Cycling: Seventh Heaven

Lance Armstrong is poised to pull down the curtain on his career tomorrow with his seventh straight victory in the Tour De France. Key Figures from this year's tour talk to Alasdair Fotheringham about the significance of the Texan's achievements and his retirement

Joseba Beloki, Age: 31, Spanish

Three times a podium finisher behind Lance Armstrong - third in 2000, 2001 and second in 2002 - the Basque Joseba Beloki is riding his first Tour since a crash at Gap in 2003 when he broke his femur.

What is Armstrong's greatest quality as a rider?

His ability to read race scenarios. I've never known another race leader with such total control of the peloton, so intelligent when it comes to knowing what's going on. When riders go off the front, you can see him talking into his race radio saying "this one yes [he can go clear], that one no, this one yes", sending team-mates to pull back anybody's who's attacked that he doesn't like.

Is he the greatest rider of all time?

No. But he is definitely the best Tour de France rider of all time, more powerful in this particular domain as [Eddy] Merckx and [Bernard] Hinault were in their day. However, he's not got the breadth of their palmares, he's more limited in that sense. I'm sure if he'd turned his mind to other projects, he'd have succeeded in them.

Which Tour was his most impressive?

More than one Tour, the attack he launched on Alpe D'Huez in the 2001 race. That was something that really got people on the edge of their seats, it was Armstrong at the height of his power. The best Tour was definitely 2003 - but for the spectators. It was where he was pushed the hardest, suffered the most - and still won.

After Armstrong retires, who is the best prospect to win the Tour next year?

You can't talk about a successor to Lance. He's simply been too superior. But there will be three definite candidates for winning next year: Ullrich, Basso, and Yaroslav Popovych [of Ukraine].

Does Armstrong have any weak points?

We've not really seen any. Sure, there was all that talk about how he suffered in the heat, but I don't buy that. In fact, the longer he's gone on, the stronger he's got. This year he's been the most powerful since 1999.

Does Armstrong leave cycling in a better or worse state than when he started winning the Tour in 1999?

He leaves it in a much more boring state. The Tour has got monotonous. How can it not be when he's been 99 per cent certain to win from day one.

'He's like a magician, the best magician of all time'

Jean Louis le Touzet, Age 44, French

Chief sports writer with the newspaper Liberation, he has covered nine Tours, including Armstrong's seven.

What is Armstrong's greatest quality as a rider?

His cruelty.

Is he the greatest rider of all time?

He's got the best palmarès, and he's enshrouded in the greatest sense of mystery of all time.

Which Tour was his most impressive?

2003. Suffering, crashes, problems, at least the suspense wasn't killed off straight away.

After Armstrong retires, who is the best prospect to win the Tour next year?

Basso, probably, although I'd like to see someone as anarchic as Vinokourov win.

Does Armstrong have any weak points?

His pride.

Does Armstrong leave cycling in a better or worse state than when he started winning the Tour in 1999?

It's become like Hollywood. He's like a magician, the best magician of all time.

'Cycling will exist after Armstrong'

Ivan Basso, Age 27, Italian

Currently second overall in the Tour, Basso is widely tipped as a future winner - once Armstrong has retired.

What is Armstrong's greatest quality as a rider?

Probably his focus and his determination.

Is he the greatest rider of all time?

It is impossible to answer. Every big champion is different. For sure, he is the biggest Tour de France rider of his generation. He is an era in his right.

Which Tour was his most impressive?

To be able to take a seventh consecutive victory is amazing.

After Armstrong retires, who is the best prospect to win the Tour next year?

I would like to think of myself as one of them, but there will be several and not just one big favourite.

Does Armstrong have any weak points?

No.

Does Armstrong leave cycling in a better or worse state than when he started winning the Tour in 1999?

Cycling will continue to exist after Armstrong.

'Nothing happens without him knowing about it'

Luis Leon Sanchez, Age 21, Spanish

Currently riding his first Tour, Luis Leon Sanchez is this year's youngest rider. The winner of Australia's top race, the Tour Down Under, he is riding for the Spanish team Liberty Seguros.

What is Armstrong's greatest quality as a rider?

He's extremely intelligent controlling the race. Nothing happens without him knowing about it during the race.

Is he the greatest rider of all time?

No. Definitely not. He's the greatest Tour de France rider, but you can't compare his palmarès with Miguel Indurain's say.

