Saturday, July 3, 2004

Champ knows 6th Tour no lock

New route, rules add challenge for Armstrong

By John Leicester
The Associated Press

LIEGE, Belgium - It's a valid question: Did Tour de France organizers design a course specifically to thwart Lance Armstrong's drive for a record sixth win?

The course favors some of Armstrong's strongest rivals and blunts some of his own particular strengths. But Armstrong says he believes organizers are just aiming for spectacle.

The main rivals hoping to derail Lance Armstrong's bid for a record sixth Tour de France victory:

Jan Ullrich
The German, 30, won in 1997 but since has been a four-time runner-up, including three times to Armstrong. Last year saw their closest race yet, with Ullrich losing by just 61 seconds. Ullrich also placed second in 1996, his first Tour, showing great promise that he has yet to truly fulfill. He will tie Dutch rider Joop Zoetemelk's record of six second-place finishes if he's runner-up again. He has a strong new team, says he is at his "ideal weight" and is determined to win. Armstrong rates him as his biggest rival.

Iban Mayo
The Basque rider, 26, finished sixth last year, a vast improvement over his 88th place on his first Tour in 2002. One of the few riders to have bettered Armstrong in the mountains, he won the arduous Alpine stage to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station in 2003. Armstrong expects him to win the stage again this year. His team fared poorly in the team trial last year, losing more than three minutes to Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service. Should be helped this year by new rules that will limit losing squads' losses in that event. Mayo suffered a blow two days before this Tour when one of his teammates failed a pre-race blood test and was barred, leaving his squad one man short.

Tyler Hamilton
A former Armstrong teammate, Hamilton proved his mettle by riding most of last year's Tour with a double-fractured collarbone suffered in a crash on Day 2. He still won a stage and placed fourth overall. Now leader of the Swiss team Phonak, he says last year's feat boosted his confidence. While lacking Armstrong's explosive acceleration in climbs, Hamilton is strong all around, both in mountains and on the flat. "I guess I have a diesel engine," he says.

Ivan Basso
The Italian rates Armstrong and Ullrich as the main contenders but still could produce surprises of his own. Seventh last year, he says he wants to attack this year. But he also says he expects to be fighting Mayo and Hamilton for third place. At 26, has youth on his side. Says his ambition is to win the Tour in the next two or three years.

Roberto Heras
Armstrong's longtime right-hand man in the mountains, the powerful Spanish climber quit to lead his own team, Liberty Seguros, and could be a force to reckon with for his former leader. Armstrong did not name Heras in his list of main rivals.
Bottom line: The five-time champion thinks the best man will win - and he's steeling himself for his hardest Tour yet.

"The race will be tight, will be very tough to win," he said from Liege, where the three-week race begins today.

Where are the pitfalls?

Pick your spot. The 2,100-mile route has some Armstrong rivals licking their lips in anticipation.

The biggest changes are in time trials, races against the clock in which Armstrong usually excels.

New rules limit the amount of time squads can lose in the team time trial on Day 5. That could hurt Armstrong, because his winning U.S. Postal Service team last year used the demanding and technical event to open up hefty gaps over rivals.

Now, the slowest of the 21 teams will lose no more than three minutes to the winners. The maximum loss for other squads will be calculated on a sliding scale ranging from 20 seconds for the runner-up to 2 minutes, 55 seconds for the next-to-last team.

If that sounds complicated, the vital point is that Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service squad won't be able to do the damage it exacted last year. Then, the last team trailed them by nearly five minutes, and even the runner-up ONCE squad was 30 seconds off the pace, giving Armstrong a cushion for the rest of the Tour. Under the new rules, ONCE's loss would have been cut to 20 seconds.

Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's biggest challenger, lost 43 seconds to the Texan that day, a bad blow. Under this year's system, the German would have lost just 30 seconds.

Organizers say the change should add excitement by ensuring that the team event doesn't kill the suspense of the Tour early on. But Armstrong's hardly delighted.

"I still, to this day, have a hard time understanding that regulation," he said. "A team can lose 2 1/2 minutes in the first half of the race and just decide to sit up and say, 'OK. We lose 2 1/2.'"

Armstrong's worries don't stop there. This year, one of the two main individual time trials, in which riders race alone, will run up the 21-hairpin-bend climb to the L'Alpe d'Huez resort in the Alps.

That is a boon for mountain specialists who struggle to stay with the speedy Armstrong when the race against the clock is run on the relative flat, as both were last year and the last one will be this year.

Armstrong is no slouch himself when it comes to climbing. In 2002, he won both of the Pyrenean stages that will be run again this year, to La Mongie and the Plateau de Beille, and he won at L'Alpe d'Huez in 2001. But he thinks Spanish mountain man Iban Mayo will win there this year.

"The course is very good this year for climbers," said Roberto Heras, a former teammate of Armstrong's who now leads his own squad and could be a force in the Alps and Pyrenees.

The Tour route changes each year, and a range of factors goes into deciding where it will go. Organizers always take the race through the mountains, but they also accept money from towns that want to be on the route. Politics and history also play a part, with organizers honoring former riders by taking the Tour through their hometowns or, as in 1987, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, starting it in what was then the divided Cold War city.

At 32, Armstrong admits he might be beyond his best. His 61-second win over Ullrich at the finish last year in Paris was by far his narrowest and shakiest Tour victory, cracking the champion's aura of invincibility and giving his rivals hope of dethroning him this year.

But no one is counting out such an experienced and determined competitor.

"When you win five Tours in a row, it's because you have very few weak points," Heras said.

Armstrong says the Tour route will still be a fair judge of the top competitor.

"The organizers always design the course as well as they can to make it interesting," he said. "I still believe that the best man wins in Paris, and for me that's all that matters, even if I'm second."

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