Armstrong to ride in first Giro D'Italia in lead-up to Tour de France

ROME -- Lance Armstrong agreed Monday to ride in next year's Giro d'Italia and suggested the Italian race -- not the Tour de France -- will be the main target in his comeback season.

The American has never competed in the three-week Giro, considered the sport's most prestigious stage race after the Tour.

"Everyone is saying that the Giro will serve to prepare for the Tour," Armstrong said in a written statement released by organizers in Italian. "Actually, it could be that I come to Italy to win and the Giro will actually be my real three-week stage race of the year."

Winning both the Giro and the Tour in the same year after more than three years away from the sport would be an unprecedented challenge for someone of Armstrong's age.

The 37-year-old Armstrong announced last month that he is returning to cycling after three years in retirement and hoped to win the Tour for an eighth time.

The 100th anniversary edition of the Giro is scheduled for May 9-31. The Tour de France starts July 4. The last rider to win both the Giro and the Tour in the same year was Marco Pantani in 1998. Pantani died of a cocaine overdose in 2004.

"I raced a long time professionally and never did the Giro," Armstrong said in a video message released Monday by race organizers. "It was one of my biggest regrets and now I'm going to be able to erase that regret and be at the 2009 Giro. And who knows, maybe with a good result."

Armstrong also seemed to take a swipe at Tour de France organizers, with whom he has feuded over drug-testing issues.

"I look forward to starting a race that respects not only the riders but also maintains the highest integrity in sport," he said.

Armstrong spokesman Mark Higgins said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that "it doesn't look like" the rider will be in Paris as expected on Oct. 22 when Tour de France organizers unveil next year's route.

Higgins said Armstrong has to be at an annual fundraising ride in Austin, Texas, where he lives, a few days later.

There have been subtle hints all along from Armstrong that he is fed up with the Tour.

When the new head of Tour organizer ASO, Jean-Etienne Amaury, said recently that Armstrong had embarrassed the French race over the years, Armstrong responded by saying, "Nobody ever said that I need the Tour de France" to raise cancer awareness.

Giro director Angelo Zomegnan indicated that Armstrong may have entered the Giro to protect himself in case more problems arise with the Tour.

French anti-doping authorities recently asked Armstrong to retest his 1999 urine samples to see whether the French sports daily L'Equipe was right when it reported they contained the banned substance EPO.

Armstrong rejected the notion and lashed out at the French agency's leader, Pierre Bordry, saying the samples have been preserved improperly.

"He would like to race the Tour de France, because the Tour is the biggest stage in cycling and it would give him and his foundation the most visibility," Zomegnan told The Associated Press. "But there are complications on the French front."

Zomegnan said the Giro strictly follows the anti-doping rules of cycling's governing body, the UCI.

"We would never get in the way of the sport's authorities," he said.

Armstrong has joined the Astana team, which also features Alberto Contador, the defending Giro champion. However, Contador is unlikely to enter the Giro and Armstrong will not have to risk the possibility of being relegated to a support rider for the Spaniard, as he might at the Tour.

"Until I see Armstrong at the start of the 2009 Giro I won't believe it. It doesn't seem like a very wise choice," said Francesco Moser, the 1984 Giro winner and 1977 world champion. "At 37, after three years of inactivity it seems pretty risky. Plus, racing the Tour in the same year isn't simple."

By competing in the Giro, Armstrong will have raced in all three major multistage races. He finished fourth in the 1998 Spanish Vuelta.

"Maybe his career was incomplete," Zomegnan said. "I think he's coming to race and be a top contender. And the differences between being a top contender and winning include small and large details. We'll see how it plays out in May."

Armstrong's comeback is meant to draw attention to his global campaign to fight cancer, a disease he survived before winning seven straight Tours from 1999-2005.

Armstrong will begin his comeback at the Tour Down Under in Adelaide, Australia, in January, then will likely enter the Tour of California in February.

Armstrong is loading his schedule to get more racing days in before the Tour. In his heyday, Armstrong usually only entered a handful of short races before the Tour.

He could revive his rivalry with Ivan Basso at the Giro. Basso's two-year ban for doping expires later this month. The Italian finished third and second behind Armstrong in the 2004 and 2005 Tours, respectively.