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Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

Late Edition Cycling News for December 12, 2003

Edited by Gerard Knapp

Lance Armstrong - let's make Ullrich the favourite

Reported by Tim Maloney, Brussels

Facing what will be undoubtedly the first of many inquisitions over his pending battle with Jan Ullrich in the 2004 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong made a lighthearted tilt at claiming underdog status at a press conference today in Brussels. The American rider joked, "hey, let's just start calling him (Ullrich) the favourite from the start; and they (T-Mobile) can do all the work in the first half of the Tour", said the five-time winner of cycling's grandest tour.

The return of Ullrich to his German team, to be called T-Mobile in 2004, has many of the European press gallery salivating at the prospect back to the glory days of Telekom in the Tour. But Armstrong said he will return even more motivated in pursuit of win number six.

USPS-Berry Floor press conference
Photo: © CN
Click for larger image

"I'm more motivated to win a sixth Tour," he said. "After this year's Tour, I feel I have something to prove next year, to try and break the record. There's still lots of reasons to ride fast."

As one of only five riders to have won five Tours de France, in 2004 Armstrong has a strong chance of becoming the first rider ever to win six Tours. His sporting exploits has also seen him become a major sporting celebrity in the USA. However, "I'm still focused on being an athlete. I still love cycling," he told the assembled European press at the Brussels Le Meridien Hotel.

Armstrong's attendance at the press conference, seated alongside his Belgian team director Johan Bruyneel, was at the invitation of the team's presenting sponsor, Berry Floor. It coincided with the performance that evening at the Cirque Royale theatre of American singer Sheryl Crow, currently on tour in Europe. After the press conference, Armstrong was due out for a training ride, building his appetite for dinner with Belgium sporting royalty Eddy Merckx at their favourite Italian restaurant, the Piccolo Mondo, before attending the singer's performance that evening.

Armstrong has been linked to Crow following his separation from wife Kristin, but the questions from the European press remained focused on the sport, not his personal life. Still, Armstrong himself alluded to what was a very difficult year as he dealt with the emotional upheaval of separating from his wife and their three young children. "I think 2004 should be an easier year (for me), on an emotional level. 2003 was a challenging year."

In terms of his physical preparation, Armstrong said, he "probably got a little too comfortable with success before the Tour this year and took it for granted. I forgot that you also have rivals that improve and are motivated."

If anyone expected Armstrong to show bitterness or grave disappointment at the recent defection of star climber Roberto Heras, who pulled out of his contract with USPS-Berry Floor one year short to join the team of Liberty Serguros, they would have been disappointed.

"We have no hard feelings about it, we wish him well," he said diplomatically of the diminutive climber's move back to a Spanish team, run by the enigmatic Manolo Saiz. "It's better for us (USPS-Berry Floor) to have him as an animated rider in the Tour," he added.

Next year, Armstrong will face an array of proven Grand Tour winners, such as this year's Vuelta a Espana winner Heras, as well as Giro d'Italia winner Gilberto Simoni, not to mention Ullrich. It seems the underdog status may indeed suit Armstrong, as the blue train can wait and watch the hopefuls attack each other relentlessly.

(A more detailed report will follow soon.)

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(All rights reserved/Copyright Knapp Communications Pty Limited 2003)