Tougher second-half of Tour awaits Lance

Updated: June 23, 2004, 12:47 PM ET
Associated Press

PARIS -- Six teammates who helped Lance Armstrong win last year's Tour de France will ride with him again next month when he bids for a record sixth straight title.

Two members of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service squad are in their first year with the team -- Jose Azevedo of Portugal and Benjamin Noval of Spain. They replace Roberto Heras, who will compete against Armstrong this time, and Colombia's Victor Hugo Pena, who was dropped for this Tour.

"Lance is confident he has a strong team and now it's up to him to be ready," U.S. Postal sporting director Johan Bruyneel said. "His form is coming."

Armstrong, who came back from cancer to first win the Tour in 1999, will be competing in the showcase event for the 10th time. Only four other riders have five Tour victories -- Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil.

This year's race starts July 3 in Liege, Belgium, and ends July 25 on Paris' Champs-Elysees. The course covers 2,126 miles, counterclockwise around France.

The crunch for Armstrong, whose win last year was his narrowest yet, most likely will come in the last eight days of the three-week race during mountain stages and time trials.

"The last week looks really tough, the toughest we have ever done," Armstrong said. "It will be much better to have a stronger second half than a strong first half."

Germany's Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner and five-time runner-up, is a main rival. Other challengers include Heras, who quit Armstrong's team to join the Spanish outfit Liberty Seguros, and Spain's Iban Mayo, who won the Dauphine Libere race in June. There is also former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton, fourth last year.

"The Tour route is different, with the mountains coming so late, so we are trying to have everyone reach top shape right at the start of the Tour, maybe even a bit later," said Bruyneel, a former Tour rider. "It's not easy to plan but I think we calculated it well."

The six teammates returning for Armstrong's record-breaking attempt are Americans George Hincapie and Floyd Landis, Russian Viatcheslav Ekimov, the Czech Pavel Padrnos and Spaniards Manuel Beltran and Jose Luis Rubiera. This will be Ekimov's 14th Tour and Hincapie's ninth.

"We have a very experienced team, and more than anything else we have a very committed team," Armstrong said. "They know what it takes to win the Tour and they want to do that again."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press