Armstrong Seeks to Make History in France

Friday, July 2nd 2004, 6:03 am
By: News On 6

LIEGE, Belgium (AP) _ 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, the 32-year-old cancer survivor said he was feeling stronger than he did last year when he won his fifth straight Tour.

But 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 Thursday. ``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 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 the Texan 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.

``Extraordinary accusations must be followed with extraordinary proof and Mr. Walsh and Mr. Ballester have worked four or five years and they have not come up with extraordinary proof,'' he said.

``The case is now incredibly complicated and will be a long one. I have engaged lawyers in both France and England and I will spend whatever it takes, however long it takes, to bring justice to the case.''

Armstrong is traveling with bodyguards during the Tour and came to Liege with his girlfriend, rocker Sheryl Crow. She will not stay with him for the whole race, he said.

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 just 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,'' he 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,'' he said. ``It's going to be the hardest Tour yet.''

Ullrich has shed the pounds he tends to pick up during the winter and looks lean and determined. He, too, said he expects a tight race, with ``a battle for each second from the first day.''

The Tour's grueling final week includes the Alps and two time trials, one up the 21 hairpin-bend climb to the L'Alpe D'Huez ski station. Armstrong said he expects Mayo to win that.

The race ends July 25 on the Champs-Elysees. Armstrong said that only then, if he is wearing the leader's yellow jersey, would he be able to savor the achievement of surpassing the five-time winners. Among them is Belgium's Eddy Merckx, regarded by many as the greatest cyclist.

``The word legend is to me more than just six letters,'' Armstrong said. ``That's a big, big word and I'm not sure that I'm ready to talk about that right now.''