PARIS // Lance Armstrong is giving the Tour de France one last go and two-time winner Alberto Contador is again the man standing between him and an eighth title in cycling's showcase event. And this time they are not on the same team. With their rivalry out in the open, the action on the road has a chance to chase away the perennial doping cloud that lingers over the three-week race.
The nearly 200 competitors in the 97th Tour will start today in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam on a 3,642km trek that will take them across Belgium and clockwise around France before finishing up in Paris on July 25. Aside from the short prologue today, organisers have scheduled only one individual time trial, on the next-to-last race day. The course layout offers a bouncy and bracing run over cobblestones and treks through the Pyrenees that will be crucial to the outcome.
The sport already has had a bumpy ride this year. Swiss star Fabian Cancellara has been hounded by repeated questions about whether he used a motor hidden in his bike frame while winning the Paris-Roubaix race - claims he has denied as ridiculous. But the International Cycling Union (UCI) will use a scanner to help make sure no such contraptions are on hand at the Tour this year. Armstrong - by far cycling's biggest star - has been on the defensive over doping allegations from former teammate Floyd Landis, a fellow American who was stripped of his 2006 Tour title for cheating.
The 38-year-old Armstrong, who will be seeking an eighth victory at his 13th Tour, has had other knocks. He crashed out of the Tour of California and his training was disrupted by illness twice. In recent weeks, he has showed impressive, if not spectacular, form: He placed third at the not-so-difficult Tour of Luxembourg, and second at the mountain-laden Tour of Switzerland. Contador, who stayed with Astana after Armstrong bolted last year for Team RadioShack, looks nearly invincible. He won the Paris-Nice, the Tour of Algarve and the Vuelta de Castilla and Leon, and placed second in the Criterium du Dauphine.
Taking a page out of Armstrong's old playbook, Contador has limited his racing days this year to focus on peaking for the Tour. Armstrong, who turns 39 in September, knows he faces a stiff test. "It will be very hard to win the Tour," he said this month at the Tour of Switzerland. "With my age, and the explosiveness of the other guys, my own struggles with the time trials in the last couple of years ... we'll have to be smart, to be a bit lucky, to play the team card a little bit.
"There are a handful of guys who are bigger favourites than me." He could have been talking about the Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy; Ivan Basso, the Giro d'Italia champion; or Cadel Evans, a two-time runner-up at the Tour. Also in the mix are Russia's Denis Menchov, Britain's Bradley Wiggins - fourth at last year's Tour - and the Kazakh star Alexandre Vinokourov, a teammate of Contador's. Four of the race's 20 stages will be in the Pyrenees, the mountains on the French-Spanish border. There is a twin billing of the dreaded Tourmalet pass - including an uphill finish in Stage 17.
Among other race highlights will be Stage 3 on Tuesday - which features 12.9km of bone- and bike-jarring cobblestones. * AP