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No One's Going to Mail It In

Cycling: Armstrong cautions those who think he'll cruise to fourth title.


LUXEMBOURG — Whether it was a Fourth of July gesture or a sincere statement, veteran French cyclist Richard Virenque's Tour de France prediction was a stunner.

Thursday, Virenque said Americans could sweep the top three places in cycling's premier event, naming three-time defending champion Lance Armstrong and Armstrong's former U.S. Postal teammates Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer as favorites to occupy the podium in Paris.

Armstrong termed Virenque's comments a compliment--"That would be spectacular," he said--but was quick to issue a caution about the trio's prospects for the 89th edition of the race, which begins Saturday in this tiny, cycling-mad country.

"There are a lot of guys in the race who want to be on the podium," Armstrong said. "It's very competitive.

"I'm not guaranteed to be at the front. There could be somebody in front of me. There could be 10 guys in front of me. That's why I still get nervous before the Tour de France; that's why I prepare and train so hard. The day you're not nervous is the day you lose."

Hamilton, now a co-leader for the Denmark-based CSC Tiscali team, demurred even more.

"That would be something, but I think that would be a very difficult task for all three," said the Massachusetts native, who was one of Armstrong's chief support riders the last three years.

During the last calendar year, U.S. riders have notched their best results in Europe in more than a decade, landing on the podium in all three of cycling's Grand Tours.

Hamilton finished second in last month's Tour of Italy despite riding the last two weeks with a hairline shoulder fracture and a torn tendon in the joint. Leipheimer, now riding for the Dutch team Rabobank, finished third in the Tour of Spain last September.

"It's not like Levi came out of the blue," Hamilton said of Leipheimer, who left his home in Montana to begin racing in Europe as a teenager. "All the Americans you see doing well have really paid their dues."

In the absence of past Tour winners Marco Pantani of Italy and Jan Ullrich of Germany, most observers are banking on the Texan to win his fourth consecutive Tour title. Some even have predicted a boring three weeks, with sprinters going for stage wins in the first week to 10 days and Armstrong dominating in the mountains as he has in each of his three victories.

However, Armstrong and others expect strong performances from Spanish teams ONCE and Kelme, both deep with climbing and overall talent. Other teams, such as Germany's Telekom, will build strategy around their sprinters--but that means they may not be as willing to help Postal chase down early breakaways.

The jeopardy to Armstrong would come if a rider with climbing ability got into one of those breakaways, was well-positioned midway through the race and managed to hold his own with the champion in the mountains. Postal, which features three new riders, could find itself working harder than ever early on to prevent that from happening, sapping the team's energy.

Armstrong also needs a continuation of his remarkable good fortune over the last three years, during which he has been unimpeded by major crashes, equipment problems or illness.

The 2,036-mile course, one of the shortest in history, is a thousand fewer miles than it was a decade ago. Organizers, aiming to make the marathon event as suspenseful as possible, have gradually decreased the distance while keeping the most challenging climbs.

Another, less tangible factor is a belief that demanding even more superhuman exploits than the race already does leads to more use of performance-enhancing drugs that plague the sport.

The 21-team field will roll counterclockwise as it does every other year, west to Brittany, south along the Atlantic coast, east through the Pyrenees and north over the Alps.

This year, the mountain stages have been pushed a few days later and the second individual time trial one day later, to the eve of the largely ceremonial finish in Paris.

"Every year, they try to make the course more challenging for the past year's winner," Armstrong said. "That's their responsibility, to keep the race exciting. I didn't take it personally.

"The Tour de France is two long [individual] time trials, the Alps and Pyrenees, and always finishes in Paris. And hopefully the best man wins."




What: The world's most prestigious cycling race, running the next three weeks and ending July 28 on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

When: Begins Saturday with an individual time trial in Luxembourg.

Distance: 2,036 miles over 21 days, one of the shortest races in Tour history. The route and schedule have been tailored to keep the outcome uncertain until the final few days.

Defending champion: Lance Armstrong of the United States, who has won the last three Tours and is favored this year. The record for most victories is five.


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