Armstrong cheers for Landis or other American to win

Updated: July 19, 2006, 9:14 AM ET news services

L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France -- Lance Armstrong says it's crucial that Floyd Landis win the Tour de France for the continued development of cycling in the United States.

"It's great for American cycling, and I'd love to see the jersey stay in the States," said Armstrong, who retired last summer after the last of his record seven Tour wins.

The Texan's success boosted the popularity of the sport hugely in America, but there were fears that people back home would lose interest once he was gone.

Armstrong says a win by the 30-year-old Landis can help maintain the sport's high profile until a new American hope arrives -- especially since Landis' injured hip could force him out of the sport.

"It's very important, there's a couple of ways you can figure that out," Armstrong said. "You can look at the TV ratings. You can look at the industry, you can look at youth participation, which is essentially the most important."

Landis held the overall leader's yellow jersey by 10 seconds over Oscar Pereiro of Spain heading into Wednesday's 16th stage -- the second of three tough Alpine climbs. Other rivals, such as Andreas Kloeden of Germany, Carlos Sastre of Spain and Russia's Denis Menchov were more than 2 minutes back.

With a time trial looming Saturday -- a favored discipline for Landis -- he is well set to become only the third American to win the Tour, after Armstrong and Greg Lemond.

"Americans and American sports fans need their guys to be successful, people they can understand and relate to," Armstrong said Tuesday, addressing a small group of reporters in the Alpine mountain resort of L'Alpe d'Huez. "I think for the success of cycling in the States it's very important."

Landis and Armstrong both admit they were never the best of friends when together on the U.S. Postal team for three years between 2001-04.

On last year's Tour, tensions mounted and they had a heated argument during a stage race. Armstrong says the relationship has since thawed.

"Just for the record, I know Floyd and I have gone through this whole cycle of 'on the team, off the team', a little friction here and there," Armstrong said. "I don't think it was ever as bad as some people thought."

He said he considers Landis to be "hard-headed."

"I mean that in a good way," said Armstrong. "He's really tough."

Armstrong rode to the summit of the famous L'Alpe d'Huez climb on Monday with Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal. He looked fit and is in training for November's New York marathon but declined to speculate on whether he could have won this year's race.

"That would just be theorizing or guessing. I'm sitting here as the retired guy that would be the lantern rouge [last overall] in this Tour," the 34-year-old said.

"That's the reality. It wouldn't be fair to the people who win to say if I could have won.

"I'm still a fit guy but I'm not in the race and don't want to be. So let somebody else win, let somebody be the be the new champ and wear yellow. It's somebody else's race now."

Armstrong said he was in France to help defend cycling after the recent Spanish doping investigation in which nine Tour riders, including favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, were implicated forcing them to withdraw from the race.

"I came here as a fan because I think the sport needs fans to say 'okay, rough start to the Tour, another black eye but I don't think it's the time to run from the sport.'

"Now is the time to stand up and support cycling," he said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.