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Meet the Press: Armstrong talks about his final Tour

Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong said he wasn’t quite ready to decide on his post-cycling career path until after he finishes this year’s race and takes “a few years to just relax and really evaluate what I want to do with my life.” Armstrong held a pre-Tour press conference in Challans, France. Thursday, two days before the start of what he has promised will be his final professional race. Armstrong will saddle up on Saturday hoping that the "tough" 19km time trial from Fromentine to Noirmoutier will begin a successful final trek around the country which has been his home every July

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By Agence France Presse, and Rupert Guinness

Armstrong works his way through a crowd of reporters to attend a pre-Tour press conference in Challans on Thur ...

Armstrong works his way through a crowd of reporters to attend a pre-Tour press conference in Challans on Thur …

Photo: AFP

Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong said he wasn’t quite ready to decide on his post-cycling career path until after he finishes this year’s race and takes “a few years to just relax and really evaluate what I want to do with my life.”

Armstrong held a pre-Tour press conference in Challans, France. Thursday, two days before the start of what he has promised will be his final professional race. Armstrong will saddle up on Saturday hoping that the “tough” 19km time trial from Fromentine to Noirmoutier will begin a successful final trek around the country which has been his home every July for the past six years.

On July 24, win or lose, it will all come to an end for the 33-year-old American for whom part of the reason for retiring is the months spent away from his three children, not to mention his girlfriend, rock star Sheryl Crow.

A lot has been said about Armstrong’s future direction, and after conquering cancer in 1998 and winning the Tour de France a record six times, most people would agree that he is capable of anything. Some have even suggested that a career in politics awaits his return to the United States.

Whatever his future ambitions, Armstrong was quick to point out he just can’t wait to put his feet up, relax and spend some time with his children – whom he admits are still too young to understand exactly why their daddy wears the yellow jersey, and not any other color.

Armstrong and his Discovery Channel teammates reconnoiter Saturday's time trial course.

Armstrong and his Discovery Channel teammates reconnoiter Saturday’s time trial course.

Photo: AFP

“Politics and the good of the country or the community interests me, but I don’t know if I’m cut out for politics. I have no dreams of the White House,” sais Armstrong when asked by a reporter if he had wasted his time by betting 100 pounds (179 dollars), at odds of 100-1, on the American one day becoming president.

“You might have wasted your money, but you never know,” Armstrong, who will ride his 12th Tour de France, admitted he had finally come to terms with the fact that everything he did from Saturday to the end of the race he would be doing for the very last time.

The following is a selection of questions from Thursday’s press conference:
Question: The motivation of your rivals is bigger this year because this is your last Tour. Do you like that?

Lance Armstrong: Do I like that that their motivation is bigger? No, not really, but that’s part of it. Those are the facts. This is my last Tour. We all have to find specific motivations within ourselves. I find mine in certain ways and other people find theirs in other ways. So it’s normal and natural and good for sport. But of course it would be an easier race for us if they weren’t very motivated. But that’s also not realistic. Q: What kind of challenge do you expect from T-Mobile having three guys who have been next to you in the podium in past years and have broken with tradition to have a sprinter like Zabel here?

LA: We expect a serious challenge. Clearly the one we saw in the Dauphiné, being Vino’. He was very good, strong… climbing well and time trialing well.

I know for various reasons he is motivated to do a good Tour. He is also in excellent shape and will get better as the Tour goes on. So we expect him to be major threat. Klöden, you never know. Perhaps he is a little different from last year. The three of them together add up to be a formidable team and one we have to try and combat with our won sort of triple threat with myself, Popovych, Savoldelli … even Acevedo. Try to neutralize anything they would have. But that’s not a secret. But they look good and, as a whole, they are the biggest threat in the Tour. Q: This being your last Tour, is it your most dangerous? And is one of your goals this year to win the hearts of all spectators?

LA: Obviously the older you get the more dangerous it is and the higher the risk that you lose. Time is not on my side, but having said that, I feel strong and feel motivated and reedy to go. I can’t complaint too much about what my birth certificate says.

Is it my objective to win the hearts of all the people? I am a realist. Nobody walks on water. Nobody is the fan favorite with 100 percent of the people. But I have to say the people have been excellent this year, specifically in France and more specifically in the Dauphiné: Very supportive, very encouraging and that is very nice to see. I have nothing against this country. On the contrary I love the country and the race, but at the same time I am not a politician. I just have to go out and be an athlete and try my best and hope that is good enough. Q: A lot of things you do in the following days will be the last time of your life you do them. Is it a special feeling?

