CHALLANS, France -- Lance Armstrong will pick up a handsome check if he wins the Tour de France for the seventh straight year. Spare a thought for those who could finish way behind him.
If Armstrong wins, he would earn $480,400 -- a sum he traditionally divides among his teammates. The runner-up gets $204,170, with the third-place finisher making $110,500.
But those who rank 91st to 150th get a mere $480 for 23 days of hard slog. That works out to about $20 a day. As for those who finish out of the top 150 -- 189 riders are scheduled to start -- the prize is a big fat zero. Riders have to finish in the top 19 to receive $1,200 or more.
There are incentives, however.
After each stage of the three-week Tour, a jury awards $2,402 to the rider judged to have fought the hardest on that day. At the end of the Tour, an eight-man jury gives $24,020 to the cyclist who has best shown aggressive, attacking qualities during the whole race.
Mountain specialist Richard Virenque of France won that distinction last year, and Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov received the honor in 2003. Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, known for his fearlessness in mountain descents, was voted the "Super Combatif" in 2001 and 2002, and he is now on the panel of judges.
Lance Armstrong will appear a little different at the start of this year's Tour.
The six-time Tour winner will head to the line Saturday with a sharp new-look bike that bears the hallmark of New York graffiti artist Lenny Futura, otherwise known as Futura 2000.
Futura made his name in the early 1980s when his graffiti marked New York subways. Now he has lent his skills to Armstrong, customizing the Texan's bike for Saturday's 11.8-mile time trial from Fromentine to Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile.
The back wheel of Armstrong's Trek bike will feature little yellow, black and gray squares and triangles dotted all over the inside of the wheel. The numbers "10/2" have been engraved onto the bike to mark the date in 1996 that doctors informed him he had testicular cancer.
Armstrong had the special TTX model bike custom-built for time trials on this year's Tour. He first tested it out -- minus the artwork -- at the Dauphine Libere prologue last month.
Italy's Ivan Basso, third in the 2004 Tour de France, is aiming to climb even higher on the final podium in Paris this year and perhaps even topple Lance Armstrong from top spot.
"I'm here to do better than in 2004 and that means either
second or first," Basso told a press conference on Friday.
"Lance Armstrong is the favorite because he's mentally very
strong after taking six Tours but I'm starting the race with the
aim of winning it."
The 27 year-old CSC rider has not raced since the Giro
d'Italia in May but believes he will be at his best for the key
mid-race mountain stages of the Tour.
Basso's big weakness has always been in the individual time
trials but he has worked hard to improve his technique during
the last 12 months.
He hopes to limit his losses to just a few seconds in
Saturday's 19-km opening time-trial stage.
"If I lose 20 or 30 seconds to Armstrong it won't be a
problem because the Tour will be decided in the central part of
the race, in the Alps and the Pyrenees.
"I hope to feel good in the mountains so that I can attack.
I'm riding the Tour to win it but to win you need to attack and
to attack you need good legs. I'm confident."
Cycling's new professional circuit is threatening to change the rules by which the three major Tour races participate in it after a long power struggle over commercial rights.
International Cycling Union president Hein Verbruggen on Friday warned that the sport's elite 20 teams would only be required to race in two of the main Tour races if the new ProTour's demands were not met.
That could deprive the Italian Giro and the Spanish Vuelta
of many leading riders as most would still wish to compete in
the blue riband Tour de France.
Verbruggen said the teams and ProTour organizers had run out
of patience with the three big Tours which continually demanded
stand-alone treatment with commercial deals instead of joining
collective agreements like other races.
Tour de France general director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the
Tour organizers ASO "at the start had legitimate points to make
but a lot of problems have been solved.
"Hein Verbruggen made concessions. After a lot of waves
there is not much left that divides the two sides," he said.
Leblanc confirmed a meeting between ASO president Patrice
Clerc and Verbruggen had been discussed and could take place
quickly to settle the differences.
The ProTour is in its first year after being set up to give
individual professional races more coherence and better
collective bargaining power for commercial agreements.
Open, Closed Books
Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who will retire in 2006, paid homage to Lance Armstrong but said he would have liked him to be "closer to the people".
"I would have liked him to be more available, closer to the
people," Leblanc said of the American whose record six Tour wins in a row marked his long term at the helm of cycling's showcase race.
"Maybe the suspicions that have sometimes been uttered
against him in France played a part in the distance he kept with
the crowds as he was always very open and friendly to me."
Armstrong, who began his remarkable winning streak after
recovering from testicular cancer, has not been immune to the
suspicions of doping that constantly surround cycling but has
categorically denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs.
"Or perhaps it's the price to pay for his formidable talent.
He has been a totally dedicated champion, almost monomaniac in
his approach of the Tour. He has been a super winning machine,"
Leblanc's 17 years in charge of the race coincided with the
reigns of two of cycling's greatest riders, Armstrong and
Spaniard Miguel Indurain, the first man to win the Tour five
times in succession between 1990 and 1995.