Burning questions: Anti-Americanism? And can Armstrong win again?

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As the Tour de France approaches its start in Paris on Saturday, the two questions most asked by casual fans, especially Americans, are: Will the French boo Lance Armstrong? And is Lance Armstrong going to win again?

On paper, where nobody has yet managed to conduct a race, the answer to both is probably.

Booing first: There are 60 million French citizens and surely five or six of them will be standing on a mountain road under a hot sun and consuming lots of wine for hours before Armstrong rides by during the 3,427-kilometer (2,142-mile) three-week race.

As they did last year, that handful may jeer the leader of the U.S. Postal Service team. Then they shouted "dope, dope," or "drug addict," at him as he climbed Mont Ventoux.

That was the second time Armstrong has been heckled, a rare occurrence in the sport. In 2000, after his team dropped a popular French rider from its Tour crew, Armstrong was booed in the north, where the Tour started and the rider lived.

The Texan is widely respected by the French. A poll in the latest issue of the bicycling magazine Velo put him in second place among champions who best exemplify the Tour. Armstrong scored 14 percent, just behind Bernard Hinault's 16 percent and far ahead of Eddy Merckx, with 9 percent, and such French favorites as Laurent Jalabert (6 percent) and Richard Virenque (5 percent.)

If there is booing, forget anti-Americanism, which seems nonexistent at a person- to-person level in France. (The booing of Serena Williams at the French Open seems to have been directed at her personally, not her nationality.) Forget the Iraq War. Forget the grievance that no Frenchman has won the Tour since 1985 while two Americans Greg LeMond and Armstrong have won it seven times after that.

Remember the wine. Remember the hot sun. Remember Armstrong's public outrage when he was mocked last year and the way oafs feed off that reaction. Can Armstrong do anything to prevent drunks from shouting insults? No, but he can spoil their fun by pretending not to hear them. Don't bet on it.

More complicated is the question of whether he can win again. He showed when he won the weeklong Dauphine Libere race in June that he is strong and, as always, focused and motivated. As he seeks his fifth consecutive victory, he is certainly not being diverted by the hoopla surrounding this Centennial Tour.

If it was the 99th year or the 101st year, it would still be the most important thing of the year for me, he said. The centennial doesn't change the importance for the team or for me as an athlete.

Centennial or not, he seems to be facing a broader array of opponents than usual. They include that old standby, Jan Ullrich, 29, a German twice second to Armstrong; Joseba Beloki, 29, a Spaniard once second, twice third; Santiago Botero, 30, a Colombian who was fourth last year and the winner of the first long time trial, with Armstrong second; Levi Leipheimer, 29, an American who was eighth last year, and Christophe Moreau, 32, a Frenchman who was nowhere last year after a series of crashes caused him to retire from the race in frustration.

In Armstrong's favor, he has dominated them all before and they may be intimidated by him. Intimidated riders tend to shoot for an attainable second or third place, not first.

Somewhat in the same state is Tyler Hamilton, 32, an American who helped Armstrong win three Tours for Postal Service. Hamilton joined the CSC team from Denmark last year, finished second in the Giro d'Italia despite a broken shoulder and then 15th in the Tour while still injured. A strong climber and time trialer, the two qualities needed to win the Tour, Hamilton nevertheless may not be able to overcome his respect for Armstrong to become a true rival.

These are all men in or close to their 30s, as is Armstrong, 32 in September. What of the younger riders? At the top of the class are two Spaniards, Iban Mayo, 25, and Francisco Mancebo, 27, both coming off strong springs. A tad older is Aitor Gonzalez, 28, another Spaniard and the winner of the last Vuelta a Espana.

Armstrong cites not one rider but a team, Telekom of Germany, as a threat.

"Savoldelli, Botero, Vinokourov, Nardello," he says, "put 'em all together and they can be tough. I don't think any one of them is a potential winner but if you gave them a 15-minute breakaway, then they are potential winners."

Telekom officials must have overheard the Texan's analysis.

"We want to attack everywhere," the team's director, Mario Kummer, said last week. He added that the team had enormous potential with Botero, Alexandre Vinokourov, the winner of the Tour of Switzerland last week. (Paolo Savoldelli, winner of the Giro d'Italia last year, will not start the Tour due to illness).

"We want to make Lance Armstrong's life as difficult as possible," Kummer said on the team's Web site.

Sharing that goal, if not the Telekom jersey, is Gilberto Simoni, an Italian with Saeco who ranks as Armstrong's major challenger. No sooner had he won the Giro last month than Simoni was warning the Texan to look out for him.

Until now, Lance Armstrong has always had an easy ride to Paris because he's never had adversaries in the mountains, said Simoni, 31, a fine climber.

"Who knows?" he said. "If we get him in a bind in the mountains, he may panic."

To which Armstrong replied: "They all talk the big talk. It's the same every year, but talk is cheap."

Exactly how cheap will be known July 27, when the Tour ends its clockwise journey around France and reaches Paris.

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