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
"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."