Cycling: Tour king Armstrong may not defend title

Cycling's most successful major stage race rider of all time, Lance Armstrong, is seriously contemplating bypassing the biggest stage race of them all, the Tour de France, in 2005.

Cycling's most successful major stage race rider of all time, Lance Armstrong, is seriously contemplating bypassing the biggest stage race of them all, the Tour de France, in 2005.

Already a record-breaking winner of six Tours, the Texan has told L'Equipe newspaper that he feels that "the time could have come to think of other objectives. There are other races I would like to win before I quit cycling, and 2005 could be a good year to do it."

His words have been backed up by his team director Johan Bruyneel, who said at the presentation of the 2005 Tour last week that there is only "a 50 per cent chance that Armstrong would take part". For Armstrong deliberately to miss cycling's blue riband event would create as dramatic an absence from the Tour as if, say, Michael Schumacher announced he was skipping the Formula One races.

In fact, barring narrowly avoiding defeat in 2003, the Texan has had more problems off the bike - a divorce, working with a controversial Italian trainer, an aggressive personality which has seen him voted the third least popular person in France - than on it.

But now Armstrong is hinting extremely strongly it is time to move on, saying he has "no idea whether I would start the Tour '05 or not". Armstrong's single-minded focus on the Tour - after finishing it this July he has taken part in no other races, and those he rides in spring tend to be purely as high-level warm-ups - has brought him widespread criticism in the past. But the policy has paid off, to the point where he has become so successful in the Tour that currently many fans feel that the only newsworthy event in the race would be that he had lost it. Nor would the decision be totally without a precedent: in the early 1970s, cycling's all-time greatest rider Eddy Merckx, deliberately avoided the Tour de France for one year in order to concentrate on the Tours of Italy and Spain which he, of course, won. With nothing left to prove now in the Tour, at 33, Armstrong's desire to follow a similar path could see him concentrate on the Belgian Classics in April, or the Tour of Spain in September.

Nor do the Tour's organisers disapprove that their star rider for the last six years should intentionally go Awol. "Imagine if 23-year-old 2004 Tour of Italy winner Damiano Cunego came to the Tour sans Armstrong and he won it," Patrice Clerq, the head of ASO, the company which owns the race, said recently. "Then in 2006 Armstrong comes back: what a spectacle that would create." The only obstacle to Armstrong's plans - and it is a major one - is that his team's new sponsor, Discovery Channel, will almost certainly be determined to see him start the sport's biggest event.

A final decision will not be made until spring next year - but Armstrong's waning interest in the Tour would be of incalculable benefit to lesser events usually eclipsed by the public's overriding interest in July.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

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