Will tough route, new rules work against Armstrong?

Armstrong climbs during the 2003 Tour. Will '04 be tougher?  Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
LIEGE, Belgium (AP) -- It's a valid question: Did Tour de France organizers design a course specifically to thwart Lance Armstrong's drive for a record sixth win?

Armstrong says he's heard such speculation but thinks organizers are aiming for spectacle. Bottom line: The five-time champion still thinks the best man will win but is steeling himself for his hardest Tour yet.

"The race will be tight, will be very tough to win," he said in Liege, Belgium, where the three-week Tour begins Saturday.

So where are the pitfalls? Pick your spot. The 3,390-kilometer (2,100-mile) route has some Armstrong rivals licking their lips and could blunt some of the Texan's own particular strengths.

The biggest changes are in time trials -- races against the clock where Armstrong usually excels.

New rules limit the amount of time squads can lose in the team time trial on Stage 4. That could hurt Armstrong because his winning U.S. Postal Service outfit last year used the demanding and technical event to open up hefty gaps over rivals.

Now, the slowest of the 21 teams will lose no more than three minutes to the winners. The maximum loss for other squads will be calculated on a sliding scale ranging from 20 seconds for the runner-up to two minutes, 55 seconds for the next-to-last team.

If that sounds complicated, the vital point is that Armstrong's Postals, if they win again, won't be able to do the damage they exacted last year. Then, the last team trailed them by nearly five minutes, and even the runner-up ONCE squad were 30 seconds off the pace, giving Armstrong a cushion for the rest of the Tour. Under the new rules, ONCE's loss would have been cut to 20 seconds.

Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's biggest challenger, lost 43 seconds to the Texan that day, a bad blow. Under this year's system, the German would have lost just 30 seconds.

Organizers say the change should add excitement by ensuring that the team event doesn't kill the suspense of the Tour early on. But Armstrong's hardly delighted.

"I still to this day have a hard time understanding that regulation," he said. "A team can lose 2 1/2 minutes in the first half of the race and just decide to sit up and say, 'OK. We lose two and a half.'"

Nor do Armstrong's worries stop there. This year, one of the two main individual time trials, where riders race alone against the clock, will run up the agonizing 21 hairpin-bend climb to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station in the Alps.

That is a boon for mountain specialists who struggle to stay with the speedy Armstrong when the time trials are run on the relative flat, as both were last year and the last one will be this year.

Armstrong has won six time trials, not including last year's team event and two short prologues that start the Tour, in clinching his five crowns.

Armstrong is no mean climber himself. In 2002, he won both of the Pyrenean stages that will be run again this year, to La Mongie and the Plateau de Beille, and he won at L'Alpe d'Huez in 2001. But he thinks Spanish mountain-man Iban Mayo will win there this year.

"The course is very good this year for climbers," said Roberto Heras, a former teammate of Armstrong's who now leads the Liberty Seguros squad and could be a force for the Texan to reckon with in the Alps and Pyrenees.

At 32, Armstrong admits that he may be beyond his best. His 61-second win over Ullrich at the finish last year in Paris was by far his narrowest and shakiest Tour victory, cracking the champion's aura of invincibility and giving his rivals hope of dethroning him this year.

But only a fool would count out such an experienced, determined and wily competitor.

"When you win five Tours in a row it's because you have very few weak points," said Heras.

American Tyler Hamilton, another former Armstrong teammate now gunning to beat him, expects the champion to be better prepared this year.

Challenger Ivan Basso also says Armstrong and 1997 Tour winner Ullrich remain a cut above the rest, and that Hamilton, Mayo and he himself will likely be left to battle for third place.

"The Tour is not a normal race, it's war," said the Italian. "Armstrong is a strong rider in the legs and he is very, very strong here," he said, pointing to his head.

For his part, Armstrong says the Tour route will still be a fair judge.

"The organizers always design the course as well as they can to make it interesting," he said. "I still believe that the best man wins in Paris and for me that's all that matters, even if I'm second."

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