Lance Armstrong begins last lap at Tour de France

All it took was one tweet (well, actually two if you count a short clarifying one) to crank up the drama for the Tour de France. But that's what happens when Lance Armstrong speaks, or types, as it were: "And yes, this will be final Tour de France. It's been a great ride. Looking forward to 3 great weeks." He quickly added on his popular Twitter site that he meant this will be "my" final Tour, not the final edition of cycling's premier event. And unlike when he retired after winning a record seventh Tour de France in 2005, Armstrong, the leader of Team RadioShack who is again facing accusations of doping (this time from Floyd Landis), isn't likely to mount another comeback. Armstrong, after all, will turn 39 in September.

Firmin Lambot is the oldest Tour de France winner. He was 36 in 1922.

So, what does that mean as the 97th edition of the three-week trek through the French countryside — as well as a slew of are-they-kidding ascents in the Alps and Pyrenees — begins with Saturday's Prologue in Rotterdam, Nether­lands?

"This being Lance's last Tour, there's a little extra pressure there for him and as well on the team that we need to have a good race, and we need to pull something off," said teammate Levi Leipheimer, a former third-place finisher who at 36 concedes he doesn't have that many Tours left in his own legs.

Aside from further distancing himself from every other cyclist in the record books, Armstrong also might find more impetus in the chase of former teammate and the defending Tour de France champion, Spain's Alberto Contador.

Contador (Team Astana) won the Tour in 2007 and 2009 (his team wasn't allowed to race in 2008 through no fault of his or he likely would be riding a three-peat already), but this is the first time he's not with Armstrong's longtime team manager Johan Bruyneel, his sport's answer to basketball's Phil Jackson of the Lakers. Last year, Contador teamed with Armstrong and Bruyneel, and there was tension between the riders, to say the least. So Armstrong formed a new team with Bruyneel.

"You've got to go out and race him," Versus commentator Paul Sherwen said of beating Contador. "Don't give him an easy time. That means everybody individually."

When Carlos Sastre won the Tour in 2008, he and his teammates were content to sit back until the final mountain stage, the 17th stage overall, as he rode to the yellow jersey with a resounding win up Alpe d'Huez.

"They gambled the whole of their Tour de France on one day," Sherwen said. "But with a master tactician like (Saxo Bank manager) Bjarne Riis, a bunch of racing guys like (Fabian) Cancellara, Stuart O'Grady, Matti Breschel, putting those guys together with the Schleck brothers, they'll be looking for opportunities out in the world every day."

Andy Schleck was second last year to Contador, while Frank Schleck, fifth last year, is coming off a win in last month's Tour de Suisse. But the Schlecks are reportedly heading for a new team next year and other Saxo Bank riders might be on the move, too.

"It could certainly disrupt the way that team rides over the next three weeks," Versus commentator Phil Liggett said.

"I think they will still ride as a unit," Sherwen chimed in. "If you think you've got a chance of winning the Tour with one of the members of your team, you'll buckle under and do the job."

If they don't do the job well enough to unseat Contador, who should be well-supported by Alexandre Vinokourov (assuming the rider back from a doping scandal isn't a loose cannon as he has been in the past), other contenders include:

• Cadel Evans (second at the Tour in 2007 and 2008) is the current world champion of the BMC Racing Team. This year he will have the support of American star George Hincapie — the longtime Armstrong teammate riding in the Tour for a 15th time.

• Ivan Basso was third in the 2004 Tour and second in 2005, anointed by Armstrong at that time as the next big thing. Basso, however, had to serve a two-year suspension for his involvement in a doping scandal. The leader of Liquigas-Doimo, another strong team, is coming off a dazzling win in the Gira d'Italia.

• A healthy Michael Rogers and ever-improving Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), Bradley Wiggins (the first-year Team Sky), who was fourth last year while riding for Garmin-Transitions, and American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) all could be factors.

Vande Velde was fourth in the Tour in 2008 and eighth last year despite coming back from a serious back injury; he has had a tough spring and hurt his ribs in a crash in the Tour de Suisse.

"It's been a trying year, that's for sure," he said. "(I'm) not so far from where I was last year at this time. So that said, I still got top 10, but obviously you'd always want the optimal condition coming into the Tour and not really just coming into form just at the last minute. I think I can do a good race."

And then there's Armstrong.

"He's going to (try to) make it a very special farewell party," Liggett said. "I'm sure of that."

Brian Landman can be reached at land man@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

. fast facts

97th Tour de France

When: Saturday through July 25, including two rest days (July 12 and 21)

Route: Prologue to open, then 20 stages covering 3,642 kilometers or 2,258 miles through Netherlands, Belgium and France.

TV: Versus. The cable network, the exclusive home for the Tour de France in the United States, offers an average of 14 hours of race action each day in full HD, including live coverage in the morning and an expanded prime-time show. Versus will have cameras on U.S.-based team busses — RadioShack (Lance Armstrong's team), HTC-Columbia, Garmin-Transitions and BMC. It also has an iPhone app. Go to Versus.com for more information.

5 must-see days:

Saturday: Prologue, Rotterdam, Netherlands, about 5.5 miles

Tuesday: Stage 3, Wanze, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, France, 132.1 miles.

In a rarity for the Tour, the riders will have to navigate seven sectors of cobblestones covering about 8 miles, all in the final 30 miles. Watch out if it rains.

July 18: Stage 14, Revel to Ax 3 Domaines, France, 114.4 miles.

Welcome to the Pyrenees with the last 18 miles featuring a beyond category climb and a Category 1 finish that could produce a new leader.

July 22: Stage 17, Pau to Col du Tourmalet, France, 107.9 miles.

A pair of Category 1 climbs before the beyond category finish.

July 24: Stage 19, Bordeaux to Pauillac, France, 32.2 miles.

An individual time trial on the penultimate stage before the usually ceremonial final ride along the famed Champs-Elysees.

Lance Armstrong begins last lap at Tour de France 07/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 9:39pm]

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