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90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003

Lance Armstrong and the 2003 Tour De France

Terminator 5: Is it still what's inside for Armstrong?

By Tim Maloney, European Editor in Paris

Lance Armstrong
Photo: © Jeff Tse
Click for larger image

Despite the almost universal lack of anti-Americanism in France, there is a strong underlying sentiment of schadenfreude among the European media covering cycling at this year's Centenary Tour De France. "It's too much - it's time for someone to beat Armstrong, to show him he can't dominate the Tour", shrilled Le Monde's Guillaume Prebois in a TV interview during the Giro d'Italia. And a noted French cycling journo recently told Cyclingnews that "Armstrong won't win the Tour this year; he's had too many problems at home and won't be able to focus."

But as Tony Soprano would say, "fuggetaboutit." Although sooner or later, the American has to have a famous "le jour sans", Lance Armstrong is a person who's always beaten the odds no matter what, whether it was testicular cancer or a bike race. His coach Chris Carmichael says that "(in 2003), Lance has worked harder than ever to prepare for the Tour", while his training partners in Girona, Spain report that Armstrong is stronger than ever. And separately Armstrong commented in the pre-race press conference on Thursday that "this year, the French people have been better than ever...I think they are smart enough to separate politics and sport."

Armstrong showed his colors last month with a solid win for his second consecutive victory in the Dauphiné Libéré. But like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, Armstrong claims to be feeling his age, complaining to the NY Times' George Vecsey that "I definitely feel (the training)," he said, "starting with my feet hitting the ground in the morning. I don't get to the coffee pot quite as fast as I used to."

But like the aging, almost obsolete Terminator, and the advertising tag line in his ad campaign touting Japanese cars, Armstrong looks like he'll be back, that he still has what's inside to win the Tour De France. And despite Armstrong's claim that he is treating it like just any other Tour, this year's 100th edition will be the biggest, most pressure-packed, prestigious Tour De France to win in the century-long history of the event. Besides himself, the question remains, who can stop Lance Armstrong from winning his fifth consecutive Tour De France?

The contenders

Simoni and Garzelli
Photo: © Sirotti
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First and second in last month's Giro d'Italia, Gilberto Simoni (Saeco) and Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola-So.Di) could possibly offer some stiff competition for Armstrong. 32 year old Simoni is a talented, hard-headed two-time Giro champ. His maturity, excellent climbing skills, respectable TT abilities and solid Saeco team could carry him onto the podium, but Simoni also lacks Tour De France experience which may handicap him at key moments.

Simoni's DS Giuseppe Martinello was also driving the team car the last time a certain Italian named Pantani won the Tour in 1998, and he will certainly give Simoni key guidance at the right times. Simoni has said he will attack Armstrong in the mountains, so look for the Saeco man to test the American early on in this year's Tour.

2000 Giro d'Italia winner Stefano Garzelli is a huge talent and his runner-up spot in the 2003 Giro after only eight races (subsequent to his suspension for use of probenecid in the 2002 Giro) is a clear indication of this. Garzelli will be looking for alliances with other riders to try and attack Lance. Up until now, Armstrong hasn't taken the Italian challengers seriously, but he may change his mind when the mountains start.

Joseba Beloki
Photo: © Sirotti
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ONCE's Joseba Beloki is a true Tour Man. Entering his fourth Grande Boucle, the 29 year old Beloki has three consecutive years on the podium (3rd in 2000 and 2001, 2nd in 2002) and is looking to become more aggressive this year. To attack instead of following wheels. Beloki is a complete rider and will have a strong team behind him this year. ONCE boss Manolo Saiz is determined to break Armstrong's stranglehold on the Tour De France. The question remains whether Beloki has what it takes to beat Armstrong and only the roads of the Tour De France have the answer to that question.

The other Americans, Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer, are both looking like possible podium dwellers at this year's Centenary Tour. Hamilton has had a breakthrough year at CSC with his dramatic win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Team director Bjarne Riis has given Hamilton a new focus and a new coach in Italian Luigi Cecchini. 30 year old Hamilton's best Tour finish was 13th in 1999 but the tough Man from Marblehead seems destined for something big this year.

Levi Leipheimer
Photo: © Jeff Tse
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Leipheimer is in his sophomore year at Rabobank and the 29 year old from Billings, Montana feels right at home. Leipheimer is a complete rider who finished 8th in his first Tour last season. He's a quiet, determined talent with a top team behind him and should he find good legs in the Pyrenees, Levi could be a revelation at this year's Tour,

Fassa Bortolo's dynamic duo Aitor Gonzalez and Ivan Basso are a major question mark at the 2003 Tour. Gonzalez, a brilliant winner at last year's Vuelta a España was an inconsistent disappointment at the Giro d'Italia, while up and coming Basso, 10th and Best Young Rider at last year's Tour may be having problems with the iron hand imposed at Fassa by DS Ferretti.

Telekom is another team that wants to attack Lance Armstrong and has the dogs to do it...but not quite enough to make the difference. Certainly Telekom's new acquisition of powerful Colombian Santi Botero will add to the mix at the team. Fourth last year, Botero won two stages, but his consistent inconsistency makes his ability to challenge Armstrong another question mark.

Alexandre Vinokourov
Photo: © Elmar Krings
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Kazakh rider Alex Vinokourov has had his best season ever in 2003 with wins in Paris-Nice and most recently, Tour De Suisse. Consistency is his middle name, so Vinokourov should at least better his 15th place at the 2000 Tour. But Telekom will miss 2002 Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli, a last-minute forfeit from a stomach bug and up and coming Aussie Cadel Evans, out with a broken collarbone in June.

Last but not least among the contenders, Jan Ullrich and his compadres of Bianchi represent a major unknown factor at the Centenary Tour. Ullrich has always been the rider Lance Armstrong has feared most, and certainly, he has a remarkable record at the Tour De France. Ullrich was a winner in 1997, he's been runner up to Bjarne Riis in 1996 at 22 years old, Marco Pantani in 1998 and Armstrong in 2000 and 2001. But his suspension for recreational drug use last year after a recurring knee injury derailed Ullrich from challenging the American again last year.

Jan Ullrich
Photo: © Elmar Krings
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After moving from Telekom to the financially shaky Coast squad, Ullrich's fortunes took a turn for the worse as Coast imploded, but luckily, bike sponsor Bianchi bailed the team out. Backed by 2001 champion Angel Casero, Aitor Garmendia, David Plaza and Felix Garcia-Casas, and after finishing 8th in the recent Tour de Suisse, Ullrich enters the Tour with his stated goal as the Best Climber's jersey and/or a stage win. But don't be surprised if the classy German doesn't get stronger as the Tour progresses and contends for a podium spot in Paris once again. If given the choice between the podium and the Climber's jersey, Ullrich says that he would definitely prefer the former.

Next: Part 2: The Pretenders, The Tour within the Tour and Gone Fishin': Who isn't at the Tour.

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