Lance Armstrong a favorite in his final Tour de France

By Jon Brand
Saturday, July 3, 2010; D03

PARIS -- Lance Armstrong won't let anyone forget: 38 years old is ancient in the cycling world.

Over the last few weeks, the seven-time Tour de France champion has been trying to soften up rivals with comments through the media about his elderly status, going as far to say in mid-June that this year's Tour, set to start Saturday in Rotterdam, "will be very hard with my age."

And on Monday, the Twitter-obsessed Texan used his favorite medium to announce that this Tour de France, his 13th, would be his last.

"It's been a great ride," he tweeted. "Looking forward to a great 3 weeks."

This will be no sentimental victory lap for Armstrong, who un-retired in 2009 after a 3 1/2 -year absence from the sport, then rode to third place at the Tour last July. His recent podium finishes at the Tours of Switzerland and Luxembourg have shown him to be in top form heading into this year's Grand Boucle, and he is again favored to be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris three weeks from now.

But Armstrong does have ample reason to want out of the saddle for good.

Physical injuries have interrupted his comeback numerous times. Last year, he suffered a broken collarbone at the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and missed most of May's Giro d'Italia. This season, his woes continued in April, when he contracted a stomach virus during the Circuit de la Sarthe in France's Loire Valley. In May's Tour of California, he crashed out of the race in the fifth stage.

The Tour of California also brought off-bike headaches when former U.S. Postal teammate Floyd Landis accused Armstrong, along with other top American riders, of having used performance-enhancing drugs.

Landis, stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for a positive doping result, also admitted to doping during his career in a series of e-mails to cycling officials. Though Armstrong said "he had nothing to hide" and questioned Landis's credibility in a news conference following the accusations, his career is once again under scrutiny.

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Food and Drug Administration agent Jeff Novitzky, the lead investigator in the Balco steroids case, has started a federal investigation into the matter. Nothing will be resolved by the end of the Tour de France, though, when Armstrong's new RadioShack team hopes to have delivered him to a record-setting eighth career victory.

After relinquishing the spotlight last season to Team Astana and eventual Tour winner Spaniard Alberto Contador, Armstrong is the undisputed lead rider on a team comprised mostly of experienced veterans, including American Levi Leipheimer and German Andreas Klöden.

"We have one of the strongest, one of the best teams," Armstrong said during the Tour of Switzerland. "I don't think any of us go in as a favorite for the Tour, but between the three of us, you never know."

The favorite, like last year, is the two-time winner Contador. He had a strong spring, with significant wins at Paris-Nice and the Vuelta Castilla y Leon. Supported by an Astana squad that includes Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov, back from a two-year doping suspension, the 27-year-old Contador is ready to conquer a Pyrenees-heavy course tailor-made to his climbing abilities.

"There are more mountains than last year, and that's something that really pleases me," Contador told the French newspaper L'Equipe on Wednesday.

There are others who have the skill to take control of the race, including Team BMC's Cadel Evans, the defending world champion, Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck and American Christian Vande Velde, a veteran rider for Garmin-Transitions who is on the mend after a crash in May's Giro d'Italia. Because there are so many challengers this year, Contador, like Armstrong, is playing down expectations.

"I understand that I am the big favorite," he told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf this week. "But realistically it is more likely that I will lose than win."

As is the case each July, all of the on-bike intrigue could be for naught if there's a doping scandal. To that end, Tour organizers and the Union Cycliste International, cycling's governing body, have enlisted the help of the World Anti-Doping Agency to oversee drug controls this year.

They'll also be wary of mechanical tampering after a bizarre allegation that Swiss star Fabian Cancellara used a small internal motor on his bike to power away from the competition in two spring races. No investigation was undertaken, though Tour organizers are certain that motorized bikes exist.

"What matters is [they] can't be used tomorrow," Tour director Christian Prudhomme told AFP. "We will verify anytime, anywhere on the course . . . to see if these bikes are really just bikes."

With these measures in place, organizers hope the only attraction this month is a tightly-contested race throughout the 2,263-mile course. That -- and the chance to see Armstrong competing at the highest level of the sport one last time.

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