Lance Armstrong plans to savor every second of his last Tour de France, but he insists the emotion of saying farewell to the world's biggest cycling race will not stop him focusing on a seventh straight win.
Armstrong will retire from cycling after the Tour -- victory or not. On Saturday, he begins his farewell with a 19km sprint from Fromentine to Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile. On July 24, he will ride around the Champs-Elysees for the final time as a professional athlete.
"I'm fully aware that this is my last one," Armstrong said Thursday. "I know there will be key moments and I want to savor that because next year I'll be on the other side of the table with all the old guys.
"The rides through villages, the dinners with guys who have become my best friends, even the team meetings ... all of that I will never experience again. But it has sunk in and I'm doing a pretty good job of focusing. I feel excited and obligated to win."
Armstrong, flanked by Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel, looked and sounded relaxed. Much more than he was at the same time last year, when he felt history was against him.
"I was nervous last year as I had the impression I was up against ... not a demon ... but something else," he said. "All the greats had never won six times and something told me it was not possible, like a higher reason."
Armstrong has already secured his place in history, as his six wins puts him one clear of Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil.
``Winning last year was like a huge weight removed,'' he said.
The 33-year-old Armstrong accepts that he was out of form earlier in the year, when he looked sluggish and weary at the Paris-Nice race in March and the Tour de Georgia in April.
"I was reminded almost daily that I suffered," Armstrong said, recalling the rain-soaked Paris-Nice. "It's an interesting feeling when you do the prologue and pedal really hard and when you cross the line Johan [Bruyneel] says you finished in 140th place. That's a hard feeling to take.
"The older you get the higher the risk you have. I can't argue with my birth certificate. I had doubts but I never panicked that I would not be ready in time. The fact is that it's my last Tour and I have to find specific motivation within myself."
Armstrong says the design of this year's course makes it harder to judge than previous years.
Today's individual time trial is longer than the standard opening prologue stage -- meaning that a below-par performance so soon in the race could be costly.
"It's a point-to-point race and with a strong headwind," he said. "There's one bridge, five roundabouts and no turns. If the conditions stay the same it will be headwind all the way and it will feel like 25km or 30km. It's a serious stage where you can try and take time if possible."
After that riders face two routine flat stages before a team time trial on Tuesday -- 67.5km from Tours to Blois -- and another chance for rivals to catch Armstrong off guard if he is not in top shape.
With three rough Alpine climbs to follow between July 12-14, Armstrong is bracing himself for a stern test.
"There's a lot to pack in, in a short space of time. You have an uphill finish (Grenoble to Courchevel) and then the stage from Courchevel to Briancon," he said "Then there's not much time before the Pyrenees."
Perhaps the most challenging of all the mountain routes is stage 11 on July 13: a 173km trek from Courchevel to Briancon which features three imposing ascents -- the Col de la Madeleine, Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier.
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