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Lance Armstrong to join Team Astana for his return to competitive cycling

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong will join Team Astana for his return to competitive cycling, the Kazakh Cycling Federation said Wednesday.

Federation deputy chief Nikolai Proskurin told The Associated Press that Armstrong agreed to ride for the Kazakhstan-based team for free the first year and has signed up to take part in five races, including the Tour de France.

Armstrong was to make a formal announcement at a news conference in New York later Wednesday.

"If people say that they want to join this team, it is a sign that they must hold Kazakhstan in great regard," Proskurin told the AP. "He is coming to Team Astana, he's doing it only so he can continue to win."

Astana's team leader is Johan Bruyneel, who was Armstrong's team director for all of his Tour de France victories with the U.S. Postal and Discovery teams. The two are close friends.

Armstrong's first race will be the Tour of California from Feb. 14-22, Proskurin said. Australian officials announced earlier Wednesday that Armstrong would ride in the Tour Down Under from Jan. 20-25.

Armstrong announced on Sept. 9 that he would return to cycling after three years in retirement and would attempt to win the Tour de France an eighth time.

The deal is a coup for the Kazakh team, which was thrown out of last year's Tour de France after Alexander Vinokourov tested positive for a blood transfusion.

There were reports in Madrid on Tuesday that 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador of Spain would leave if Armstrong joined Astana.

"I've earned the right to be the leader of a team without having to fight for my place," Contador said in AS newspaper. "And with Armstrong, some difficult situations could arise in which the team would put him first and that would hurt me."

Contador won the Spanish Vuelta on Sunday. Combined with his 2008 Giro d'Italia title, he became just the fifth cyclist to win the three highest-regarded Tours.

Diagnosed in 1996 with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain, Armstrong was given less than a 50 percent chance of survival. Surgery and brutal cycles of chemotherapy saved his life.

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