By Andrew Hood
Well, don’t roll your eyes yet. It’s an idea that’s quietly gaining consideration at the dawn of the season’s most important bike race.
Is it too much of a stretch to imagine Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal), Tyler Hamilton (CSC-Tiscali) and Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) on the winner’s podium July 28 in Paris? Someone asked that to the defending champion at his press conference Thursday.
“I never thought about it, but it would be a spectacular achievement,” Armstrong said.
Indeed it would, considering that only three Americans have ever finished on the Tour podium and only two have won it.
Following on the heels of Hamilton’s impressive second overall at the Giro d’Italia last month (with a broken shoulder) and Leipheimer’s win at Route du Sud in France — his best result since finishing third overall at last year’s Vuelta a España – anything is possible.
“I think it’s definitely a compliment,” Armstrong said, referring to a comment by Richard Virenque about the surging Americans. “But Virenque probably looked around at recent results and realized Tyler was second in the Giro, Levi’s just won Route du Sud, and he knows that perhaps we’re all riding well right now, in good form.”
Armstrong looks relaxed and fit for the start of the 2002 Tour and Armstrong is the favorite for four-peat, although he downplayed his chances.
“The day I show up and say, ‘You’re right. I’ll be in front. I’m not nervous. I’m relaxed.’ — That’s the day that you lose,” Armstrong said. “There are 10 guys who can win this race.”
Armstrong called Hamilton, a former teammate who left Postal to join the CSC-Tiscali team, a challenger for the overall. Armstrong said 1996 Tour champion Bjarne Riis has helped elevate Hamilton to the status of “a threat.”
“Hamilton has a great team leader in Bjarne Riis. He has experience, he knows what he’s doing, and I think you see he’s taken Tyler to another level with his direction,” Armstrong said. “Tyler’s a threat. He’s one of the favorites.”
Whether Hamilton and Leipheimer can challenge their former team captain remains to be seen. The 89th Tour gets underway Saturday afternoon with the opening prologue.
Pre-prologue fav’s include Armstrong, 2000 prologue winner David Millar (Cofidis) and last year’s winner Christophe Moreau, now sporting the green colors of Crédit Agricole. ONCE’s Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano could also put down a good ride on the technical, difficult 7-km course through downtown Luxembourg.
Who worries Armstrong the most? He says it’s the Spanish teams – ONCE, Kelme and Banesto — all of whom are champing at the bit to bring down the Texan.
“They’re scary,” Armstrong said. “Those three teams could be the biggest problem. They all have good climbers and could have four or five guys in the front with it gets difficult, and when it’s very difficult they could still have two or three guys from each team.”
So will the 2002 Tour become a Spanish-American war? History has a funny way of repeating itself and the Americans won a war with a similar name, back 1898. Stay tuned.