Yet again, it's tour de Lance

If you like suspense or uncertainty in your sporting events, this year's Tour de France may not be for you. Three-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong is such an overwhelming favorite to win his fourth successive Tour that the general expectation is for three weeks in Dullsville, not France.

Even Jean-Marie Leblanc, the director of the bicycle race, has warned this would not be a Tour full of suspense, but an opportunity to admire an athlete – Armstrong – at his peak.

In fact, just before the 89th edition of the race started Saturday here in Luxembourg, Armstrong had some news to make his 188 opponents tremble: He's gotten even stronger.

"On balance, compared to 1999, 2000 and 2001, I feel better," he said. "Anything can happen – I can lose form, or have an accident. But I'm optimistic." The 30-year-old Texan and leader of the US Postal Service Team, who astonished the world by coming back from cancer to win cycling's toughest event three years ago, has good reason to be upbeat.

Main rivals Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, and Gilberto Simoni are missing from this year's Tour. Ullrich, the German who won in 1997 and finished second the last two years, is sidelined by a knee injury and facing the possibility of a suspension from cycling for testing positive for amphetamines. Former Tour champ Pantani isn't riding in this year's event because he faces a possible four-year ban for allegedly using illegal drugs. And Simoni, another popular Italian racer, tested positive in April for cocaine, and Tour organizers withdrew their invitation.

Armstrong, whose training schedule is extraordinarily demanding, probably knows the terrain of the 21-day, 2,035-mile race better than anyone else competing. "We've done all the mountain stages and all the time trials," he said. "We've done some of the hard climbs twice." Armstrong has certainly been on a roll. He has won his last two multiday races – the Midi Libre in May and the Dauphiné Libéré in June.

Of the 189 riders, Armstrong is clearly the star. Throngs of reporters fill his news conferences, fellow riders are in awe of his abilities, and three bodyguards watch his every step.

"Who can beat him?" queried French sports daily L'Equipe last week.

"The only person who can beat Lance is Lance himself," says Levi Leipheimer of the Rabobank team, a former teammate of Armstrong's and a fellow American. "If ... he doesn't make any mistakes, he's unbeatable."

Armstrong blew over the short but dangerous 7-kilometer prologue course Saturday in the Duchy of Luxembourg, winning his 12th career Tour stage and his 36th day in the yellow jersey of the Tour leader.

After the fifth stage on Wednesday he was still near the top, in third place – just 7 seconds off the lead. The inevitability of a fourth Tour victory for Armstrong may explain some major changes in the route for this year's Tour. This year, Tour organizers have put together the shortest Tour ever. No explanation was given, but some Tour watchers see it at as an effort to create more parity among the 21 teams.

In addition, all six difficult mountain stages are packed in between July 18-25, late considering only three days remain in the race by the time the riders leave the Alps. Last year, there was nearly a week left in the race after the final mountain stage. The result of these route changes is that no clear-cut leader will emerge until the later stages. The Tour is, after all, won and lost in the mountains. "Some said they found last year's Tour de France boring," explained Leblanc. "This time they will have climbs until the middle of the third week."

Organizers also decided to have two rest days, one before each of the mountain stages. "We are expecting a lot from the Alps," Leblanc said. "We wanted to lighten up this part of the course a bit to keep some interest in the Alps."

Meanwhile, Tour organizers are hopeful that they have found the solution to the stream of cyclists caught for using drugs to gain their success. Up to 10 riders a day are being spot-tested including the stage winner and all of the leaders of the race classifications.

Lance Armstrong has only just been cleared of possible drug abuse after a two-year wait while a French drug-testing agency investigated him and his USPS team. Armstrong has never failed a drug test.

Armstrong is two wins shy of the Tour record of five titles, held jointly by Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, and Miguel Indurain. Only Spain's Indurain won all five titles consecutively. By taking this year's race, Armstrong would surpass fellow American Greg LeMond's three Tour titles and become the fourth rider to win the event four times in a row.

The three-week race takes riders into Germany, across the wind-swept plains of northern France, then through the Pyrenees mountains and along the Mediterranean to the Alps before the traditional finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 28.

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