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Originally published June 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 30, 2005 at 1:05 PM

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Tour de France

Armstrong aims for seventh Tour title

Without underestimating his rivals, Lance Armstrong holds the key to an unprecedented seventh Tour de France victory in his hands. The big question before...

PARIS — Without underestimating his rivals, Lance Armstrong holds the key to an unprecedented seventh Tour de France victory in his hands.

The big question before the race begins — starting Saturday with an 11.8-mile time trial from the island of Noirmoutier, then rolling along for about 2,230 more grueling miles before concluding July 24 in Paris. — is not whether anyone else is good enough to beat the most successful Tour rider in history, but whether Armstrong himself has the motivation to add another win.

At the start of the season, the Texan had mixed feelings about going for another Tour. His contract with team sponsor Discovery Channel stipulated that he had to complete at least one more before retiring, and Armstrong finally made up his mind to call it quits after this season's race.

Armstrong has apparently worked as hard as ever with his team chief and personal adviser Johan Bruyneel in order to end his career on a high note.

"Seventh [Tour victory] is more of a personal goal and ambition," he said at the start of the Dauphine Libere tuneup earlier this month. "That's not a record, and it's not going to be written in any book. But it will mean a lot personally.

"It will mean I've retired at the top of my game and that I might have won another one. It's a motivating factor to win another one, maybe convincingly, and to retire."

Armstrong, however, has shown signs of weariness this year.

In the early season, he repeated in a number of interviews that he resented more and more the long time spent abroad far away from his children. And his results before the Dauphine Libere were far from convincing.

For the first time since he returned from near-fatal cancer in 1999 to win his first Tour, Armstrong will start the Tour without a win behind him in the season.

Lance Armstrong raced in his first Tour de France in 1993 and won his first stage that year. Six years later, after a victorious battle against testicular cancer, he returned to win his first Tour in 1999, and he hasn't been beaten since.

With the Texan announcing his retirement in April, the 2005 Tour will be his farewell. His first chance at taking the lead this year comes Saturday, when the Tour opens with an 11.8-mile time trial. After 2,230 more miles, it will conclude July 24 in Paris.

There were many question marks hanging over the American's form, which he finally dispelled in the Dauphine Libere. After weeks of training in the Pyrenees — the mountains which likely will decide the outcome of the Tour in the third week — Armstrong returned a leaner, more relaxed rider and showed he was still among the most versatile competitors in the bunch.

Even though he failed to win a stage, he finished fourth overall after an excellent individual time trial and morale-boosting performances on Le Ventoux and Joux-Plane, two of the world's most difficult climbs.

With two stage wins and an impressive overall performance, his team also showed it was probably as strong as, if not stronger than, in previous years.

Bruyneel believes only three riders could threaten Armstrong's bid for a Tour title: 1997 winner Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov and Ivan Basso.

Vinokourov is not as quick as his T-Mobile teammate Ullrich on time trials, but he's better in the mountains. In the Dauphine Libere, Vinokourov won the climb up Le Ventoux — beating Armstrong by 37 seconds.

Although Team CSC rider Basso lacks speed, he is a tenacious climber — as he showed in last year's Tour.

"He was the only one to stay with Lance in the mountains," Bruyneel said. "Will he be able to maintain his condition for three weeks on the Tour? That's the question mark. But it's possible."

Vinokourov's attacking style caused Armstrong problems in the mountains in 2003, when the Texan beat Ullrich by just over a minute — his smallest overall margin of victory.

Ullrich, a five-time Tour runner-up, has long been considered Armstrong's main rival. But a poor showing last year — 8 minutes, 50 seconds behind Armstrong in fourth place — has raised doubts about his commitment and ability to handle pressure.

However, Bruyneel does not rule him out.

"He is one of the best time trialists and always gets better in the second half of the Tour," Bruyneel said. "He is definitely weaker in the mountains. But he is a tough guy who never cracks."

Bruyneel also mentioned Spain's Joseba Beloki — runner-up in 2002 — and former Armstrong teammate Roberto Heras as possible threats.

But if anyone can defeat Armstrong in July, it will probably be Armstrong himself.

"To have any possibilities of winning against Armstrong, Armstrong himself has to have a bad day," Beloki said. "If Armstrong weakens one day with a minimal loss of time, I don't think it'll be enough. Armstrong would have to have real difficulties and have to lose lots of time."

Looking at the streak

1999

Returns to the Tour from near-fatal cancer. Takes his first yellow jersey by winning the prologue in the Puy du Fou. Wins three more stages, including two time trials.

2000

Wins despite just one stage victory. Engages Marco Pantani in a thrilling fight on the Ventoux climb. Leaves the stage victory to the Italian, a gesture he later regrets.

2001

Four stage victories — including both time trials and a first win at l'Alpe d'Huez — lead Armstrong to equal compatriot Greg LeMond by

winning three Tours.

2002

Another fine collection of stage wins for Armstrong — the prologue, one time trial in Macon and two stages in the Pyrenees (La Mongie and Plateau de Beille).

2003

Struggles with stomach problems and is challenged by Jan Ullrich. Takes upper hand in a fantastic mountain ride to Luz-Ardiden to become fifth rider to win five Tours.

2004

Six stage wins lead to an unprecedented sixth Tour victory. A clean sweep of four stages in the Alps crushes the opposition, and U.S. Postal, at last, wins team time trial.

Four to watch

Lance Armstrong

Country: United States.

Team: Discovery Channel.

Tour results: Six consecutive wins, from 1999 to 2004.

Stage wins: 22.

Outlook: His form showed significant improvement in the recent Dauphine Libere. But the Texan might not be as motivated as in the past and has yet to win a race this season.

Jan Ullrich

Country: Germany.

Team: T-Mobile.

Tour results: Won in 1997; second in '96, '98, 2000, '01 and '03.

Stage wins: 7.

Outlook: Described by Armstrong as his main rival again, Ullrich says he dreams of beating the American in his final Tour and putting an end to his string of runner-up finishes.

Alexander Vinokourov

Country: Kazakhstan.

Team: T-Mobile.

Tour results: Third in 2003.

Stage wins: 1.

Outlook: A real fighter, Vinokourov might not be good enough in time trials or in the mountains to beat both Armstrong and Ullrich.

Ivan Basso

Country: Italy.

Tour results: Third in 2004.

Stage wins: 1.

Outlook: Armstrong considers Basso, an excellent climber, as the rider most likely to take over his crown when he retires.

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