- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004

LIEGE, Belgium — It’s a valid question: Did Tour de France organizers design a course specifically to thwart Lance Armstrong’s drive for a record sixth win?

The course favors some of Armstrong’s strongest rivals and blunts some of his own particular strengths. But Armstrong says he believes organizers are just aiming for spectacle.

Bottom line: The five-time champion thinks the best man will win — and he’s steeling himself for his hardest Tour yet.

“The race will be tight, will be very tough to win,” he said from Liege, where the three-week race begins today.

So, where are the pitfalls?

Pick your spot. The 2,106-mile route has some Armstrong rivals licking their lips in anticipation.

The biggest changes are in time trials, races against the clock where Armstrong usually excels.

New rules limit the amount of time squads can lose in the team time trial on Day5. That could hurt Armstrong because his winning U.S. Postal Service team last year used the demanding and technical event to open up hefty gaps over rivals.

Now, the slowest of the 21 teams will lose no more than three minutes to the winners. The maximum loss for other squads will be calculated on a sliding scale ranging from 20 seconds for the runner-up to 2 minutes, 55 seconds for the next-to-last team.

If that sounds complicated, the vital point is that Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service squad, if it wins again, won’t be able to do the damage it exacted last year. Then, the last team trailed them by nearly five minutes, and even the runner-up ONCE squad was 30 seconds off the pace, giving Armstrong a cushion for the rest of the Tour. Under the new rules, ONCE’s loss would have been cut to 20 seconds.

Jan Ullrich, Armstrong’s biggest challenger, lost 43 seconds to the Texan that day, a bad blow. Under this year’s system, the German would have lost just 30 seconds.

Organizers say the change should add excitement by ensuring that the team event doesn’t kill the suspense of the Tour early on. But Armstrong’s hardly delighted.

“I still to this day have a hard time understanding that regulation,” he said. “A team can lose 21/2 minutes in the first half of the race and just decide to sit up and say, ‘OK. We lose 21/2.’”

Nor do Armstrong’s worries stop there. This year, one of the two main individual time trials, where riders race alone, will run up the agonizing 21 hairpin-bend climb to the L’Alpe d’Huez ski resort in the Alps.

That is a boon for mountain specialists who struggle to stay with the speedy Armstrong when the race against the clock is run on the relative flat stages, as both were last year and the last one will be this year.

Armstrong is no slouch himself when it comes to climbing. In 2002, he won both of the Pyrenean stages that will be run again this year, to La Mongie and the Plateau de Beille, and he won at L’Alpe d’Huez in 2001. But he thinks Spanish mountain-man Iban Mayo will win there this year.

“The course is very good this year for climbers,” said Roberto Heras, a former teammate of Armstrong’s who now leads his own squad and could be a force for the Texan to reckon with in the Alps and Pyrenees.

The Tour route changes each year and a range of factors goes into deciding where it will go. Organizers always take the race through the mountains, but they also accept money from towns that want to be on the route. Politics and history also play a part, with organizers honoring former riders by taking the Tour through their hometowns or, as in 1987, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, starting it in what was then the divided Cold War city.

At 32, Armstrong admits he may be beyond his best. His 61-second win over Ullrich at the finish last year in Paris was by far his narrowest and shakiest Tour victory, cracking the champion’s aura of invincibility and giving his rivals hope of dethroning him this year.

But only a fool would count out such an experienced, determined and wily competitor.

“When you win five Tours in a row it’s because you have very few weak points,” Heras said.

American Tyler Hamilton, another former Armstrong teammate now gunning to beat him, expects the champion to be better prepared this year. Challenger Ivan Basso also says Armstrong and 1997 Tour winner Ullrich remain a cut above the rest, and that he, Hamilton, and Mayo most likely will be left to battle for third place.

“The Tour is not a normal race, it’s war,” said the Italian. “Armstrong is a strong rider in the legs and he is very, very strong here,” he said, pointing to his head.

For his part, Armstrong says the Tour route will still be a fair judge.

“The organizers always design the course as well as they can to make it interesting,” he said. “I still believe that the best man wins in Paris and for me that’s all that matters, even if I’m second.”

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