No. 6 won't come easy


Lance Armstrong was under attack at every turn of last year's Tour de France. He endured crashes, dehydration and hard-charging challengers before slipping on the yellow jersey with a 61-second victory, the narrowest of his five consecutive Tour triumphs.

And that may have been nothing compared to what he's facing this year.

As Armstrong goes for an unprecedented sixth victory starting Saturday in Belgium, he faces an array of obstacles: Newly confident rivals, his advancing age, a tricky Tour course and doping allegations could add up to make his three-week run more difficult than ever.

"I'm worried, but I'm worried every year," Armstrong said. "The defending champion who comes back and has no fear and thinks everything is perfect is the one who loses."

Armstrong, however, is not known to surrender in the face of difficulties.

Despite off-season chat rooms filled with reports of his winter-time frolics with new girlfriend Sheryl Crow, those close to the 32-year-old say he's bent on returning to his level of fitness from 2002, when he smothered the competition.

"I'm confident in Lance. There are no givens, but he's in good shape," said Chris Carmichael, his longtime coach. "Everything is looking good now. The key is to get back to level in 2001, 2002. If he's there, I don't think anyone will beat him."

Determined rivals
Jan Ullrich leads a long list of rivals who believe Armstrong is primed for plucking. The 30-year-old German is the rider Armstrong says he most fears.

Now back on the strong T-Mobile team after a year on the smaller Bianchi outfit, Ullrich wants to beat his longtime nemesis and return to the highest spot on the Tour podium.

"I want to beat Armstrong this year. I want to beat him man to man," said Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion and five-time runner-up. "I don't want to be second again."

While most recent Tours have come down to Armstrong and Ullrich, the 91st edition of cycling's most important race involves a deeper field:

  • Americans Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) and Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) are both solid all-around cyclists who can time trial and climb well in the steep mountains, two essential skills necessary to win the Tour.

  • Lean climbers Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros), Ivan Basso (Team CSC), Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) and Gilberto Simoni (Saeco) could harass Armstrong in the mountains.

  • Spanish rider Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) is seen as Armstrong's most unpredictable and perhaps most dangerous rival. The 26-year-old is developing into cycling's most ferocious climber since Marco Pantani and could blow apart the Tour on the steep climbs in the Pyrénées and the Alps.

    Last year, Mayo won an electrifying stage up Alpe d'Huez and, with the Tour returning to the mythic climb for a decisive climbing time trial in the final week, Mayo is sounding confident.

    Mayo won June's Tour warmup race at the Dauphiné Libéré high in the French Alps after out-pacing Armstrong by nearly two minutes on a climbing time trial up Mont Ventoux, a victory that caused ripples inside the Armstrong camp.

    Fortunately for Armstrong, 2002 runner-up Joseba Beloki and last year's third-place finisher Alexandre Vinokourov will both miss this year's Tour with injuries.

    The question of age
    Armstrong starts the 20-stage, 2,105-mile race across Belgium and France at 32, considered old by cycling standards. None of the previous five-time winners could muster a victory after turning 31 and each failed in their bid to win an elusive sixth Tour.

    It's a significant benchmark that Armstrong says he can overcame.

    "I'm not that old. I'm 32," Armstrong said. "I quit most of those early Tours I started, so I shouldn't count all of them. I'm still here, I'm still competitive and I think I can win another one."

    History could be stacked against Armstrong, however.

    Jacques Anquetil, the first five-time winner in the 1960s, last won at 30 but lacked the motivation to continue the suffering that winning the Tour requires.

    Eddy Merckx, considered by most the greatest racer ever, succumbed to back injuries and won his last of five Tours at 29 in 1974. Bernard Hinault, the last French winner, won his fifth at 30 in 1985 but promised to help American teammate Greg Lemond win instead of chasing a sixth victory.

    Miguel Indurain, who won five successive Tours (1991-95), took his final victory at 31 but wilted under attacks in his run for a sixth win.