Which Tour was his most impressive?

All of them. But the way he's leading this race, controlling everything, is exceptional.

After Armstrong retires, who is the best prospect to win the Tour next year?

Basso is the guy with the best future in the Tour, but there are others out there like Popovych and [Vladmir] Karpets..

Does Armstrong have any weak points?

His team. This year there have been moments when he's been isolated a long way from the finish. They're all very experienced, but he's been cut off from support at times.

Does Armstrong leave cycling in a better or worse state than when he started winning the Tour in 1999?

Different. Stronger at the top end, not just in the Tour. All the races that form part of cycling's new league, the ProTour, have better quality fields. But the less well-known events are suffering as a consequence.

'His weak points don't exist'

Jim Ochovitz, Age 42, American Cycling Federation President

The former team manager of Armstrong's Motorola squad, and one of the Texan's "inner circle" of advisors.

What is Armstrong's greatest quality as a rider?

His determination.

Is he the greatest rider of all time?

I'll tell you on Sunday. [when the race is over].

Which Tour was his most impressive?

This one.

After Armstrong quits, who is the best prospect to win the Tour next year?

[Ivan] Basso, [Yaroslav] Popovych and so on. It's not clear who's the best.

Does Armstrong have any weak points?

They don't exist.

Does Armstrong leave cycling in a better or worse state than when he started winning the Tour in 1999?

Much better. Ten times better, because of who he is, what he's done.

'Certainly not the greatest'

Samuel Abt, Age 60, American

International Herald Tribune news editor Samuel Abt has covered 29 Tours. The Paris-based journalist first met Lance Armstrong in 1991.

What is Armstrong's greatest quality as a rider?

Physical power and determination.

Is he the greatest rider of all time?

No, certainly not. Thirty or 40 years ago, Merckx was the best of his time because he won everything.

Which Tour was his most impressive?

2004. He won five stages, just about everything he could.

After Armstrong retires, who is the best prospect to win the Tour next year?

Judging from this year's Tour, [Ivan] Basso and [Jan] Ullrich. But you have to add [Alejandro] Valverde and [Damiano] Cunego in as well.

Does Armstrong have any weak points?

He hasn't shown any.

Does Armstrong leave cycling in a better or worse state than when he started winning the Tour in 1999?

Better, because he's set a record for other riders to aim at, a target.

'Definitely best-ever Tour rider'

Jan Ullrich, Age 31, German

Five times second on the Tour de France, and outright winner in 1997, Jan Ullrich is aiming for a seventh podium with T-Mobile. Armstrong described him as "the rider who I feared the most".

What is Armstrong's greatest quality as a rider?

His consistency and way he has focused on and trained for the Tour.

Is he the greatest rider of all time?

It's difficult to compare eras, but he's definitely the best-ever Tour rider.

Which Tour was his most impressive?

No comment.

After Armstrong retires, who is the best prospect to win the Tour next year?

There's a big group of riders who will have their chance, amongst them me.

Does Armstrong have any weak points?

No, not that we've seen, anyway.

Does Armstrong leave cycling in a better or worse state than when he started winning the Tour in 1999?

He's shown how best to focus on winning the Tour de France.

'He's changed the image of cycling'

Chris Boardman, Age 36, British

The winner of three prologue stages in the Tour de France in the 1990s, former hour record holder Chris Boardman rode his last Tour in 1999, the year Armstrong won it for the first time.

What is Armstrong's greatest quality as a rider?

Tenacity and focus.

Is he the greatest rider of all time?

It rather depends on how you look at it, given what the likes of Eddy Merckx achieved. If you had to look at it in terms of the Tour, then yes.

Which Tour was his most impressive?

This one, considering the demands it makes on your body and his age, then winning the Tour at 33 is very impressive indeed.

After Armstrong retires, who is the best prospect to win the Tour next year?

I don't think you can really say [Jan] Ullrich will be because he's been trying to do it and failing for so long. [Ivan] Basso's an obvious candidate.

Does Armstrong have any weak points?

None that I can think of.

Does Armstrong leave cycling in a better or worse state than when he started winning the Tour in 1999?

Certainly in a better state than it was in 1998. He's changed its image, it's become much more global, a more mainstream event. Lots more people have heard of the Tour thanks to him.

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