Tour de France: Armstrong geared up for hardest fight in quest for record sixth win

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Just one statement by Lance Armstrong sums up his entire attitude to the Tour de France.

Just one statement by Lance Armstrong sums up his entire attitude to the Tour de France.

"The thought of watching somebody else riding up and down the Champs Elysées in yellow gives me nightmares," he said recently. Since 1999, his one aim in life has been to prevent anyone from doing that.

Barring last July, for five years the Texan has seemed unstoppable in cycling's blue riband event. He has racked up one overall victory after another, with final time margins on his closest rivals that until 2003 were all well over six minutes.

He is now one Tour short of a record-breaking sixth win, and on paper the challenge remains the same: excluding his team-mates, Armstrong has 179 rivals starting the race today with a 6.1km prologue in the centre of Liège's industrial sprawl. There are more than 2,000 miles to the finish on 25 July on the Champs-Elysées; the ascents total more than 107,000 feet of climbing.

None of these statistics have intimidated him in the past. The crucial difference this year is how he deals with the "Curse of the Sixth Tour", a challenge which foiled all of the four riders to win five: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

Several factors will work in the 32-year-old's favour: no one can question his motivation, for example, which was the issue that pushed Indurain into early retirement. In fact, the US Postal-Berry Floor leader has gone as far to compare his attitude to bike racing to fighting his battle against life-threatening testicular cancer in the mid 1990s. At heart, he seems mentally incapable of contemplating losing, even when it happens to somebody else.

"I was talking with Eddy Merckx about the curse of the sixth win," Armstrong told USA Today recently. "He started to tell me about how a spectator punched him in the stomach (whilst he was leading the 1975 Tour) and I had to tell him "Stop, stop, stop, I don't want to hear it."

Nor could you argue about how dedicated Armstrong is towards winning the Tour. "There are a million parts to winning the Tour and you have to pay attention to every one. This year, only one race matters."

His team is built to defend a single leader in the Tour, which was Hinault's problem in the year of his sixth Tour bid, 1986, when the Frenchman's unco-operative teammate Greg LeMond proved too strong to handle.

So total is Armstrong's leadership, in fact, that according to former Postal rider Jonathan Vaughters, "he is the king of his domain, and he keeps only people who he feels will move the business forward in his realm. He has the ability to ride at the front of the Tour peloton from stage one, and he is now at the peak of his powers".

"The fact we have an American sponsor plays into our hands when it comes to the Tour," reasons Armstrong's directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel. "If they were European, then they'd be asking us about local races and the spring Classics. Instead we're able to concentrate as much as we want on the Tour."

Armstrong's level of preparation and his obsession with security border on the manic: he weighs his food down to the last gram (the story of how he once sent a watch back to a sponsor in exchange for one a couple of grams lighter is one well-known myth), bikes are kept inside the team hotel at night for fear of sabotage, metal barriers are regularly raised around team vehicles at starts and finishes, and a bodyguard who used to work for George W Bush is hired specifically for the duration of the Tour.

"Security ought to be a presence, not a force." Armstrong said at his final pre-Tour press conference, sounding for all the world like George W discussing the American role in Iraq.

But just as his compatriots have found in the Middle East, all may be well with the folks back home, but when Armstrong steps out of his air-conditioned team bus it is another story altogether. "His rivals are licking their lips, they'll attack him every step of the way," another contender, Tyler Hamilton, said on Thursday.

Hamilton, a former US Postal team worker who now plans to topple Armstrong himself, could barely keep himself from interrupting one journalist who asked whether his friendship with his countryman would affect his racing strategy.

"No way," Hamilton insisted. "I'm here to win."

And there are others, many others, who appreciated how close Armstrong came to the brink in last year's Tour, when thewinning margin of previous years was slashed to 61 seconds.

Jan Ullrich, tipped by Bruyneel as Armstrong's successor, says he "simply cannot face coming second any longer", and is certainly impatient to topple the Texan.

Quite apart from his rivals, age is another factor that Armstrong cannot ignore. Only five riders in the last 50 years have managed to win the Tour at the age of 32 or more.

Steps have been taken to fend off the inevitable decline: this season entire sections of the cycling calendar, like the Classics, have been cheerfully sacrificed in order to ensure that he is at 100 per cent for the Tour.

But for all that his rivals are coming ever closer, Armstrong remains cycling's dominant figure and his final warnings to his rivals, if slightly more guarded than usual, remained categorically insistent that he is on track to win six Tours.

"My form is stronger than last year and I'm in better condition," he said. "I had a lot of work to do in these last three weeks, but I'm ready for what I know will be my hardest Tour yet."

But by his own admission, avoiding his own personal nightmare and actually knocking his rivals for six looks likely to be tougher than ever.

* A Paris appeals court yesterday turned down a request by Lance Armstrong that a book accusing him of doping include his denial of the allegations.

The court upheld a 21 June court decision denying his demand for an emergency order against the book published in France called LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly