Lance Armstrong is going on 34 years old, with nothing left to prove in the event he has won six times since returning from life-threatening testicular cancer -- except that he can win it again at will.
Days before he will start his bid for a seventh consecutive Tour de France victory, Armstrong, distracted by a bee sting on his face, took a low-speed tumble off his time trial bike last week. The fall left him with road rash and a black eye. It could have been worse. His helmet was split by the impact.
As the race starts on the Atlantic coast Saturday, Armstrong will be riding without one of his most reliable teammates. Skeptics have questioned his drive and fitness after a winless spring season.
In other words, conditions are perfect for an athlete who has always fed off the potential for drama along the Tour route.
"I'd venture to say that I feel better than I've ever felt," a relaxed-sounding Armstrong said earlier this week.
He said his goal is not only to win but to leave the peloton with the sense that he could, if he wanted, win another Tour. "Not necessarily for the other riders, not for the media, but for my own good, for whatever reason, I'd like to leave that impression," he said.
Bobby Julich of Team CSC, who has watched Armstrong up close for more than a dozen years, doesn't doubt his resolve. "There's no one on the planet that would accept failure at this juncture less than he would," Julich said earlier this month.
Armstrong has declared that this race will be his last, eschewing any ceremonial farewell rides.
"He wasn't much interested in the rocking chair tour," said his agent, business partner and friend, Bill Stapleton.
Armstrong has arranged for his three children to be present for the finish on the Champs-Elysees.
"The kids weren't there last year and that was a real bummer for me," the Texan said. "They're old enough now to understand what Dad does for a living. To come into my office and see their father at work -- I would love for them to see me in a yellow jersey."
Anyone who still doubts Armstrong's motivation might want to consider this: In early June, riding in the hills above Los Angeles, he was about to check e-mail on his ever-present, beloved BlackBerry when he thought better of it and impulsively chucked the device into a river.
Armstrong's longtime coach, Chris Carmichael, riding in a follow car, said he blinked in disbelief when he saw the object sail sideways. "I think he realized that there was just so much going on, so many people wanting something, that he said, 'There's no reason to have this,' " said Carmichael.
The six-time champion may have simplified his life marginally with that gesture -- no word on whether he went back and fished it out -- but tackling the Tour remains a complex task.
The race begins with a middle-distance time trial of 11.8 miles rather than the traditional short prologue. There are usually two long time trials during the course of the Tour, which usually plays to Armstrong's strength, but only one this time, on the second-to-last day of the race.
Riders will roll clockwise around the country with the crucial climbing stages coming first in the Alps and then the Pyrenees. There are fewer uphill finishes this year, which also have favored Armstrong in the past, although there are more total miles of climbing than in 2004.
Armstrong's cast of top rivals includes longtime adversary Jan Ullrich of Germany's T-Mobile team, the only former Tour winner still in the race; Team CSC's young Italian star Ivan Basso, who pushed Armstrong in the mountains last year; Montana native Levi Leipheimer, who leads the German Gerolsteiner team; and Phonak's Floyd Landis, a feisty former mountain biker and onetime Armstrong protege who has stepped into the void left by Tyler Hamilton's drug suspension.
Two Spanish riders who had a disappointing 2004 Tour have been keeping a low profile. Basque icon and stellar climber Iban Mayo of Euskaltel-Euskadi has said publicly that he peaked too early last year. Liberty Seguros leader and ex-Armstrong lieutenant Roberto Heras has started the season quietly.
Armstrong committed to riding one more Tour when Discovery Communications signed on as the new title sponsor last June, but did not decide to enter this year's race until February and has been playing catch-up ever since.
He admits that frequent transatlantic travel from Europe to see his children in Austin and his companion, singer Sheryl Crow, in Los Angeles has been draining.
Last fall, Armstrong announced he was formally severing his relationship with longtime adviser Michele Ferrari after the doctor was convicted of minor doping-related offenses in an Italian court.
Armstrong relied on Ferrari's fitness assessment methods and training recommendations but has denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs and has never had a positive drug test result. He has said he believes in Ferrari's integrity but kept an earlier promise to stop consulting with him if he were convicted.
"I think perhaps too much has been made of that," Armstrong said of Ferrari's absence from his international posse. "I've been around for a long time and I know my body. I have a lot of great people around me. If you leave one person out of the mix, it doesn't affect how I work with . . . everybody else on the team."
Armstrong finished 140th in the prologue time trial of Paris-Nice, his first race this year, and more significantly was beaten by Landis in the long time trial in the Tour de Georgia, where he came in fifth overall. Armstrong looked more like his old self in the early June Dauphine Libere tuneup race in the Alps, where he placed fourth.
"It's been a different year," Carmichael said. "Lance started behind schedule and we've never done that before.
"He met a goal [last year] and he wanted to relish his achievement and his success. I think it's healthy that he took some time and enjoyed it. We did a little less endurance work, didn't put in as big a foundation as years past, but Lance has been doing this a long time and his foundation is significant.
"I'm more comfortable with where he is now than I was at this time in 2003," Carmichael said, referring to the most trying of Armstrong's Tour wins.
There has been some turnover in Discovery's Tour roster as the team looks ahead to life after Lance. The 2002 Tour of Italy winner, Paolo Savoldelli, will ride in a support role, as will young Ukrainian hopeful Yaroslav Popovych, who could succeed Armstrong as Tour team leader next year.
George Hincapie will ride shotgun for Armstrong as he has in all six previous Tours, and the climbing corps of Spaniards Manuel Beltran and Jose Luis Rubiera and Jose Azevedo of Portugal is intact. But Discovery lost an important cog when Russian ironman Viatcheslav Ekimov suffered fractured vertebrae and other injuries in a crash while training with Armstrong in Austin.
Armstrong's future is already partially mapped out, starting with his ongoing involvement with his cancer research foundation. He will continue to be a paid employee of the team, taking an as-yet-undetermined role in rider development, and will be featured in Discovery programming.
He has become a spokesman for 24 Hour Fitness Centers, a gig that guarantees, according to Stapleton, that "he's not going to be one of these guys who sits around and gains 20 pounds."
Even Stapleton, however, is curious about how Armstrong will channel his considerable energy.
"Lance is going to have to find a way to compete, whether it's riding with his friends to the city limits signs -- which I doubt is going to do it -- or in business or another field," Stapleton said. "But he's eager to move on with the next phase of his life."
Right now, Armstrong is eager to get on the road. He said he hates the last few days before the Tour, which are filled with interviews, medical tests and ennui.
"You finally go down the start ramp and you say, 'Thank goodness we can get this thing started,' " he said.