PARIS: Lance Armstrong looks poised to make Tour de France history but still insists he will tackle the world's biggest cycling race as “just another Tour”.
Business as usual for the Texan would mean a fifth victory, a feat only achieved by four men in the past, in the race starting today.
For the American cancer-survivor to join the elite of world cycling on the centenary Tour would be an ideal crowning and he has realistically no serious opponent.
“For me, like for the other riders at the start, it’s just another Tour,” Armstrong said in a recent interview.
“I know I have a chance to emulate (five times winners) Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain, but we’ll think about the legend in due course,” he added.
Not too keen on Tour history, Armstrong even confessed he did not know the name of the first winner, Maurice Garin.
A fifth victory in succession would put him on a par with Spaniard Indurain, the only man with five straight wins.
While Tour fans and spectators will celebrate its 100th anniversary in countless events, exhibitions and shows around the caravan, the race will be not be a celebration for most riders.
Armstrong has always believed the Tour to be a tricky event to master and a crash, sickness or a technical incident can never be ruled out in the 20 stages and 3,247 kms of the race.
“When I saw the itinerary in October, I told myself it would be more difficult to make a difference because there are fewer finishes at the top of a mountain and also shorter time trials,” he said.
But it is hard to see who could really upset the U.S. Postal team leader, even if he had a bad day or bad luck.
German Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner and four times runner-up, has the talent to win the Tour.
But a knee injury, a doping suspension and team problems have left him out of competition for more than 14 months and he will only have two months’ competing behind him at the start of Saturday’s prologue.
“I worked hard to make it back to my best, I changed my approach. Even if I don’t feel capable of beating Armstrong this year, having not taken part in a three-week race for two years, I want to make it onto the podium,” he told journalists.
Spaniard Joseba Beloki, second last year, should again play a leading role.
But he was nowhere to be seen this season and will have to do without the support of compatriot Igor Gonzalez Galdeano, banned from competing in France after a controversial dope test for corticoids on the last Tour.
In Lorient last year, Colombian Santiago Botero became the first rider to beat Armstrong in a long time trial on the Tour since the American returned from cancer in 1999.
But Botero has also been quiet in recent months.
The Medellin rider has, however, left Spanish team Kelme for strong German outfit Telekom and it could make a difference.
Botero, who was fourth last year, has however always a bad day in previous Tours and looks too inconsistent to challenge Armstrong.
Basque Iban Mayo, who threatened the American in the recent Dauphine Libere, fellow-American Tyler Hamilton, who is one of the few versatile riders in the bunch, and Italian Giro d’Italia winner Gilberto Simoni are all possible contenders.
But the Tour often sorts the men from the boys and even though all these riders, as well as Italian Stefano Garzelli and Vuelta champion Aitor Gonzalez of Spain, should end the race in the top ten, they seem too soft for the peloton’s boss. – Reuters