Armstrong says he's never been in better shape
Lance Armstrong is less than a month away from being a former pro, but the 33-year-old Texan plans to make the 92nd Tour de France a three-week rolling retirement party on two wheels.
It will be fun for him and his legion of rabid fans, but nothing short of anguish for his unfortunate rivals left gasping in his wake.
"When I roll down the start ramp on July 2 my intention will be to win that day and win overall," Armstrong said, firing a warning shot to those who thought he'd gone soft after winning a record sixth Tour de France last summer.
"I'm excited about the race. I feel very good on the bike," Armstrong added. "And I would even venture to say that I feel better than I've ever felt."
As if the cycling world expected anything else from the man who's rewritten the history books with his laser focus, his uncompromising will and insurmountable strength in cycling's hardest race.
For six Julys in a row, Armstrong has reigned supreme on the twisting French roads, plowing over the Alps like they were mere speed bumps on his headlong sprint to fame, fortune, celebrity and a unique place in sports history.
Armstrong, the Tour de France's most decorated rider, already has one foot out the door.
Without the commitment of training and racing 10 months of the year, he'll have more time for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, more time to work closely with his top-flight cadre of sponsors and more time to spend with his children.
First there's some unfinished business: Winning a seventh Tour de France since his triumphant return from cancer in 1999, and riding into the sunset, legacy untarnished.
"It's time to move on and he's excited about the next chapter of his life. He's focused on ending his career on a high note," said Bill Stapleton, Armstrong's longtime agent and lawyer. "For him, there's nothing to get nostalgic about until the job's done."
Armstrong said he won't pine for the long, hard days of training or the pressure cooker of being the eternal favorite. He certainly won't miss the hassles that come with being cycling's king and the sometimes murky accusations of performance-enhancing doping.
"When you're constantly on the top, you have a bull's-eye on your back," Armstrong said to The Associated Press. "The target just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. It's easier to shoot at, it's easier to throw things at. It might stick, it might not stick. You have to live with that. It comes with the territory."
For Armstrong, this race is more about him and the legacy he'll leave behind in the sport he's transformed in his six-year rule.
"The big difference in winning a seventh against a sixth or even a fifth is that there was a lot of buildup with five; 'Can he get the record, join the elite club?' Seven for me is more of a personal goal," he said. "I always wanted to win one final Tour and retire."
Armstrong back on track
After a busy winter filled with high-profile appearances with rocker girlfriend Sheryl Crow at the Oscars and Grammy Awards, Armstrong returned to Europe in early March not looking his sharpest.
"To not finish last," was all Armstrong said when asked how he expected to do in the opening prologue of his first race of the 2005 season at Paris-Nice. He didn't finish last 140th of 160 starters and the jet-lagged Texan pulled out with a cold three days later.
In April, he returned to the Tour de Georgia, where he was duly trounced by ex-teammate Floyd Landis in an 18.6-mile time trial, finishing nearly two minutes back and raising further doubts about Armstrong's motivation.
"There were a lot of questions of where Lance was," said Discovery Channel teammate George Hincapie, the only rider to be part of all six of Armstrong's victories. "At the Tour de Georgia, he wasn't where he wanted to be."
Instead of panicking, Armstrong rode patiently back into top form without any pressure at training camps in the Canary Islands and on the key climbs of the 2005 Tour course.
"Lance is so experienced now as far as how to time his form for the Tour. Now, no other race counts for him besides the Tour," said Jonathan Vaughters, one of Armstrong's ex-teammates. "Now he's got it so down. He's just knocking it like machine-work now."
Armstrong aced a key test at the eight-day Dauphiné Libéré race across the French Alps in mid-June.
Armstrong erased any doubts with a strong overall performance: fifth in the prologue, third in the long time trial (he beat Landis this time), fourth up Ventoux, seventh at Morzine, third in Sallanches and fourth overall.
"His basic conditioning is very good," Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel said. "Coming into the Dauphiné Libéré he lacked rhythm, but he can only improve from here. Lance is where he needs to be."
Same rivals, same result?
While Armstrong was doing his homework for the July exam, his rivals were still trying to figure out what it would take to defeat him.
Jan Ullrich, the freckled-faced, red-haired German whom Armstrong continually singles out as his top rival, wants to make the most of his last chance to beat the unbeaten.
After winning the Tour de France in 1997 at the ripe age of 23, many predicted that Ullrich, not Armstrong, who was recovering from painful chemotherapy treatments for testicular cancer, would shatter the five-win record.
Ullrich looks tan, rested and most important fit as he's facing his last showdown with Armstrong with trademark gusto and optimism.
"I'd love to beat him," Ullrich, 31, said to the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. "That's my motivation this is the last chance. Lance has dominated the tour for the last six years and whoever beats him is going to be the greatest. This year's duel will be the most exciting because this is his last tour."
Ullrich's powerful T-Mobile crew will also line up with Andreas Klöden, second overall last year, and Alexandre Vinokourov, third in 2003. The team left behind popular sprinter Erik Zabel in an effort to try to topple Armstrong.
"We are going there with the intention of turning the heat on Armstrong and hopefully force him to crack," said Vinokourov, who beat Armstrong at Mont Ventoux at the Dauphiné. "The key is to attack Armstrong, but that is easier said than done. Nevertheless, that is what we will try to do."
Other favorites include Ivan Basso, the 27-year-old Italian who finished third overall last year and was the only rider to beat Armstrong in a stage in the mountains last year.
Riding under the tutelage of 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis at Team CSC, Basso looked to have the Giro d' Italia in the bag when he was zapped with a stomach bug, but he bounced back to win two stages, including his first long-distance time trial.
The enigmatic Iban Mayo is the rider potentially the most dangerous to Armstrong's reign. The lean Basque climber dropped the struggling Armstrong en route to winning Alpe d'Huez in the 2003 Tour and then walloped Armstrong up Mont Ventoux in winning last year's Dauphiné Libéré.
Once the Tour de France started, however, the overcooked Mayo crashed on the cobbles in the first week and eventually pulled out in the Pyrénées.
"This year we've changed the preparation, we've sacrificed a lot of things, but I had to risk it and the important thing is to arrive in good form for the Tour," Mayo said. "Last year I was strong but when I began the Tour I wasn't able to hold the form."
For Armstrong, the Tour de France has become a race not against his rivals but rather an internal struggle to get to his ideal race weight (168 pounds) and to build his fitness so he can turn on the turbos during the critical climbing stages.
"Every year people ask for a list of 10 or 12 guys who can challenge," Armstrong told The Associated Press. "But do we really need a list? That's not the question. The question is how good I'm going to be. Am I going to be good enough to win? That's the question."
Armstrong promises to answer that question with a seventh Tour de France crown.
Andrew Hood is a freelance writer living in Spain. The author of "Armstrong Rewrites History: The 2004 Tour de France" for VeloPress, this is his 10th year covering the Tour de France.
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