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Armstrong Favored to Win Tour de France - 2002-07-05

Three-thousand-200 kilometers is a long way to ride on a bicycle, especially if you are going up mountains. But that is how far Europe's legendary Tour de France bicycle race is going this year. American Lance Armstrong, the defending champion, is again the favorite.

The three-week marathon starts Saturday in Luxembourg, passes through a bit of Germany, and then goes into France, through both the French Pyrenees and the Alps, before ending in Paris July 28.

Organizers say the Tour de France is one of the top sporting events in the world, after the Olympics and World Cup soccer.

American Lance Armstrong, who recovered from cancer several years ago, is going for his fourth consecutive victory. And tour-watchers say he is better than ever.

"American people are known to be people that you can send on a mission, people to be on a mission," says Carol Hastert, a journalist who has reported the race for radio Luxembourg for the last nine years. "And his mission is to win the Tour de France."

And the 30-year-old Armstrong takes his mission seriously. Despite his record, he keeps pushing himself.

"I'm not guaranteed to be in the front. And that's why I work hard, and that's why I train hard and prepare hard, and that's why I still get nervous before the Tour de France," he explains. " The day I show up and say, "you're right, I'll be in front, I'm not nervous, I'm relaxed, big deal," that's the day that you lose."

Armstrong has been training extensively, traveling along key mountain sections of the route months ahead of the event.

Ron Thomas, a British man who is visiting Luxembourg for the race says Armstrong is the best prepared.

"Up and down, up and down, same hill climb over and over again, so that he knows every meter of that road. He knows where it's hard, where it's easy, which gear to be in at any one time. Where to sprint, where not to," says Mr. Thomas.

Experts say Armstrong does not have much serious competition. His key rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany, has been sidelined by a knee injury. Ullrich finished second in the past two years and won in 1997. This leaves Oscar Sevilla and Joseba Beloki of Spain among the potential rivals.

This year security is on the mind of those taking part in the tour. Armstrong says organizers and authorities have given assurances that security measures are in place and "we feel safe."

"If you compare it to World Cup soccer or the Olympic games, or the Superbowl, or anything else, there's tremendous security at those events. So it would be logical to me, with all of this money and all of this attention involved, that we have some security," he says.

As for a prolonged investigation into doping allegations concerning Armstrong's U.S. postal team, authorities say the probe has turned up no evidence of wrongdoing and is expected to end this summer. Armstrong has never failed a drug test.

In a Cyclingnews interview on Armstrong's Web site, he recently dismissed the inquiry as a "witch hunt."

If Armstrong wins this year, he will surpass the record of American Greg Lemond who holds three tour titles. But some tour watchers say the magic number is five. Only Miguel Indurain of Spain has won the tour five times in a row.