Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong has returned to competitive cycling and will become a member of Team Astana, the Kazakh Cycling Federation said Wednesday.

Two weeks ago, Astana press officer Philippe Maertens said there were no plans for the team to bring Armstrong on board.

Federation deputy chief Nikolai Proskurin told the Associated Press on Wednesday from Almaty, Kazakhstan, 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 is expected to announce his deal with Astana at a news conference later Wednesday in New York.

"He is coming to Team Astana, he's doing it only so he can continue to win," said Proskurin.

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 from 1999-2005. The two are close friends.

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

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

Team rebounding from blood-testing scandal

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.

Armstrong was given less than a 50 per cent chance of survival in 1996 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Surgery and brutal cycles of chemotherapy saved his life.