LA: Every day I realize that for example today is the last time I will go and preview the opening time trial – or the prologue if we can say that. Every day will be special. Every finish will be special. But I can’t let that feeling and emotion interfere with what I am trying to do here. For me it is not a promenade around France. I am still trying to win, but I have to balance the two.

Many times I will be sad about it. Many times I will be happy about it. There are days on the Tour when you really wish you didn’t have to do that ever again. So I have mixed emotions. Certain days you suffer. Certain days are scary and make you nervous. And I will be glad for those days to pass. But you have other great days that you hold onto those memories forever. It is a balancing act. Q: The Tour next week will go to Germany. What do you think about Germany and cycling there?

LA: The crowds increase significantly, but the crowds increase significantly whenever you cross into a new country. In Belgium, Holland or other places, like Spain, the crowds increase because the Tour, its not normal it goes there. So local people want to come out and witness a great sporting event in their neighborhood, in their country. When we cross the border it is an immediate reaction. And in Germany, there will be a lot of pink. Pink hands and … but that’s okay. It’s good for the Tour to continue with an international feel. Maybe one day it will go to America? Maybe not. Q: What do you think will be the deciding factor in the Tour this year?

LA: Who’s the strongest

Q: The stages….

LA: I don’t know. I’m most nervous about the opening stages of the mountains because before those days you are always insecure about your form and condition and you never know where you are going to be and how the others are going to be. Those will be critical. On paper you look at the Alps and think that perhaps they are not that difficult because there is only one uphill finish, but the two days back-to-back – Courcheval and Briancon – are very difficult and then not a lot of time before the Pyrénées. The middle 10 days of the race will be very critical because you have a lot packed in there and obviously the Pyrénées are very demanding. But I can’t put my finger on one day that should be the deciding factor. Q: Was there ever a time in the spring, maybe around Paris-Nice, when you thought “I’m not going to have enough time to get into the kind of shape this race deserves me to be in?” Any doubts?

LA: I had a lot of doubt about my condition. And I was reminded almost daily as I suffered through the part of the race I was there for. It is an interesting feeling when you do a prologue and you actually go pretty hard and at the finish Johan tells you are 140th.

It’s not the answer I expected to hear. I didn’t fear at the time that I wouldn’t be ready for this race. I knew there was time and I shouldn’t panic. The thing to do is to focus on every aspect of the sport and try and improve daily because when you’re that far behind you can’t waste a day. In the meantime, I think we have done a good job and are at a level or place where we need to be. Q: This will be your first Tour since 1999 that you haven’t worked with Michele Ferrari. How your preparation has changed since his conviction for doping?

LA: It has not changed at all. Q: Can you comment on the quality of the American riders in the peloton this year, since most presumably are going to keep riding, in terms of their strength as group. When you first came to the Tour could you have imagined there would be a bunch this strong?

LA: I have to say at that time we were at another high period for American cycling. We had riders like Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Davis Phinney, Ron Kiefel…. We had a lot of depth in terms of riders from our country. Perhaps there was a bit of a lull in the middle and now what we are seeing is again another high period from cyclists in the states.

At the same time, we are also seeing riders from, for lack of a better word, from strange places. Look for example the riders from eastern European countries; the riders from Australia; the riders from South America. They are all excelling a lot. That is normal. If you look over the course of time and history, certain countries go hot and cold. Perhaps now is time for the far away countries to be at the forefront. What I see with current generation is a good group of guys and they realize cycling is becoming more and more popular at home. More and more profitable. I think they are incredibly motivated and inspired to excel, but also potentially excel in this race, which is the one that makes the most sense for an American. It is the one that everyone in the States knows. Q: You seem relaxed whereas last year you appeared nervous before the start.

LA: I am relaxed. I was nervous last year because I had the impression I was up against, not really a demon… but in 101 years none of the greats have been able to win a sixth Tour. Many people said that means it is simply not possible, for some other reason… a higher reason. That’s an incredible burden to get rid of. For me, I am not chasing history. I am not chasing the record. I am not chasing a legacy. I am just here to have a good time, enjoy my last Tour and enjoy the good form I think I have. Q: With stage one time trial, do you see yourself getting and keeping the yellow jersey all the way to Paris?

LA: Saturday’s race is much different than most years. It is similar to 2000, in that it is close to 20km, but having just ridden the course I can tell you it doesn’t feel like a race of 20km because it is point-to-point, one direction and if the wind stays the same as it was today, then the entire race is into a headwind.

