Demol: Lance could have won until 2008.

Lance Armstrong's claims that he is entering his farewell Tour in pristine condition have been backe

Lance Armstrong's claims that he is entering his farewell Tour in pristine condition have been backe

PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM

Discovery Channel directeur sportif Dirk Demol on Saturday echoed Lance Armstrong's assertion that he is setting out on his bid for an historic seventh Tour title in the "form of his life."

Armstrong raised several eyebrows when he declared on arriving in France earlier this week that he felt "better than ever". In an interview published in this morning's L'Equipe, the Texan appeared even more confident ahead of today's opening 19km time trial. "I have absolutely no excuses [if I lose] because I firmly believe that I am riding better than ever," Armstrong commented. "Physically, what my SRM power meter tells me reinforces this belief, because that machine never lies."

Speaking to procycling in Fromentine, from where Armstrong was due to begin his title defence at 18h48 local time, Demol agreed with his team leader's self-assessment. "You only have to look at Lance's legs to see that what he said wasn't bravado," said the Belgian team boss. "He is so relaxed. In fact, I think that this is the key to his good form: he has known for several months now that he would be giving up at the end of the Tour; he knows that he no longer has anything to prove, no more records to break. This at least partly explains why he was able to make up so much leeway after abandoning Paris-Nice in March. Lance is someone who can train hard for five days and quickly find good form."

Were Armstrong to bow out in fairytale and triumphant fashion on July 24th, he would be the oldest Tour winner since Gino Bartali in 1948, and the fourth oldest of all time.

There is almost no prospect of Armstrong postponing his retirement for another year, whatever the result in this Tour, but there are those who think that he is still at least one year short of his best-before date. Demol is among them, wryly agreeing that "seeing him in this kind of condition, it does seem like a waste.

"I think that he could compete in and win one or two more Tours," Demol continued. "He still loves the race and the sport, but even this year he is almost doing the Tour as a favour to the sponsors. Physically, I have no doubt that he could hold his level for another year or more, but the pressure of preparing for the Tour is difficult to tolerate year after year. As soon as he made the decision, we knew that there was no way to change his mind."

Ever since Armstrong dropped his first hints about ending his career last year, pundits have begun to speculate about who could be his successor, both as the dominant force in the Tour and as his team's leader. Discovery Channel's signing of Yaroslav Popovych in the off-season seemed to suggest that, in the Ukrainian, Demol and team manager Johan Bruyneel may have identified their man. Despite an injury and illness-hit start to the 2005, Popovych, a former world under-23 champion, underlined his credentials by winning the Tour of Catalonia in May. As recently as his pre-Tour press conference on Thursday, Armstrong cited Popovych among his potential heirs.

"I was at the amateur Paris-Roubaix in 2001, which Popovych won by three minutes," Demol explained. "I phoned Johan [Bruyneel] immediately and told him that we needed to sign this guy. Unfortunately, when we made enquiries about him, we discovered that he had a long-term contract with Ernesto Colnago."

Colnago, the legendary Italian bike manufacturer, had cashed in on his long-standing association with the Ukrainian cycling federation to become Popovych's manager and his father figure when he came to Italy to race as a teenager. When Popovych turned pro after his world championship victory at the end of 2001, it was therefore natural that he should join the team his mentor co-sponsored, Landbouwkrediet-Colnago.

"Last year was really the first time that Popovych had come onto the market, and we snapped him up straight away. I can't say yet whether he'll be ready to take on Lance's mantle in 12 months, but I'll be able to tell you more in three weeks' time." said Demol enigmatically this morning.

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