Lance Armstrong's final race may be his hardest

The cycling legend's quest for an unprecedented 7th victory in the Tour de France begins Saturday.

Just one more race. That's all Lance Armstrong has left in his storied cycling career. But with retirement a month away, Armstrong's final ride in the saddle could be his toughest.

Standing in his way of a record seventh consecutive triumph in the grueling, three-week Tour de France are a pack of riders who have no intention of allowing cycling's king a coronation coast.

This year his main challenger, Germany's Jan Ullrich, says he is determined not to let the champion get away.

The winner in 1997, Ullrich has come second five times - three of them behind Armstrong - and that rankles. "My goal at the end of my career is to win the Tour again, but above all by beating Lance," the man with tree-trunk-sized thighs told the French 'Velo Magazine' recently. "I cannot imagine a victory without beating the man who has made himself the best for the last six years."

And this year, Armstrong, who enters the race as the odds-on favorite, has faced questions about his legendary fitness. At the ripe age of 33, without a victory all season, he may not have the capacity to win, some suggest.

But Armstrong defies his critics. "I want to end on a high note," he said recently. That, he added, "could be more motivating than a big bonus or making history."

"Armstrong is highly motivated, and when he is motivated, we know what happens," says Dominique Issartel, a cycling expert on the French sporting daily L'Equipe.

What has happened for the past six years in a row, of course, is that Armstrong has won, setting a new record for total victories in the process.

This year he has no more records left to beat - just the challenge of extending his winning streak to an extraordinary seven years.

"Of course he can do it again. Why shouldn't he?" says Steve Bauer, a former Tour de France rider and teammate of Armstrong's. "Maybe No. 7 will be the most difficult to win, but if he's in his best shape, who's going to beat him?"

For the first time since he returned to racing after recovering from testicular cancer, however, there have been doubts about Armstrong's shape this year.

He has raced little, and performed disappointingly until coming fourth earlier this month at the Dauphiné Libéré, which many riders use as a final warm-up race before The Big One.

"Three months ago I'd have said someone else would win" the Tour de France, says Jeremy Whittle, editor of "ProCycling" magazine. "Now I think Armstrong will do it again. He is exactly where he wants to be" in terms of fitness.

If Armstrong has not won anything this year it is because he has not wanted to, many cycling experts say.

The American is renowned for concentrating all his energies on the biggest prize of the season, the Tour de France. It is certainly a race that takes all of any cyclist's energies. Lasting three weeks, and covering 2,255 miles, the Tour has been called the equivalent of 21 back-to-back marathons.

The route this year will take the 189 riders (or at least those who don't drop out from exhaustion) from the Atlantic coast, across France into Germany, down into the Alps, back along the Mediterranean coast and into the Pyrenees mountains, and finally up to the finish line on the Champs Elysées in Paris.

For six days, the riders will be racing up and down mountains, and it has been on the mountain stages that Armstrong has set himself apart from the pack in previous years.

Nor will Armstrong be alone in what is very much a team sport demanding tactics and mutual assistance. Since last year he has lost two key helpers - fellow American Floyd Landis to a rival team and Vladimir Ekimov to injury.

But riding under the colors of new team sponsor the Discovery Channel will be two new powerful cyclists with impressive records, Paolo Salvodelli and Yaroslav Popovych, as well as Armstrong's most devoted wingman, George Hincapie.

"They will sacrifice themselves completely for Lance Armstrong and forget their personal goals" to help their leader win, says Ms. Issartel. "As Armstrong's teammate, you are there to follow orders and to help him win."

But Ullrich, Armstrong's chief rival, has also strengthened his supporting crew. Indeed, his team, T-Mobile, has been built around him.

Helping to pull him up the hills in their slipstream will be such powerful climbers as Andreas Kloden and Alexandre Vinokourov, either of whom is good enough to win the Tour himself, which they will doubtless try to do if Ullrich weakens.

In as grueling and protracted a test of stamina as the Tour de France, anything can happen, even to an athlete as dedicated and experienced as Armstrong.

But "I can't imagine him missing the opportunity for a grand finale on the Champs Elysées" to crown his career, says Mr. Whittle. "And it's hard to see anyone who can really stop him."

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