Armstrong motivated for No.7

Lance Armstrong admitted in Thursday's press conference that he dreams of winning a seventh Tour, bu

Lance Armstrong admitted in Thursday's press conference that he dreams of winning a seventh Tour, bu

PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM

Lance Armstrong appeared in front of an army of journalists in Challans on Thursday, two days before he begins the defence of his Tour crown, looking healthy and relaxed. The questions fired at him were the usual fare, although a couple of tougher ones also came his way.

He could face the toughest challenge yet, especially if principal rival Jan Ullrich has the backing of last year's runner-up Andreas Kloeden and Alexandre Vinokourov, third in 2003.

"I expect a serious challenge from T-Mobile. 'Vino' is very good, and can climb and time trial well, as he showed at the Dauphin Libr, so he'll be motivated. Jan is also in excellent shape, and will get even better as the Tour goes on," Armstrong said. "And Kloeden - he hasn't been going so well this year, but who knows? We'll have to have our own triple threat: with myself, Yaroslav Popovych and Paolo Savoldelli. And Jos Azevedo, too. But yes, T-Mobile are the biggest threat here at the Tour."

Rumours abound that Vinokourov might be heading to Armstrong's Discovery Channel next season, who will be keen to replace Armstrong when he retires on July 24.

"I suggest that Johan [Bruyneel, Discovery directeur sportif] would say he's interested in all good riders. Popovych has yet to prove himself at the Tour, but, if he can, then I think we'd stick with what we have. But I admire Vinokourov - he's one of the hardest working riders in the group. But we haven't signed him, and I suspect he'll stay with T-Mobile, perhaps for the rest of his career."

Armstrong singled out CSC's Ivan Basso, third at last year's Tour, as one of his main rivals. "I watched the Giro daily and he was impressive at the start but then got that stomach bug. But it was clear that he has improved his time trialling and climbing and will be motivated. He wasn't happy with his Giro, so he'll be one of the main challengers, if not the main one."

But Armstrong was to-the-point when asked what the deciding factor would be for who will win this year's race: "Whoever's the strongest."

Asked to elaborate, Armstrong pointed at the first week in the mountains as being key. "I'm most nervous about those opening stages in the mountains, as you're always unsure in the first week about your own form. The middle 10 days of the race are going to be very critical, when there's a lot packed in, but I can't put my finger on one day."

A question from renowned anti-doping campaigner-turned-journalist Paul Kimmage about whether his preparation for this year's Tour had changed since stopping working with Dr Michele Ferrari, who was convicted last October of doping-related offences, was also afforded only short shrift. "It's not changed at all," Armstrong glowered.

Of Saturday's 19km opening time trial stage, Armstrong revealed that he will be taking it very seriously indeed, having ridden the course just prior to the press conference.

"Saturday's stage is similar to the opening stage in 2000. It's close to 20km but feels like more because it's point-to-point," Armstrong said. "There's one bridge and five roundabouts, and no turns, or hardly any, so it will feel like 25-30km if there's a headwind like there was today. So there could be some big time gaps. It's a serious stage."

The inevitable question about life after cycling focused on rumours of a career in politics - and of the top job in particular.

"You never know! Actually, I shouldn't even say you never know," Armstrong laughed. "I don't like this [press conference] setting, so why would I want that as you'd have to do it every day as president? But it's true that politics and the good of a country and a community interest me. But I need a few years to relax and evaluate whether I want a life in the public eye. But I have no dreams of the White House."

Rather, it's yellow that Armstrong's chasing, and it's not just for himself that he wants to take his seventh Tour.

"Discovery have made a big commitment, and I feel obliged to give them a Tour de France victory; I think they deserve it. My children are going to be here at the finish - they weren't last year - and so I want to win in front of them. But they still don't understand why I can't just choose the colour jersey I want," he smiled.

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