Armstrong fit for beginning of Tour

Cyclist will face tough test from challengers.
Friday, July 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:34 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

LIEGE, Belgium — Lance Armstrong knows what stands between him and a record sixth Tour de France title: three weeks of pain and pitfalls.

Two days before beginning his quest, Armstrong said he was feeling stronger than he did last year when he won his fifth straight Tour.

The road is long, about 2,100 miles, and Armstrong doesn’t want to dwell on his chances of outdoing the four other five-time champions who failed to win magic No. 6.

“It’s very difficult to win,” Armstrong said. “There’s many, many things that could happen. I could just flat out lose the race to a better rider. So I prefer to face it one day at a time.”

Saturday’s time trial begins in Liege, Belgium. Meantime, Armstrong, 32, is dealing with accusations in a new French-language book, “L.A. Confidential, The Secrets of Lance Armstrong,” that he used performance-enhancing drugs.

The book lacks ironclad proof but includes damaging statements from a former Armstrong masseuse, Emma O’Reilly, who claimed Armstrong asked her to dispose of used needles and give him makeup to cover injection marks on his right arm.

Armstrong has repeatedly said he is drug free. He dismissed the book’s charges and indicated he would spare no effort to sue authors David Walsh and Pierre Ballester.

Armstrong called Germany’s Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, his biggest rival and said six to 10 other riders are “very close.” They include Iban Mayo of Spain, a fearsome climber in the mountains, and Armstrong’s former teammate, Tyler Hamilton of the United States.

Last year, Armstrong finished at Paris’ Champs-Elysees only 61 seconds ahead of Ullrich for his narrowest win. Hamilton, who finished fourth, said that margin of victory made riders believe Armstrong might be ready to tumble.

“A lot of guys are licking their lips, and they are ready to attack,” Hamilton said. “But I also think that he’ll be more ready than he was last year. He’ll be stronger, for sure, and so we have to be stronger as well.”

Ullrich recently won the Tour de Suisse and tends to grow stronger as the Tour moves around France. That could make him “very dangerous this year because the final week is incredibly hard,” Armstrong said.

“Jan is better prepared than we expected him, better prepared than other years. It’s going to be the hardest Tour yet.”

Ullrich, too, said he expects a tight race, with “a battle for each second from the first day.”

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