Tour de France: Armstrong the pragmatist looks beyond the nostalgia

Single-minded Texan will take little notice of the centenary celebrations at the start in Paris today
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The Independent Online

One of the cruellest ironies of the 2003 Tour de France is that in its centenary year - an invitation to soak in nostalgia which both organisers and media have accepted with alacrity - probably one of the riders with the least cycling "culture" on the race - Lance Armstrong - has the best chance of winning it.

Instead, the Texan's attitude to the race is 100 per cent practical. Asked earlier this year why he was so dedicated to the event, the American responded: "Firstly because it's the biggest race in the world, secondly because it's the only one that matters to my sponsor, and thirdly I like the fact that it's the one in the middle of the season, between the Tours of Italy and Spain."

Then when he was asked which of the four winners of five Tours he identified with the most - the select group which Armstrong aims to join this summer - his answer was shorter, but even more revealing. He didn't know, he said, because as a youth, he "had had no cycling education." Hardly a surprise given that Armstrong was brought up in the suburbs of north Dallas, where his lack of ability in more popular, American sports - "I can't play basketball," he once growled at a French journalist - was instrumental in pointing him in the direction of cycling.

When it comes down to actually riding a bike, Armstrong remains exactly where he has been for the last four years; at the pinnacle of his sport, with rivals who may be slowly growing in number, but none of whom have come close to making his life difficult in the sport's blue riband event.

As has been the case since 1999, his preparation for the 2003 Tour has been virtually faultless. A troublesome elbow injury as the result of a crash whilst winning the Dauphine Libéré, his last warm-up race, was the only real hiccup en route to today's starting ramp underneath the Eiffel Tower.

So smooth is his preparation for the Tour that his team, US Postal, have even developed a nickname for it - "the Armstrong template". Yet his rivals point out that Miguel Indurain, the only rider in the Tour's history to win five consecutive races, appeared, like Armstrong, to be seemingly invulnerable until suddenly, in 1996, he cracked.

"Some day Armstrong'll have to fall," the Basque rider Joseba Beloki, who has taken two third places and a second overall since 2000, warned. "The only problem is, we don't know when." Indeed, whilst Beloki and other Europeans may be bogged down in excessive appreciation of what the Tour means on their side of the Atlantic, Armstrong's ability simply to get on with the job in hand has paid him dividends in the past.

"Maybe it's the people from the furthest places who have to work the hardest to find a place on a team," Armstrong pointed out this week. "American cyclists aren't the only examples - you can look to Australia, Eastern Europe, Colombia." Furthermore, any attempts by Armstrong to show respect to the culture of the Tour have almost all backfired; in 2000, after gifting a stage win to Marco Pantani because he considered the Italian to be "a great climber", Pantani publicly snubbed the American's gesture.

Since then, Armstrong has resolutely refused to pay even lip service to the history of the event. Asked if he would wear the yellow jersey when he went down the starting ramp this afternoon of the 6.5km prologue, as is customary in the Tour and out of respect for the race's founder Henri Desgrange, the American refused. "I prefer to earn the right to wear it," he argued.

This time last year Armstrong ended the prologue wearing the yellow jersey once more, but Britain's one rider in the Tour, Scot David Millar, aims to keep the Texan out of the lead in the event at least. "It is one of the key days of the Tour for me," Millar, winner of the Tour's 2000 opening time-trial stage, said. "I haven't ridden a prologue as short as this for quite a while, but I reckon this could be a good stage for the Anglophones - me, Lance, and [Australian contender] Mick Rogers."

His team manager, Bernard Quilfen of Cofidis, added: "I've never seen David so motivated, not just for the prologue itself, but also for the Tour overall. There are a lot of cobblestones on the route - this is central Paris, after all - but David is in much better condition than he was before the 2002 Tour and flat, open time-trials like this one are ideal for him."

Indeed, Millar has now even gone so far as to mention "having a crack at the overall if I'm well-placed after the Alps" - the first time in his career that the 26-year-old has mentioned the Tour's general classification as a possible objective.

But whilst Armstrong remains head and shoulders above the rest in the fight for the 100th Tour and Millar is, at best, a long shot for the top five, not even the race director Jean Marie Leblanc could name one local rider as a possible contender in a recent interview with L'Equipe. "It's not a drama, it's a pity, but a rider like [former French stars] Bernard Hinault or Laurent Jalabert doesn't appear just like that. We must wait," Leblanc concluded.

In the meantime, the centenary Tour is a golden opportunity to ignore the French's dismal chances of taking the present race, and concentrate on the past.

Six who can challenge Armstrong

JOSEBA BELOKI

Age: 29.

Nationality: Spanish.

Team: ONCE-Eroski.

Tours: Three.

Best placing: Second in 2002.

Stage wins: None.

Strength: Climbing.

Weakness: Long time trials.

Why he might beat Armstrong: More consistent than other contenders.

Why he probably won't: Rarely attacks.

Talking big: "Armstrong's weak point is his team and a route which doesn't favour him - just three mountain-top finishes."

SANTIAGO BOTERO

Age: 31.

Nationality: Colombian.

Team: Telekom.

Tours: Three.

Best placing: Fourth in 2002.

Stage wins: Three.

Strength: Time trialling.

Weakness: Long mountain stages.

Why he might beat Armstrong: Only rider to have beaten him in a long Tour time trial in the last four years.

Why he probably won't: Invariably collapses during mountain stages.

Talking big: "I'm in better shape than last year. We will attack him."

TYLER HAMILTON

Age: 32.

Nationality: American.

Team: CSC.

Tours: Six.

Best placing: 13th overall in 1999.

Stage wins: None.

Strength: Long time trials.

Weakness: Lack of experience as Tour leader.

Why he might beat Armstrong: As a former Postal domestique, can read the tiny signs of suffering better than any other overall contender.

Why he probably won't: As Hamilton himself put it: "I try to think of Armstrong's weak points and I can't find any."

Talking big: "I've ridden six Tours, but I'm so enthusiastic about this one it feels like the first."

IBAN MAYO

Age: 25.

Nationality: Spanish.

Team: Euskaltel-Euskadi.

Tours: One.

Best placing: 88th in 2002.

Stage wins: None.

Strength: Climbing.

Weakness: Long time trials.

Why he might beat Armstrong: The only rider competing to make serious attacks on Armstrong in the mountains and drop him in recent years.

Why he probably won't: Team time trial likely to cost him all chance.

Talking big: "I'm not counting myself out until I've been counted out."

JAN ULLRICH

Age: 29.

Nationality: German.

Team: Bianchi.

Tours: Six.

Best placing: First in 1997.

Stage wins: Six.

Strength: Solid all-rounder.

Weakness: A 14-month ban for drug use is hardly the best preparation.

Why he might beat Armstrong: The only other rider competing to have actually won the Tour.

Why he probably won't: A chaotic spring, with his team twice banned.

Talking big: "I want at least one stage win, then to get as close as possible."

ALEXANDRE VINOKOUROV

Age: 29.

Nationality: Kazakh.

Tours: Three.

Best placing: 15th in 2000.

Stage wins: None.

Strength: Aggressive attacker during the hilly stages.

Weakness: Long time trials.

Why he might beat Armstrong: One of the most aggressive riders in the peloton, winning two week-long stage races this year, Paris-Nice and the Tour of Switzerland.

Why he probably won't: Suffers badly during time trials, and never really tests himself in the high mountain stages.

Talking big: "I want the podium at the very least."

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