Riding Along With Lance

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Discovery Communications Inc. has signed renowned cyclist Lance Armstrong to a broad sponsorship deal, which will see the five-time Tour de France champion don a Discovery jersey during races, beginning next year.

Under the three-year, multimillion-dollar arrangement, Armstrong will also be featured in programming on several Discovery-owned networks, including Travel Channel, The Science Channel, Discovery Health Channel and Fit TV.

“Lance and his team will serve as ambassadors for Discovery for the U.S. and around the world,” Discovery Networks U.S. president Billy Campbell told reporters at a press conference at Discovery’s headquarters in Bethesda, Md., last Tuesday.

A DISCOVERY FIRST

The agreement with Armstrong’s Tailwind Sports marketing agency marks the first time that Discovery has sponsored a professional athlete or team.

Armstrong, who has been with the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team since 1996, will race in the Tour de France under USPS sponsorship for the last time next month, when he’ll vie for a record sixth consecutive win in cycling’s biggest race.

Armstrong and his teammates will wear a Discovery patch on their U.S. Postal jerseys during the upcoming Tour.

Beginning next January, Armstrong’s cycling team will become the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team, and don Discovery jerseys in the Tour de France and other races.

Armstrong said he would race again at the 2005 Tour de France, but wouldn’t commit to any races beyond next summer.

Armstrong said the deal with Discovery affords him opportunities after his cycling career ends.

LONG-TERM ARRANGEMENT

“We have discussed future projects beyond cycling,” said Armstrong, 32. “Obviously, I won’t race forever.”

Armstrong said the agreement with Discovery also provides a boost of confidence for his team, which was unsure if it would have a sponsor after the Tour de France.

“For us to be able to take this news back to the team, and say, 'We’re all safe here’ — it’s a big relief,” Armstrong added.

The press conference at Discovery was dominated by questions about allegations that Armstrong has used performance-enhancing drugs.

Last week, two newspaper reporters from France and the United Kingdom published L.A. Confidential: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong. The book cites a former masseuse for Armstrong’s racing team, who alleged that the cyclist tested positive for a steroid in 1999, and that he asked her for makeup to cover up bruises on his arm before a medical examination that year at the Tour de France.

Armstrong, who has been accused of using performance enhancing drugs after previous wins, vehemently denied the allegations last week. He also filed libel suits against the book’s authors and two newspapers that published excerpts.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve lived through this. I heard it in 1999, 2001, 2003 — it happens all of the time, and every time we’ve chose to sit back and let it pass,” said Armstrong. “But we’ve reached a point where we can’t tolerate it any more.

“We’re going to do everything we can to fight them,” he added, before discussing the libel suits.

Discovery spokeswoman Catherine Frymark said the company was aware of the allegations in the book before it cut the sponsorship deal with Armstrong.

OLN’S ORBIT

Comcast Corp.’s Outdoor Life Network holds the U.S. television rights for the Tour de France through 2007.

Campbell said Discovery doesn’t plan to televise races, but that the company would look to incorporate cycling into various programs on networks like Travel Channel, which could run “behind the scenes” shows about Armstrong’s races.

OLN is currently airing a 13-part series, The Lance Challenge: The Real Life Saga of Armstrong’s Quest for Six, looking at the cyclist and his team, both on and off their bikes.

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