- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

LUXEMBOURG (AP) Lance Armstrong's toughest competition in his quest for a fourth Tour de France title might come from within.

"The only person who can beat Lance is Lance himself," said Levi Leipheimer of the Rabobank team, a former teammate. "If he is feeling well, and doesn't make any mistakes, he's unbeatable."

Nearly all signs suggest that Armstrong is ready. He says he's feeling good, he's confident about his U.S. Postal Service team and he has been on a roll. He won two warmup events the Midi Libre in May and the Dauphine Libere in June.

There are other reasons for optimism. Two previous Tour winners, Germany's Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani of Italy, aren't racing this year. Telekom rider Ullrich, whose racing career overall is in jeopardy after he tested positive for amphetamines last month, is out with a knee injury. Pantani has been mired in drug problems.

Of the 189 racers, Armstrong is clearly the star. Throngs of reporters fill his news conferences, three bodyguards watch his every step and he has exclusive access to an elevator on the way to medical checkups while his teammates walk up the stairs.

"Who can beat him?" queried the French sports daily L'Equipe in a headline yesterday.

A total of 21 teams are to take part in the event, which begins this afternoon with a 4.2-mile individual time trial in Luxembourg. The 21-day course will take riders into Germany, across the wind-swept plains of northern France, then through the Pyrenees Mountains and along the Mediterranean to the Alps before the traditional Paris finish. There are two rest days.

Weather service Meteo France forecast rain over Luxembourg.

The race features the return of French star Richard Virenque, 32, who sat out last year's competition. He was banned from racing for six months last year for taking performance-enhancing drugs during the scandal-tainted 1998 Tour de France. His testimony in a French trial that grew out of that year's race recounted systematic drug use in cycling.

Among other expected highlights, Erik Zabel of Germany is favored to extend his own record and win a seventh green jersey, awarded to the Tour's best sprinter. He is one of the few bright spots for an ailing Telekom team that, along with Ullrich's woes, saw Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakstan pull out of the race on Thursday due to an injury.

Armstrong said that Spanish riders present the most potent threats. His leading rivals are likely to include Oscar Sevilla and Joseba Beloki of Spain and Colombia's Santiago Botero. U.S. Postal teammate Roberto Heras, also of Spain, is a contender as well.

"I'm feeling strong it's possible for me to win," Beloki said. "When Armstrong says that he fears the Spaniards, it's a sign that he knows we can do something on this Tour."

In the past, some highly favored competitors have been known to crack under pressure.

Belgian Eddy Merckx, a five-time winner, was favored to win the 1975 race, but was overcome by Frenchman Bernard Thevenet in two stages in southeast France. Spanish champion Miguel Indurain appeared a shoo-in for a sixth straight Tour win in 1996 but was upstaged by Bjarne Riis of Denmark.

Perhaps wary of being too confident, Armstrong turned down an eager fan who asked him to sign a replica of the Tour leader's yellow jersey he has already taken home three times.

Despite the absence of racers such as Pantani and Ullrich, Armstrong said: "There are still plenty of good riders who can 'make the race.'"

The Tour finishes July28 on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.


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