Armstrong set for final lap around France

Amid fitness questions, 7th win in row main goal Cycling

July 02, 2005|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CHALLANS, France -- Look, Lance Armstrong says, he is not riding the 2005 Tour de France to finish second.

If his enthusiasm for racing 2,240 miles over 23 days did not start burning hot until this spring, if his training has been less lengthy, if he seems distracted from the painfully boring matters of weighing his food by the ounce, of rising at dawn to ride hills over and over, of living an ascetic life devoted to wearing a bright, yellow jersey July 24, it doesn't mean Armstrong is vulnerable.

"Hopefully, I'll go out with a victory, leaving the impression perhaps that I can do another one if I really wanted to," he said. "I'm not concerned about the impression I leave with others or with the media but for my own good, for whatever reason, I would like to leave that impression with myself."

It is with a different motivation that Armstrong begins this Tour with today's 11.8-mile time trial between Fromentine and Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile, on the Atlantic coast.

The 33-year-old Texan and father of three announced in April that he would retire after finishing this Tour. He already owns a record that most cycling experts expect to stand for decades: winning six consecutive Tours. If he wins a seventh, it will be special for another reason.

"My kids weren't there last year, a real bummer for me," Armstrong said. "They will be there this year, and they are old enough to understand what Dad does for a living. They understand that when I put the bike clothes on, I'm going to work.

"So for them to come over here, it's to come to my office. I would love for them to see me in the yellow jersey and that alone is plenty of motivation.

"When I left home, my son said, `When will I see you again?' I said, `Hopefully when I'm wearing the yellow shirt.' And Luke said, `Don't you get to wear what you want to wear?' Yeah, I guess during the last few years sometimes. I want them to see Dad in the yellow jersey one last time."

Armstrong piled most of his serious training into the past three months. He hasn't won anything -- no races, no stages -- and even rode to assist young teammate Tom Danielson in the Tour de Georgia's final days.

He has adjusted to a new team. Discovery Channel took over sponsorship from United States Postal Service of the only U.S. team that competes internationally. The team's uniforms are no longer red, white and blue but blue, gray and white. And two stalwart members of last year's squad, American Floyd Landis and Russian Viatcheslav Ekimov, are missing. Landis defected to Swiss team Phonak and is considered a possible Armstrong challenger. Ekimov -- "Eki" as he is known -- is injured and sitting out Armstrong's final ride.

On Thursday, Armstrong was sporting a cut above his right eyebrow and a nasty red streak of road rash on his arm, courtesy of a training crash last week near Nice.

"It wasn't serious," Armstrong said. "It was a silly crash I can't even begin to describe, at a low speed. The unfortunate thing was that I hit my head and cracked my helmet in two. I went out straight over the handlebars."

Before the 2003 Tour, in which Armstrong struggled throughout and won over Jan Ullrich by little more than 60 seconds, he also had a serious crash in the Dauphine, a Tour warm-up race. It was in 2003 that Armstrong also was bothered when the race progressed in severe heat. Another heat wave has kept temperatures around 90 degrees lately in many parts of France.

"I guess the scuttlebutt in cycling is that I don't like the heat, that I don't perform well in the heat and they all use 2003 as an example of that," said Armstrong, who was reared in steamy Dallas. "But perhaps the heat is not as big a problem as people make it out to be. I've got to think growing up in heat hotter than this, spending my sporting career working out in heat like this, I don't think the heat will be something that will cause me to lose the Tour."

Armstrong pointed to three men he thinks will be his main challengers this year: Germany's Ullrich, Italy's Ivan Basso, who finished third last year, and Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov.

Ullrich, who won the 1997 Tour and has finished second five times, rides for the T-Mobile team, which includes Vinokourov and Andreas Kloeden, last year's runner-up.

"Lance is the man to beat," Ullrich, 31, said. "He will be under pressure because everyone will be attacking him. This is the last time I can beat him, so naturally it is an extra motivation for me."

Armstrong also will have to contend with the fanatic German supporters of Ullrich, some of whom spit on Armstrong last year in the mountains, when the race wanders into Germany for the seventh stage.

Vinokourov, who missed last year's race with a cracked shoulder, said on the T-Mobile Web site that he had no individual goal.

"The whole team is geared up for one objective. It's winning the Tour de France," Vinokourov said. "I won't be there to ride my own race but to ride for the team. The most important thing for us is that one of us wins yellow."

And that's one more thing for Armstrong to face: Everyone knows it's the last chance to get Lance.

Tour de France

When: Today to July 24

Today's stage: Fromentine to Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile, individual time trial, 11.8 miles.

TV: Outdoor Life Network, 11:30 a.m.

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