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USPS invites Prince to follow stage

7/19/2004

NIMES, France -- Lance Armstrong can count a loyal, royal
fan among his many admirers.

As the Texan closes in on a record sixth Tour de France win, and
fans lined up for autographs around his U.S. Postal Service team
bus before Sunday's 14th stage, a casually dressed, bespectacled
man stepped off it.

Prince Albert of Monaco drops in on the Tour each year, and was
invited by the Postal squad this time. He passed almost unnoticed
among the hundreds of people jostling for a glimpse of Armstrong.

"I've been invited by this great team to follow a stage,"
Prince Albert told The Associated Press. "I come on the Tour every
year. I enjoy it. It's incredible."

The prince is more often seen watching his beloved Monaco soccer
team, which reached the Champions League final last season and
finished third in the French first division.

"I'm a sports fan in general," he said. "I've done some
recreational cycling, a very, very little bit," he said, adding
that it's tough to find a quiet spot to improve his cycling skills
in the small principality.

"Our roads are very crowded in Monaco, and all along the south
coast" he said. "So you have to go up in the hills a bit. It's
difficult."

After Sunday's stage from Carcassone to Nimes in southern
France, Armstrong held a commanding position over his main rivals.

"I think he's taken up a very serious option of victory, but
it's not over," Prince Albert said. "You have the Alps and a lot
of very challenging stages yet. But he's an incredible athlete."

Road Support
Rivals on the road, Lance Armstrong
and Ivan Basso share a bond apart from cycling.

Armstrong overcame testicular cancer to win his first Tour in
1999 -- and now wants to help Basso, whose mother is hospitalized
with cancer.

"He's a great rider on the one hand," said Armstrong, a
five-time Tour winner. "On the other hand, he has a situation with
his mom."

"I know he doesn't want to talk a lot about it and I understand
that and respect that," Armstrong added. "As far as what I can do
for him off the bike with that situation, I'll do whatever I can.
She's got a tough situation. But there's always hope."

Swift And Sure
U.S. Postal Service team manager Johan
Bruyneel has little doubt his star rider Lance Armstrong will win
the Tour de France -- and that his archrival Jan Ullrich will not.

Following Sunday's stage, Armstrong is just 22 seconds behind
race leader Thomas Voeckler of France, but is expected to overtake
him in the Alps. Asked to predict the top three, Bruyneel, a former
Tour cyclist, said: "Lance, (Ivan) Basso, (Andreas) Kloden."

"What about Ullrich?" he was asked.

"No," Bruyneel replied.

Basso of Italy is third overall, 1 minute, 17 seconds behind
Armstrong. Kloden of Germany is fourth, 2:56 behind the Texan.

Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner from Germany and a five-time
runner-up, is in eighth spot, trailing Armstrong by 6:39.