Cycling bodies feuding over race
PARIS -- Six-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong tops the bill as the curtain rises on the new cycling ProTour but events backstage could overshadow the Paris-Nice race which starts on Sunday.
The atmosphere is likely to be icy, because of a cold snap in France and because of a dispute between race organisers ASO and the International Cycling Union (UCI).
Whoever wins the weeklong "race to the sun" in Nice on March 13 will receive the victor's yellow jersey, but it is unclear whether organizers will also allow him to be handed the UCI ProTour leader's white one.
ASO, which also organizes the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Fleche Wallonne and Paris-Tours -- all of which feature on the ProTour programme -- has refused to promote the new series, seeing it as an infringement of its power.
As UCI president Hein Verbruggen put it: "ASO are in and out of the ProTour."
The UCI has already won the first battle as the field for the ProTour's opening event is of a standard usually only seen in the big tours.
Not only does it include Armstrong, the greatest Tour rider of all time, but some of the riders are likely to threaten the American in July's race.
Last year's Paris-Nice winner, Joerg Jaksche of Germany; Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, the most promising rider in the bunch; and Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov, who missed last year's Tour through injury, should be Armstrong's leading rivals.
In-form Belgian Philippe Gilbert, France's Sylvain Chavanel and Jerome Pineau are also among those who could win Paris-Nice.
Armstrong has made it clear Paris-Nice is only a preparation race in which he does not expect to shine, but on sheer class he should be among the riders to watch in Sunday's demanding finale to Nice.
"I have very low expectations for me personally," the 33-year-old said on his Discovery Channel team Web site. "It will be my first race in Europe since the Tour of 2004."
Armstrong wrongfooted part of the peloton when he announced he would go for a seventh Tour victory in July instead of concentrating on other goals as some would have hoped.
But with the Tour so far away, Paris-Nice can hardly be an objective.
"It's a great race that is steeped in history," said Armstrong.
"It's interesting in that it used to be a real goal for me to try and win Paris-Nice. However, that has changed and it's now purely a preparation race."
Paris-Nice holds mixed feelings for Armstrong. He was second behind Laurent Jalabert in 1996, but two years later he abandoned the race almost convinced his career was over after coming back from cancer.
He finished 61st the next year but went on to win his first Tour five months later.
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