Lance Armstrong's bid for a record-tying fifth straight win in the Tour de France, a punishing cross-country slog of more than 2,100 miles, begins with a quick dash.
The 4.03-mile sprint through Paris today is only a blip compared to the grind awaiting the 198 riders the next three weeks. But it offers Armstrong a chance to immediately stamp his authority over his rivals.
The prologue, a pedal-as-fast-as-you-can time trial against the clock, starts at the Eiffel Tower and winds through tree-lined boulevards, over cobblestones in places, before finishing at the foot of the Champ de Mars, a park in the Eiffel Tower's shadow. Thousands are expected to line the route.
The winner earns the leader's yellow jersey. With long, hard rides through the French countryside and seven leg-crushing mountain stages ahead, the prologue is not decisive. But it does provide an early gauge.
"The prologue is an important psychological test," said Armstrong's coach, Chris Carmichael. "A strong performance announces a rider's readiness to contend for overall victory."
Armstrong's "goal is to start this year's race as he finished last year's, in yellow," he wrote in a column for the Associated Press.
He won the 2002 prologue in Luxembourg, completing a 4.34-mile circuit two seconds faster than France's Laurent Jalabert, now a commentator.
Armstrong, a 31-year-old Texan and cancer survivor, aims to join Spain's Miguel Indurain as the second to capture five straight Tours. Indurain won in 1991-95. Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault also won five, but none consecutively.
Armstrong starts as the clear favorite in the 23-day race, this time as the Tour celebrates its centennial. But in a race so grueling and unpredictable, Armstrong acknowledges there is little assurance he will be on the winner's podium July 27 in Paris.
"Lance is the strongest guy," said Fred Rodriguez, an American who rides for Italy's Caldirola team. "But you can't say that's going to happen until it's done."
Jogi Muller, a spokesman for Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team, knows how quickly things can go wrong.
"It's not a free ride to Paris," Muller said. "It needs one little crash, one little stomach problem or it needs one little bad day and the Tour is lost."
Armstrong will be tested by Giro d'Italia winner Gilberto Simoni, former teammate Tyler Hamilton and Spain's Joseba Beloki, last year's runner-up and third in 2000-01.
"Armstrong has won four Tours in a row and he starts as the big favorite," Beloki said Friday. "But his reign will end one day."
Armstrong considers Beloki a top-five rival.
"He's a complete rider, can climb, can time trial, is very motivated for this event," he said. "He's one of the main favorites."
Returning to the Tour after more than a year out with injuries and a drug ban is Germany's Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner and runner-up in 2000-01. Ullrich, 29, does not expect to win.
"I've got two or three years to win another Tour, so there's still time," he said. "What's important today is to be back."
Armstrong trained Friday with his Postal team. As defending champion, he sets out last on the prologue. Riders must balance the desire to win with the risk of slipping on the tarmac or riding too fast in a turn.
"It's the shortest part of the race," Muller said. "But, again, you can crash, you can theoretically lose important seconds. It's not a simple course."
DISTANCE: 4.03 miles.
ROUTE: From the Eiffel Tower, through the streets of Paris, to the foot of the Champ de Mars.
REMAINING STAGES: 20.
TODAY ON TV: 11:30 a.m. on the Outdoor Life Network, which is Bright House Ch. 74 in Tampa and Pasco, and Ch. 80 in Pinellas County.
The ultimate cycling test
Running from today to July 27, 22 teams and 198 riders will take part in the Tour de France. It consists of one prologue and 20 stages and will cover a distance of 2,129.7 miles.
A touch of the past
As it did 100 years ago in 1903, the 2003 race will set off from Paris and the I'lle de France area and pass through Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and Ville-d'Avray, the last day.
Sources: Societe du Tour de France; Conservatoire du Patrimoine Sportif; La Vie illustree; L'Equipe.fr