong rode Trek's new 9.8 Top Fuel mountain bike in the Leadville race but has not consulted with the company recently on future road bike designs.
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports and tennis for ESPN.com.