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By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
Just two days before the start of the 2001 Tour de France, two-time defending champion Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service) met the media at the start in Dunkirk, on the northern tip of France, along the North Sea. In his press conference on Thursday, the American assessed his competition, as well as his own form, while stating that he’ll be starting this year’s race with “the strongest team I’ve come to the Tour with.”
On the heels of his overall victory at the Tour of Switzerland last week, Armstrong said he was pleased with his form coming into the Tour de France, and was confident that he hadn’t peaked to early for his title defense.
“It’s true that I’ve been on good form in the Tour of Switzerland, which has already been, when this race has started, 10 days old, and that race is a 10-day race. One weakness I could have is that I’ve arrived in form a little too early. My evaluation of it is that for most of the Tour of Switzerland, I didn’t feel as if I was riding my best,” he said. “In the early stages, the first days in the mountains, I was suffering, I wasn’t clicking. And finally on the uphill time trial I started to feel better and then we were able to hold the lead. This [the Tour de France] is a long race, so if you peak to early, and you have a bad last 10 days or a bad last week, then you lose.”
While most have touted Armstrong as an overwhelming favorite to win his third straight Tour de France, he was quick to deflect that notion. “I think there are guys that are just as strong as me, that have won this race before,” he said. “There are other guys who are as strong as me who have won other races. So it shouldn’t be as if I’m the No. 1 favorite, because I view Ullrich as a favorite, I view [Joseba] Beloki as a favorite, I view [Francesco] Casagrande as a favorite, all the names I’ve mentioned before.”
As for Ullrich, the Telekom rider’s win at last week’s German national championship didn’t surprise Armstrong. “I think in the back of my mind and even the front of my mind, I expected him to win the German championships,” Armstrong said. “I knew that even though we hadn’t seen him a lot, I had a feeling that he was training effectively and losing weight and getting stronger, So it would be logical that he would want to do the German championship and put in a good effort. I thought he would win, it was pretty simple. Jan Ullrich is a fantastic rider. He’s strong, he’s talented, I think he’s in shape. He’s a favorite.”
Ullrich will have one of Armstrong’s former lieutenants, Kevin Livingston, by his side on the Telekom team this year, but Armstrong thinks that with the additions of Roberto Heras, Jose Luis Rubiera and Victor Hugo Pena, the Postal Squad has more than made up for Livingston’s departure.
“We’ve brought people to the team to fill the gaps. I like the team we have. We’re confident. We all get along, we have nine strong guys. I think it’s the strongest team — I shouldn’t say I think, I know it’s the strongest team I’ve come to the Tour de France with.
“I think we’ve added potential in the mountains, with Heras, Rubiera, Pena, Christian Vande Velde coming back, yet we’ve kept kind of the foundation of the team with Hincapie, Ekimov, Kjaergaard.
“It should be no surprise to anybody in this room that last year we were vulnerable in the mountains. If you look at the very first day [Stage 10, Dax-Hautacam] beginning on the Aubisque, this was before Hautacam, this was early in the day, we were isolated. I was isolated. That’s a situation that we cannot have ever again. So we had to go in the sport and try and find people that we felt were solid climbers, who could provide support to the very end. Of course, that was the first day, and Kevin and Tyler had a bad day, because of the weather and other reasons, and came back and were strong on Ventoux and were strong on other days, but we needed some assurances that we would have the best climbers in the world. Roberto Heras is a brilliant climber, as is Rubiera, and Tyler.”
Armstrong will begin his defense on Saturday, with the flat, 8.2km prologue time trial through the streets of Dunkirk.