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Armstrong is in it to win it



Published: Fri, July 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The famoud cycling race starts today and could be Armstrong's seventh win.

CHALLANS, France (AP) -- Lance Armstrong, ever the headstrong Texan, aims to succeed where the likes of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and other sporting giants failed.

Ali fought well past his prime.

And Jordan will not be remembered for his lackluster final season with the Washington Wizards, when he played even as his magic touch seemed to be fading.

But Armstrong could, at the Tour de France that starts today, achieve an oft-elusive feat in sports by walking away at the top of his game.

Already the only six-time winner of the grueling and storied three-week cycling marathon around France, Armstrong wants to start his retirement by wearing an unprecedented seventh champion's yellow jersey when he crosses the finish line in Paris on July 24 after 2,242 miles.

"I feel excited and obligated to win," Armstrong said earlier this week.

Such a victory would mark a triumphant end for the 33-year-old who first conquered cancer before defeating all-comers on French roads and mountain passes.

A loss, meanwhile, would mark a decisive beginning to the post-Armstrong era for cycling and for the Tour, its showcase event and arguably the most arduous of all sporting challenges.

Armstrong's string of success since 1999 has helped rejuvenate the venerable 102-year-old race, drawing new audiences beyond cycling's traditional fan base in Europe.

For the first time this year, the race is being broadcast live in Australia. China and India are getting television coverage, too, all of which should help ensure that the Tour continues to thrive long after Armstrong hangs up his bike.

Rival competition

For his rivals, this Tour offers one last chance to make history as the rider who ended Armstrong's reign.

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner who has since finished runner-up to Armstrong three times and who placed fourth last year, came to race this time with an aura of menacing confidence, looking lean and fit.

"This is the last time I can beat him, so naturally it is an extra motivation for me," the German said of Armstrong.

Ullrich also has a strong team of support riders, including the aggressive Alexandre Vinokourov from Kazakhstan, who finished third in 2003 and is eager to make his mark again after missing the Tour last year through injury.

Ullrich's challenge got off to a bad start when he crashed into the back window of a team car Friday during a training run. His T-Mobile team press officer Luuc Eisenga said Ullrich had minor cuts and scratches on his neck but will be fit to start.

Basso's threat

Ivan Basso, the ever-improving Italian who was the only rider to stick with and even beat Armstrong up the exhausting, winding climbs in the Pyrenees last year, also could be a threat but has yet to prove that he has the killer alpha-male instinct that the American has in spades.

Outsiders include lithe Spanish mountain riders Roberto Heras, a former Armstrong teammate, and Iban Mayo. But they both failed to live up to expectations last year.

Since Armstrong secured his sixth crown in 2004, surpassing the previous record of five victories he shared with Spain's Miguel Indurain, Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault and Belgium's Eddy Merckx, some have questioned whether he is fully motivated this time round. But such speculation seems to ignore the competitive fire that burns naturally in Armstrong. Just winning, whether it be for the first time or the hundredth, is for him motivation in itself.

Surviving cancer also steeled him, both physically and mentally, for the Tour's rigors.

"What it teaches is this: Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever," he says.




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