PARIS // Lance Armstrong knows his ageing legs are not as strong as they used to be. But he still feels capable of clinching an eighth Tour de France even though - if necessary - he would put his own ambitions on hold if it means helping his teammate Alberto Contador win. Contador, the 2007 winner, and Armstrong will ride for the Astana team in the three-week race that starts with a time-trial in Monaco on Saturday - sparking speculation as to whether the two Tour champions can ride together, or whether they will be divided by their own fierce ambitions.
Armstrong, 37, won the last of his record seven consecutive Tours in 2005, and his surprise comeback has cycling fans across the world eager to see whether he can add an eighth win to his already gleaming legend. "Now it's 2009, not 2004, 2005 or 2001, that's different," Armstrong said yesterday. "I would love to be eternally young, but I'm not. That's just the reality. "It's not gonna be easy to win [the Tour]. In December and January, I thought it would be easier. It ends up being more difficult than I thought. Perhaps because of the bike crash in March, of the complicated season or simply because I'm older now."
Looking ahead, Armstrong said he would be willing to support Contador if the Spaniard proves likelier to win the gruelling race. "Out of respect for him, out of respect for the team and out of respect for the rules of cycling, I would do it with pleasure," Armstrong said after previewing the 18th stage of the Tour, a time-trial in Annecy. When riders take to the start line in Monaco, only Spaniard Inigo Cuesta, at 40, is likely to be older than Armstrong. The Tour's oldest winner is Belgium's Firmin Lambot, who was 36 when he won in 1922. Although Armstrong knows things are against him, he would love to prove his doubters wrong.
"They would say that my time has come and gone and that I'm too old, that it's very complicated, that there are other riders now," Armstrong said. "I know those things and you could use those for motivation. I know where I am. I've studied my performances in training very closely, and I'm excited to race. I'm not sure that I can win, but I can tell you that the person who thinks that I get 10th [in the general classification]... he is dead wrong."
Armstrong, who overcame testicular cancer to win his first Tour in 1999, finished in a credible 12th place recently in the Giro d'Italia. Still, most pundits have Contador as the most likely winner of the world's biggest multi-stage race. Prior to the Giro, Armstrong broke his collarbone in a crash during the Vuelta of Castilla and Leon in March. Now he has recovered fully and argues that he has plenty left to give. "The indication I have in training and the tests that I did tell me that my condition is good," he said.
"Maybe not the best of my life, but not too bad." Still as meticulous as ever, Armstrong spent the last four days scoping out the big difficulties he will face during the third and final week of the race - a sure sign his ambition still burns bright. However, Contador's legs are 11 years fresher than Armstrong's - and Spain's supreme climber is just as hungry to win. Armstrong gives assurances that there are no conflicts of interest inside his team.
"We really have a clear-cut favourite [Contador] that we can say he is better than the other contenders. Nobody wants to lose, I'm not gonna act irresponsibly," he said. "Neither will Levi [Leipheimer], neither will [Andreas] Kloeden. And at the end of the day, we will have to follow the orders of the team's director." Armstrong and Contador, one of only five riders with victories in the three Grands Tours - Spain, Italy and France - do not know each other well. They have spent little time together and the language barrier is a problem for both.
"The relationship is cordial and respectful, but there is not a lot of interaction," Armstrong said. "The language is an issue, a challenge. His English is similar to my Spanish, so the cross over is not easy." Astana manager Johan Bruyneel, who oversaw Armstrong's seven Tour wins, recently said that Contador would be team leader. Armstrong said Contador would wear the team's No 1 jersey on Saturday for the 15.5km time- trial. The opening clock race could establish a clear hierarchy within Astana's team. If Armstrong wins it, it would be hard for Contador, 26, to then claim leadership status later on.
"Of course it's important, but it's a long way from Verbiers, the Mont Ventoux, the Col du Grand Colombier," Armstrong said, looking ahead to the brutal third week. This year, Contador has improved his speed and won the Spanish time-trial last week. Armstrong predicts that Contador "will be fast" in Monaco, but tips Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland to win on Saturday. Armstrong also believes his team will win the Stage 4 team time-trial in Montpellier and take the yellow jersey then. It could be on his shoulders that day, or on those of Contador, or draped on his American teammate Leipheimer's.
During his heyday, Armstrong usually destroyed his rivals at the first hilltop finish. The first hilltop finish this year comes on Stage 7, at Arcalis in the Pyrenees. But Armstrong preaches patience. "There are too many difficult parts in the final week," he said. "Honestly speaking, I plan to be careful in Arcalis. It's not like before when you had two stages in the Pyrenees and then one pretty easy week through the middle of France and then two stages in the Alps and then one week to Paris."
According to Armstrong, the major threats to the Astana team will come from the Australian rider Cadel Evans, the runner-up in 2007 and 2008, from the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, and from the defending champion Carlos Sastre of Spain. * AP