    The perceived weakness that comes with age fuels the ambitions of Armstrong's determined rivals.

    "What we do know is that someday somebody will arrive to beat him. We hope it is us," said Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, who will be co-captain with Heras at Liberty Seguros. "Each year works in his favor because he is more experienced, but each year works against him as well because he is older."

    Is Armstrong doped?
    A more troubling hurdle for Armstrong comes in the form of doping allegations published in a book published recently in France. The book -- entitled "LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong" -- alleges that Armstrong used banned substances during his career, a charge that he and his team vehemently denied. However, Armstrong admitted the accusations make it harder to focus on the intense training sessions to prepare for the Tour.

    "I can absolutely confirm that we don't use doping products," Armstrong said in a press conference in June. "Personally, I am very frustrated. It's distracting to an athlete before the Tour. But to me, success is the best thing. We're the most crazy, fanatical team out there when it comes to preparation. We spend more time on equipment and training and legal methods than anybody else. I stand by that statement and time will see."

    It's not the first time Armstrong has had to fight off allegations that his Tour supremacy doesn't come from just hard work and dedication.

    In the 1999 Tour, tests showed traces of banned coirticoid steroids, but Armstrong had a prescription to treat saddle sore to use a skin cream that contained small amounts of the product and he wasn't disciplined.

    Just before the start of the 2001 Tour, it was revealed that Armstrong had close links with Dr. Michele Ferrari, a controversial Italian cycling doctor who faces doping charges in an Italian court.

    And in 2002, a lengthy French investigation into allegations that his U.S. Postal team disposed of syringes, bloodied compresses and packaging for Actovegin during the 2000 Tour de France turned up nothing.

    Following the book's release, Armstrong's lawyers failed in a French court to force the publishers to include a denial that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs.

    "It's obvious they're trying to distract us," said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. "We have our legal teams in England and France defending our interests while Lance wants to focus on getting ready for the Tour."

    Unconventional course, chance for history
    The Tour de France course changes every year, but this year race organizers have come up with a route for the 2004 Tour that many say is stacked against Armstrong.

    To ensure an exciting race to equal last year, Tour organizers have pushed all the action into the second half of the three-week Tour. The first major mountain stage doesn't come until Stage 12 and all the decisive stages are sandwiched into a nine-day window.

    "The last week looks really tough, the toughest we have ever done," said Armstrong, who will be starting his 10th career Tour. "It will be much better to have a stronger second half than a strong first half."

    In another twist, gone is one of the long flat time trials that Armstrong has used as a springboard to grab an early lead. That's been replaced with a climbing time trial up the steep switchbacks at Alpe d'Huez in Stage 16.

    "In the Alps this year it will be a little more special with the time trial on Alpe d'Huez. It's probably the day that will decide the Tour," Armstrong said. "The third week is special, but that's the beauty of the Tour, it always changes."

    New rules also limit how much time teams can lose in the critical team time trial to 2 minutes, 30 seconds. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's a stage that Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team won last year and took more than three minutes out of rivals Simoni and Mayo.

    Despite the daunting obstacles, Armstrong enters the 2004 Tour as the favorite to win a record sixth Tour. Backed by an experienced U.S. Postal Service squad that includes fellow Americans George Hincapie and Floyd Landis, the team is trying to focus on the business at hand rather than think about history.

    "Of course, the record is a big motivation. We also know it's very difficult, but it's there for us," said Postal's director Bruyneel. "We are only thinking about this Tour. If we win, we'll think about history later."

    For Armstrong, the Tour remains his lone obsession. The cancer survivor has grown into a cultural icon and a hero to millions for his exploits on the bike.

    He admits the chance to make history makes this year's Tour that much more exciting.

    "I'm trying to focus this one Tour. If I thought about six, I'd lose focus on this one," Armstrong said. "Now, do I think, ah, this is an opportunity to break a record or do something that's never been done in 100 some-odd years, sure."

    Andrew Hood, who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996, is a freelance writer based in Spain.