Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 24 News List

Tour de France begins with sprint

AP , PARIS

US Postal Service cyclist Lance Armstrong of the US takes part in a presentation of the Tour de France race cycing teams at outside the Paris Town hall, on Friday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Lance Armstrong's hunt for a record-tying fifth win at the Tour de France, the punishing cross-country slog that reduces grown men to tears and has even killed them, begins Saturday with a quick dash.

Although only a blip compared to the more than 3,400km that await the Tour's 198 riders over the next three weeks, Saturday's 6.5km sprint through Paris offers Armstrong an opportunity to draw first blood and stamp his authority over his rivals from the start.

The pedal-as-fast-as-you-can time-trial against the clock, called a prologue, starts at the Eiffel Tower and winds its way through the French capital's tree-lined boulevards, over cobblestones in places, to finish at the foot of the Champ de Mars, a park in the Eiffel Tower's shadow. Thousands of fans are expected to line the route. The winner earns the right to wear the yellow jersey, the coveted shirt awarded to the race leader and eventual Tour victor. With long, hard rides through the French countryside and seven leg-destroying mountain stages lying ahead, the prologue is not decisive to the overall Tour result. But it does offer an early gauge.

"The prologue is an important psychological test," said Armstrong's coach, Chris Carmichael.

"A strong performance ... announces a rider's readiness to contend for overall victory."

Armstrong's "goal is to start this year's race as he finished last year's, in yellow," he wrote in a column for The Associated Press.

Armstrong won last year's prologue, which was run in Luxembourg, in impressive fashion, completing a 7km circuit two seconds quicker than second-placed Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, who is now a cycling commentator.

Even among his rivals and despite his advancing age, the 31-year-old Texan and cancer survivor again starts out as the clear favorite for another victory at the Tour, which this year is celebrating its centennial.

But in a race as long (23 days), grueling and unpredictable as the Tour, even Armstrong acknowledges that almost anybody could top the winners' podium on July 27 in Paris.

"You can be called the favorite but that doesn't guarantee you success. It doesn't guarantee you victory," Armstrong said Friday. "I still have to go out, the team still has to go out, and ride hard and win the race."

"Lance is the strongest guy," said Fred Rodriguez, an American who rides for Italy's Caldirola team. "But you can't say that's going to happen until it's done."

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