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A survey by L'Equipe has revealed that opinion is still split over whether Lance Armstrong has a seventh Tour title already in the bag after just two mountain stages. Eddy Merckx and Laurent Fignon are among those who believe that the 33-year-old Texan will cruise to victory on the Champs Elyses on July 24, while Phonak directeur sportif Jacques Michaud and Domina Vacanze counterpart Gianluigi Stanga yesterday both advised against writing off Armstrong's rivals.
Armstrong began today's 12th stage to from Brianon to Digne Les Bains just 38 seconds ahead of the Dane Michael Rasmussen, but with both recent history and the form book suggesting that this margin is destined to grow. Rasmussen's lack of time trialling pedigree alone is enough to convince some commentators that the Rabobank rider poses no threat to Armstrong's bid for a magnificent seventh. In the only time trial that Rasmussen rode before abandoning the recent Giro d'Italia, the Dane lost in excess of six minutes to stage winner David Zabriskie on a 45km course. In the opening time trial of the Tour, Rasmussen conceded 3-12, again to Zasbriskie, over just 19km.
The fallibility of T-Mobile's three leaders, Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloeden and Alexandre Vinokourov makes another persuasive case for Armstrong. French cycling luminaries Cyrille Guimard and Fignon explained why in today's L'Equipe.
"Too many cooks spoil the broth, and three is two too many," said Guimard, famous for guiding Bernard Hinault to four Tour de France victories with the Renault team. "In Grenoble [on Monday, the Tour's first rest-day - Ed.], Vinokourov avoided the press so that he wouldn't have to answer questions about the three and their possible conflict of interests. There was something unhealthy brewing in the T-Mobile camp, some palpable tension which Vinokourov ended up paying for."
Fignon's criticism focused on Ullrich, currently lying a disappointing ninth, 4-02 down on GC. "The only time Ullrich managed to worry Armstrong, he wasn't with T-Mobile [he was with Bianchi, in 2003 - Ed]. That can't be a coincidence. He rides so little that he puts enormous pressure on himself. What surprises me is his inability to pursue new avenues."
Five-time Tour winner, Merckx added simply "there's no point slamming the stable door after the horse has bolted. Lance is by far the strongest."
In the opposition camp, the dissenters (or eternal optimists?) were led by Phonak's Michaud. He claimed that he had been "watching Lance for two or three days, and his eyes don't have their usual sparkle." If that sounded suspiciously like clutching at straws, Michaud elaborated. "We'll be able to assess his resistance in the marathon stage in the Pyrenees [the 205.5km 15th stage from Lzat-sur-Lez to Saint-Lary-Soulan - Ed.]. Not before. Let's not forget that he'll soon be 34. He can't keep improving."
Domina Vacanze's Stanga pointed to another factor, the likely arrival of the kind of asphyxiating heat which affected Armstrong so badly in Cap Dcouverte in 2003, in the time trial won by Ullrich. "On the climb up to Courchevel, something very significant happened: the temperature fell from 28 to 15 degrees, helping Armstrong," Stanga pointed out. "Armstrong prefers cold weather. It will be torrid in the Pyrenees." Finally, L'Equipe quotes Stanga's compatriot Ivan Basso, who in the past has been accused of admitting defeat to Armstrong even before the Tour has begun. "I say to myself that it might not be over. I'm certainly not resigned, anyway," said Basso.
With Basso just 2-40 down on Armstrong on general classification, frankly we'd be alarmed if the Italian had said anything else.
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