Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tour de France favours pure climbers, says Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong will not only have to beat the best rider in the world to win an eighth Tour de France – his team-mate and rival Alberto Contador – but will need to master an innovative course with a gruelling last week punctuated with four mountain stages and a time-trial.

The 37-year-old American, back in competition this season after more than three years of retirement, said this Tour, starting on Saturday in Monaco, was more likely to favour pure climbers such as Contador.

"There is only [about] 34 miles of time-trials, which is much less than normal," said Armstrong. "And the final week is extremely hard with a lot of climbs. So all the way from Colmar [stage 14], to Verbier, the Alps, the time-trial and then the [Mont] Ventoux … I've never seen a final week of the Tour like that."

Armstrong has never won at the fabled Ventoux – one of the few climbs where's he's come off second best. "It owns a special place in my heart," he said. "Obviously it would be a sweet feeling to win there finally, but if you want to win there you have to be the best."

Traditionally, the Tour finishes with a time-trial on the penultimate day, before a largely ceremonial ride into Paris on the last. But this year Mont Ventoux, a huge moonscape of rock in Provence, will be the 20th of the 21 stages. The punishing climb, on which the British rider Tom Simpson died in 1967, may even decide the outcome.

In his heyday, Armstrong had two occasions to triumph on the so called "Bald Mountain".

In 2000, when he won the Tour for a second time, he allowed the late Marco Pantani of Italy to pass him at the finish line, later regretting having given away the victory. Two years later, Armstrong's team reacted too late and failed to catch the Frenchman Richard Virenque, and he settled for third place.

"It reinforces that I made mistakes the previous two times," Armstrong said. "I should have raced differently in 2000 and we should have raced differently in 2002. The Ventoux deserves the strongest riders, the mountain asks for that."

Four years ago, in the pre-Tour warm-up race at the Dauphiné Libéré, Armstrong was dropped on the Ventoux's final climb by the Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov – the Texan wobbling in his saddle as Vinokourov sped away proving a rare sight indeed.

After the opening time-trial in Monaco and a team time-trial in Montpellier, where he believes his Astana team will take the yellow jersey, the peloton heads out along the Mediterranean coast and up through the Pyrenees, where three mountain stages are scheduled.

The first one, between Barcelona and Arcalis, is the most demanding with a gruelling 6.6-mile final ascent. Usually Armstrong would dominate on the race's first big climb, but this time he is preaching caution. "There are too many difficult parts in the final week. Honestly speaking, I plan to be careful in Arcalis. You really have to think about the final week."

Armstrong is prioritising the Alpine stages, where the scrap between the favourites promises to be fierce after a transition across central France and into the east. The cancer survivor spent four days in the Alps before heading to Monaco, and he feels the scouting was fruitful.

He thinks the first alpine stage to Verbier, Switzerland, on 19 July, could have some surprises in store.

"Verbier is a climb that I think a lot of people think is quite easy. It's not easy. It's not long but to me it's like a mini Alpe d'Huez. It's steep but it's only five miles. Anybody who thinks it's going to be easy is going to be surprised."

Armstrong also thinks the 17th stage between Martigny, Switzerland, and Bourg-Saint-Maurice, which follows a rest day, and features two very difficult ascents – the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard and the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard, could also catch some riders out.

"Tricky, too, because the climbs are so long and they have high elevation. And it's a day after a rest day. The day after a rest day, it's always a tricky situation. Some people they don't ride at all, some people ride too easy and the body is 'wow'."

He also previewed the time-trial on stage 18, a 25-mile trek around the lake of Annecy and the Monaco time-trial, a 9.6-mile route with climbs, tricky hairpin bends and fast curves.

Armstrong feels he could figure strongly. He recently finished the Giro d'Italia in a creditable 12th place and his body weight is reassuringly low.

"I'm lighter than I was before," he said. "Before, I was about 74kg or 74.5kg [11.65st or 11.73st]. And now it's 72.5kg or 73kg. It's a good thing and I think it's because I already have one grand tour in my legs. I came out of the Giro pretty light and then the last month I was very careful with diet. I trained very hard in altitude and all those things contributed to the good body weight."

A good sign for Armstrong, then, given that his body weight was traditionally low when he dominated mountain stages during his seven Tour wins from 1999-2005.

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