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."
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.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- UCSB fan confronts Hawaii coach, arrested
- Spurs breeze past Heat with Duncan in form
- LeBron says sleeved jersey partly to blame
- Manziel inks endorsement contract with Nike
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM