AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – After winning his seventh Tour de France title, Lance Armstrong stepped off the winner’s podium in Paris and into retirement, declaring, “I’m finished.”

Six weeks later, he’s already talking about a comeback.

Recently engaged to rocker girlfriend Sheryl Crow, Armstrong issued a statement Tuesday confirming that he’s contemplating a return to competitive cycling in part because he knows how much it would rankle French media who believe his record of seven straight Tour wins is tainted by drug use.

“While I’m absolutely enjoying my time as a retired athlete with Sheryl and the kids, the recent smear campaign out of France has awoken my competitive side,” Armstrong said. “I’m not willing to put a percentage on the chances, but I will no longer rule it out.”

When he retired, Armstrong said he was looking forward to time away from the grueling months of training and six-hour rides around the countryside. He planned to spend a few days “with a beer, having a blast” with time dedicated to playing with his three young children from his first marriage. But he’s been dogged in recent weeks with allegations of performance-enhancing drug use. On Aug. 23, the French newspaper L’Equipe reported it had evidence that six of Armstrong’s urine samples from the 99 Tour tested positive last year for the blood booster EPO. The substance was banned in 1999, but there was no reliable test at the time.

Armstrong has angrily denied the charge, saying he was a victim of a “setup.”

He first hinted of a comeback in an interview Monday with the Austin American-Statesman. An Armstrong spokesman on Tuesday said the comments were a joke, but within hours, the cyclist confirmed it was possible.

“I’m thinking it’s the best way,” to anger the French, he told the newspaper. “I’m exercising every day.”

Dan Osipow, manager of Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team, seemed to be caught off-guard by Armstrong’s comments, but said the cyclist appears determined to protect his legacy.

“That to me sounds very Lance-like. It leaves things open and the motivation seems pretty clear. He is immensely proud of his reputation,” Osipow said.

“Lance was pretty definitive when he announced his plans for retirement. But circumstances change. Who knows?” Osipow said. “I leave that to him. We all know he planned on staying fit.”

Although Armstrong will be 34 by next year’s race, Osipow said it’s likely he could win again.

“People said if he’d stuck around, he’d be the favorite the next two, three, four years,” Osipow said.

Armstrong had said he’d be back on the Tour next year, as adviser for the Discovery Channel team. Now it could be as the lead rider.

“He owns part of the team,” Osipow said. “If there’s a certain rider from Texas who wants to join the team, we’ll have space.”

AP-ES-09-06-05 1701EDT

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