Cycling: Armstrong in saddle for magnificent seven chase

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The Independent Online

There has been months of speculation, countless hours of website debate and considerable uncertainty as to what his final decision would be, but Lance Armstrong has, at long last, confirmed that he will definitely be taking part in the 2005 Tour de France.

There has been months of speculation, countless hours of website debate and considerable uncertainty as to what his final decision would be, but Lance Armstrong has, at long last, confirmed that he will definitely be taking part in the 2005 Tour de France.

The wait could have been longer: already a record-breaking six-times winner of cycling's blue riband event, the 33-year-old Texan had given himself until the end of April to tell the world whether he would take on the challenge of a seventh straight victory. But 10 weeks before that self-imposed deadline, Armstrong has opted to break cover with a typically laconic announcement that he is back in Tour business.

"I look forward to achieving my goal of a seventh Tour de France victory. I am excited to get back on the bike and start racing although my condition is far from perfect," he said on his team's website.

While it would have been a far bigger surprise if Armstrong had opted out of the Tour - the last cycling champion to do so deliberately was all-time great Eddy Merckx some 30 years before - Armstrong did seem genuinely unsure if taking part at 33, an age when riders tend to be in irreversibly declining condition, was such a good idea.

For months he has speculated about tackling the Hour Record - he had even paid for a special team of investigators to see what his chances were of beating the distance set by Britain's Chris Boardman four years ago - or going for the World Championships in Madrid this September.

Armstrong had also specified in his contract with his new team sponsor, Discovery Channel, that he only had to take part in the Tour de France once more, either in 2005 or 2006.

Part of the reason for Armstrong's lengthy deliberation - he first said "the Tour is not in my 2005 plans" back in October - is that he has already smashed one of cycling's invisible barriers by taking six, and last summer won a jaw-dropping total of six stages.

That he should be getting even further ahead of the field as the years passed effectively killed the suspense for all but the most diehard of fans and perhaps Armstrong, who has expressed an increasing desire to spend more time with his children, also suffered from déjà vu each time July rolled round.

"He genuinely didn't know what to do." said the British national champion, Roger Hammond, who joined Discovery at the beginning of the season. "He was just waiting to see how his form panned out before making a decision.

"But it's good for cycling that he's doing the Tour, because Lance is a world-wide famous figure now: a lot of people that are only interested in the Tour because of him will continue to watch the race."

While Hammond will have his own opportunity to work for Armstrong in cycling's biggest one-day event, the Tour of Flanders this April - which the American has named as one of his few other objectives for 2005 - his opponents for the Tour throne in July have almost unanimously said they are pleased by the news.

"I always want to measure myself against the best." Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's most persistent rival, declared, "so it's good that Lance, who is the best Tour rider the race has ever known, is taking part."

Armstrong's decision has also found favour with the race organisers, ASO, even if the owner Patrice Clerq had initially said it would "be thrilling to have a Tour where another rider wins, and then Armstrong returns a year later to take him on."

"In my heart I prefer races which are more open but to have a Tour where one favourite fights the rest of the field is equally interesting," said the event director, Jean-Marie Leblanc.

Among the fans reactions will be mixed: Armstrong's return to a race in which he has nothing left to prove and only himself to beat will mean a return to the scenario which the Tour has had for the last six years, with more than likely the same final result.

But on the other hand, seeing just how far a seemingly unbeatable rider can last before age finally takes its toll will have a morbid fascination of its own, and no one could ask for a better setting than the Tour de France.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

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