So you have one bridge, five round-abouts, and a lot of wind and no turns… well, hardly any turns. So it would feel more like 25 or 30 kilometers, I think. As we all know, if you evaluate most time trials over 25-30km that’s long enough o make some differences. So we can’t look at it as a prologue or start to the race. We have to look at it as a serious stage and start to try and take time if that’s possible. Q: You said earlier everyone has to find inside themselves the motivation to come to this race. What did you find inside yourself this year? And how has that been different to other years?

LA: It’s different because I know it is my last one. But I guess my main motivation is that I still love what I do. I know I always say that, but that hasn’t changed. I still cherish every day on the bike. I’ll miss it but, at the same time, I know the Discovery Channel came in and made a serious commitment to me and to the team. I feel excited and a little obligated to give them a Tour de France victory, or give them a yellow jersey. I think they deserve it because they are committed to the program long term knowing that I wasn’t going to be around for the entire terms of the contract, at least on the bike. So I would like to win for them as well. But there are many, many other people that I would like to win for. The fact my children are going to be here at the finish. They weren’t here last year and that was tough on me. I would like to win in front of my kids. It would be nice to show them one final yellow jersey. Q: (An English journalist) When all this is over, what will you do? A bookmaker offered me a hundred-to-one for you to make it to the White House as President of the U.S. Given those odds, I have stuck a hundreds pounds on. Have I wasted my money?

LA: You might have wasted your money. You never know. Actually I shouldn’t even say you never know because … look I don’t like this setting (a press conference). So why would I be the President and have this setting every day?

That’s what they have to do. It’s true that things like politics and the good of a country and the good of a community interest me, but I don’t know that I am cut out for politics. In any case, I need a few years to just relax and really evaluate what I want to do with my life and if that is a life in the public eye or not in the public eye. I have things that will keep me busy. But I have no dreams of the White House. Q: Has it really sunk in that this is your last Tour?

LA: It has sunk in. I am fully aware that it is my last time. I think I am doing a pretty good job of trying to win the event and cherish these last moments. Not just the moments in the race and passing through the villages, but also key moments, intimate moments, with the team. Stuff I will never share again. I will never be in a team meeting as the team leader again. Stuff people won’t see like certain dinners along the way with guys that are my best friends. I will miss those moments. I will always back to this race, but I will be sitting at the other table with these old guys (pointing to Johan Bruyneel) … well, sort of old guys. I will miss that, but what can I say? I am ready to move on, move back the States full-time and do some other things. Q: How do you see Ivan Basso as a competitor this year and do you think he will take over your throne?

LA: I can only guess because I haven’t seen him in the last month. I watched the Giro almost daily and what we saw there in the beginning was very impressive. I think he had the bad luck with the stomach bug and illness, so he probably didn’t perform to his full potential. But we did see and what we can take from that is that he improved dramatically in the time trial, he climbed very well, strong team and he is always motivated and always a classy rider. I suspect we will see more of that here.

I don’t think he was happy with the way the Giro was, so perhaps he is out to set the record straight here. I think he will be one of, if not the main, challenger. But I must confess, I am a real fan of Basso, so I would never say anything bad. Will he be the next (Tour boss) … I don’t know. I wonder that a lot. I don’t know the answer. Is it Basso?

If you forced me to guess right now (about) who would win the Tour in 2006, I would tell you Jan Ullrich. But you never know. It could be Basso, could be Yaroslav Popovych, could be someone else we are not even thinking about. But as you know I have never been good at predicting cycling? Q: I read you team was interested in Vinokourov. Is it true and can you see him being the next leader at Discovery?

LA: I suspect what he (Johan Bruyneel) would say is that we are interested in all good riders. It is clear that beyond this year that perhaps there will be a void in the team for a race like this and Vino has proved himself in a race like this. And a younger rider on our team like Popovych, while he looks to be a great rider for the future, has yet to prove himself in the Tour de France.

That could change here and if it does I suspect we will be happy with what we have. But I said I am a big admirer of Basso. I am also a big admirer of Vino’. He is one of the hardest working guys in the group. He seems to always win. For all the purists of cycling, and all of the cynics, he is one of those guys who can win in spring, summer and fall. And that has to be interesting for any team, but we haven’t signed him. I can say that. I suspect he wants to stay where he is. He is a loyal guy and he is happy where he is. My gut tells me he will stay with T-Mobile for the rest of his career.

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