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CYCLING

Lance Armstrong a favorite for 2010 Tour de France

The seven-time Tour champion finished third in this year's race and will be the leader of a possibly powerful RadioShack team next season.

July 27, 2009|Diane Pucin

It's already being said, on Versus television by announcers such as Bob Roll and Paul Sherwen, and in the peloton by 2009 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. A favorite for the 2010 Tour de France title?

Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong stood on the podium in Paris on Sunday in the spot reserved for the third-place finisher of the Tour de France, a couple of rungs below where the seven-time Tour winner is accustomed but a placing that earned the 37-year-old Texan as much applause as that given Astana teammate Contador.

His comeback also became the impetus for the formation of a third American-based pro cycling team.

Team RadioShack will begin racing next season with Armstrong as its lead rider, with Armstrong's long-time associate Johan Bruyneel as its likely director and rumors of everyone from three-time Amgen Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer to the Schleck brothers Andy (2009 Tour runner-up) and Frank as possible members of the new powerhouse squad.

As has been the case for most of this 2009 Tour, the other two American-based teams were in the thick of Sunday's finish as well.

Mark Cavendish, a brash British sprinter, won his sixth stage, this time on the Champs Elysees for Columbia-HTC, a team based in San Luis Obispo.

To win, Cavendish fought off a strong challenge from American Tyler Farrar of the Boulder-based Garmin-Slipstream. Garmin's Bradley Wiggins, another Briton, finished fourth overall.

Dave Cassaro, president of advertising sales for Comcast Network (which includes Versus), had attracted sponsors such as Cadillac and Infiniti to this year's Versus broadcast and, with numbers that as of Thursday were up an average of 95% over the Lance-less 2008 Tour, said he was bullish on cycling.

"What's happened this season, with Columbia and Garmin, plus with Lance proving his staying power, this is only going to get bigger," Cassaro said.

Garmin-Slipstream director Jonathan Vaughters said by telephone from Paris on Sunday that the addition of Team RadioShack and the continued presence of Armstrong in the peloton can be nothing but good.

"It's the best-case scenario," Vaughters said. "We're going to have to watch each other, we're going to possibly have the three best teams in the world all based in America, it doesn't have any negative impact. We've all got our sponsors, so from a business perspective it's good."

Steve Johnson, chief executive of USA Cycling, also spoke Sunday from France. He said USA Cycling's membership had grown annually between 5% and 6% during Armstrong's 1999-2005 reign as Tour champion, then dropped to less than 4% in the three years of Armstrong's retirement. "This year," Johnson said, "it's back up over 5%, and I'm optimistic it will be higher next year."

A beneficiary of Armstrong's 2010 return could be the Amgen Tour of California, which is moving from the February racing dates of its first four years to May 16-23 next year. The switch was made to ensure better weather and allow for a possible mountaintop finish in the Sierras, but it also puts the U.S. race in direct conflict with the Giro d'Italia, which is, along with the Tour de France and Spanish Vuelta, considered one of the top three stage races in the world.

Tour of California director Andrew Messick, who watched Saturday's Mont Ventoux finish in France, said he "expected" that top American teams would race in California with their top American riders. "Lance, Levi, George Hincapie would, I think, race here," Messick said.

Whether Armstrong, who at 37 was already the second-oldest podium finisher in the race's history, can win an eighth yellow jersey in 2010 will be argued to the sport's benefit for the next year.

Jim Ochowicz, former Olympian and founder of one of the first U.S. pro teams, 7-Eleven, watched several stages in person and left with a strong impression of Armstrong.

"With his broken collarbone this year," Ochowicz said, "it was remarkable that he finished on the podium. If he stays healthy and trains all year and has a strong team, yes, he can win."

Vaughters disagrees.

"I don't think Lance will win," he said. "But that doesn't mean he won't have a strong impact. And that's good."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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STAGE 21 RESULTS

Mark Cavendish, Britain

4:02:18

Mark Renshaw, Australia

same time

Tyler Farrar, United States

same time

Gerald Ciolek, Germany

same time

Yauheni Hutarovich, Belarus

same time

FINAL OVERALL STANDINGS

Alberto Contador, Spain

85:48:35

Andy Schleck, Luxembourg

4:11 behind

Lance Armstrong, U.S.

5:24 behind

Bradley Wiggins, Britain

6:01 behind

Frank Schleck, Luxembourg

6:04 behind

Andreas Kloeden, Germany

6:42 behind

Vincenzo Nibali, Italy

7:35 behind

Christian Vande Velde, U.S.

12:04 behind

R. Kreuziger, Czech Republic

14:16 behind

C. Le Mevel, France

14:25 behind

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