Lance Armstrong: Mountain to climb

He has beaten cancer and won the Tour de France seven times. Now, aged 37, he's back and has been written off by everyone – but don't bet against him pulling off the eighth wonder of the world

Look at almost any online betting agency and you'll see 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador is – when it comes to a flutter at least – the most likely rider to win next month's race.

No big surprise there, the Spaniard is widely rated as the top stage racer in the world. But it is Lance Armstrong, back after a three-and-a-half-year absence, whose name stands out in the bookies' roster: indeed, in most, he is ranked second favourite to stand tallest again on the Champs-Elysées on 25 July.

To some, the American's return still seems unbelievable, almost uncanny. "It's like racing next to a ghost" was how one of Italy's top pros, Marzio Bruseghin, described riding alongside the Texan.

However, the American's return is real enough, to the point where perhaps only Contador could stand between him and victory: not bad for a rider who only started racing again this January.

Four years ago Armstrong would have been automatic favourite, but some things don't change. Just like before he quit in 2005, Armstrong's comeback has become enshrouded by controversy and high drama.

Since his first race back in Australia in January, Armstrong has already broken his collarbone for the first time in his career, had a spat with the French anti-doping authorities for what felt like the umpteenth time (they backed down), demanded back payments for his team-mates in Astana (he won, narrowly), and co-led a rider protest during the Tour of Italy over safety (which ended in stalemate – the riders rode, but very slowly).

Meanwhile, his relationship with the media has gone from mass adulation in the Tour Down Under in Australia, where one journalist compared Armstrong (favourably) with Jesus Christ, to distinctly frosty.

In May, Armstrong boycotted the media completely for what he felt was inaccurate reporting of the rider safety protest and since then has severely limited his interviews. The "far wider access than previously" he promised journalists when his comeback started has been dropped, probably permanently.

In terms of racing, it's all been fairly low-key: Armstrong has only won one road-race, the non-classified Nevada City Classic in the States. His strongest result in terms of a Tour bid has been 12th in the Giro d'Italia – which may not sound impressive, but five weeks earlier Armstrong broke his collarbone.

Rather than injury, though, the best argument for writing off Armstrong's Tour bid is to cite his age. He will be 38 in September, by which time most bike riders have long hung up their wheel.

At the Monaco start-line on 4 July, just one rider, the 40-year-old Spaniard Inigo Cuesta, is likely to be older than the Texan. No one has ever won the Tour at Armstrong's age, either. The oldest to date is Belgium's Firmin Lambot, who took the 1922 race at 36.

Armstrong's victories have never been less than exceptional. No other rider apart from the American has defied cancer to come back to win the hardest bike race on the planet. Not once, but seven times. Pre-cancer, he was the youngest Tour stage winner since the Second World War.

Since announcing his comeback last autumn, he has done enough to convince fans and detractors alike that, at the very least, he'll be a major factor in the Tour. And he could even taste glory. "Lance can win it, for sure," Britain's top rider, Mark Cavendish, reckons. "I mean, he's Lance Armstrong, isn't he?"

"Lance is our insurance policy," his team manager Johan Bruyneel said – meaning insurance against Contador, Armstrong's team-mate at Astana, failing to finish in yellow on the Champs-Elysées.

Armstrong refuses to rule out the possibility of finishing first. In the few interviews he has given in recent weeks, his only comment has steadfastly been that his team should follow cycling's unwritten rulebook and work for the strongest rider. But in a television interview to be broadcast in France today, he hints again that he feels he could be on for an eighth Tour: that the strongest rider might just happen to be him.

Charging away on a climb, as Contador has recognised he will have to do if he wants to win, could be seen as disloyalty if Armstrong cannot follow. On the other hand, if Armstrong can stay with Contador on the climbs then the odds will rise in the American's favour, and fast.

Not everybody is convinced. Bernard Hinault, the five-times champion and the last Frenchman to conquer the Tour, is adamant Armstrong's time is past. "He cannot win it again," Hinault said. "I hope Contador gives him a beating."

"Five wins doesn't buy you any common sense," was Armstrong's response. "What a wanker."

Hinault may not realise it, but it is precisely these kinds of provocative jibes that Armstrong uses to feed his motivation to win.

"He functions on anger," Bruyneel once said, and it is rage that has spurred Armstrong on since he started winning Tours back in 1999. That year, Armstrong dedicated "50 per cent of this win to the cancer sufferers of the world, 25 to me and 25 to those who didn't believe this was possible." A decade later, the number of "non-believers" has never been higher.

But turning the tables is Armstrong's mantra and tends to lead to his best performances. Next month, don't put it past him to clinch an eighth Tour de France.

Best of British: Cavendish kidology over green jersey

Mark Cavendish is rightly considered cycling's leading sprinter. Thirteen wins this season, and a 14th on the cards in Monmouthshire in the National Championships today, automatically earn the Briton that status.

But when it comes to challenging for the green points jersey, one of the three major overall classifications in the Tour de France and the most accessible to the Manx sprinter, he and his Columbia-Highroad team are taking a curiously low-key attitude.

"I don't know who started that story but we've never said he could go for it," says Brian Holm, the team's sports director. "All we want now for Cavendish is a stage win and then see what happens. There's no need to put him under pressure."

This could be the Cavendish camp trying to lull his rivals into complacency. If so, following the 24-year-old's debut victory in the top sprinters' classic, Milan-San Remo, after weeks of claiming he was unable to climb well enough to get over the hills in the Classic's finale, it is unlikely to succeed.

But it is also true that despite taking four stages in last year's Tour, he has yet to reach Paris on two wheels.

In 2007, his pull-out after a week was the time-honoured approach for a first-year pro. But last year Cavendish quit to rest up for the Olympics and, after failing to take a medal in Beijing, he still resents having done so. "His first objective has to be to finish. Cav hates pulling out and he wants to be able to say he's done it," says Rod Ellingworth, British Cycling's road endurance coach.

"Secondly, the most important thing is a stage win. But it's like having a loaded gun. You go for intermediate sprints [held mid-stage, when green-jersey points are also on offer] and you've got less bullets for the finish.

"Then if Cavendish does win all the sprint stages he can, which could be five or six, he'll be in a possible position to challenge for green anyway. But it's an add-on bonus this year, not the main target."

Cavendish is Britain's best chance of success this year, but by no means the only one. Garmin-Slipstream team-mates David Millar and Bradley Wiggins will both target a spell in yellow in the first week. No Briton has led the race since Millar in 2000, but that achievement would be overshadowed should Cavendish enter the record books as the first UK-born rider to take the green jersey outright.

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