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By Agence France Presse
Suggestions that Lance Armstrong could be showing the first signs of weakness as he bids for a seventh consecutive yellow jersey have been knocked on the head by Tour de France great Raymond Poulidor.
Former French cycling ace Laurent Jalabert suggested that Armstrong’s facial expression in Tuesday’s hard-fought team time trial victory, which handed the American the yellow jersey, appeared to show a chink in his armor.
“In the final section of the team time trial there was one thing which struck me,” Jalabert wrote in L’Equipe the day after Discovery beat the CSC team by only two seconds after David Zabriskie, wearing the yellow jersey, crashed in the final 2km.
“Armstrong was grimacing. His teammates certainly made sure he did the last relay, but not long before then, when (George) Hincapie pulled off to the side, Armstrong didn’t do his relay. Did he finish in the red? Despite appearances, he must surely be finding things a bit difficult. One of his pluses is being able to hide it.”
Although in control of what is his retirement race, questions are being asked of Armstrong – who came here without a pre-Tour win to his name this season for the first time in his six-year reign.
The 33-year-old Discovery Channel team leader admitted a few days ago that he was concerned earlier this season when he realized his fitness was not up to scratch on the Paris-Nice in March, the Tour of Georgia in April and even the Dauphiné Libéré stage race in June.
But not everyone believes the American is showing the first signs of weakness before the crucial mountains stages in a few days’ time.
Poulidor, a hugely popular figure in France because of the bad luck that appeared to dog all his bids to win the race in the 1960’s and 1970’s, believes Armstrong had a right to grimace.
“Making grimaces and losing is one thing, but doing it when you’ve won the race is another. Plus you can’t forget, they were riding at nearly 60 kilometers per hour,” he told AFP on Wednesday.
Former Tour de France rider Neil Stephens, who won a stage at Colmar in 1997 and now is one of the team managers at Liberty Seguros, said any suggestions that Armstrong is about to show any weaknesses were wide of the mark.
“I don’t believe it. He looks bloody good. Lance was very good yesterday. If people say he was struggling I don’t believe it,” Stephens told AFP.
Like most people, including Poulidor, Stephens believes that Armstrong’s team is willing to let the jersey go before taking it back once the race heads into the mountains.
“They have found themselves in the lead – which is a great honor – but I don’t think they’ll put that much effort into defending the yellow jersey,” he said.
“Really, the general-classification competition is not going to start until the mountains.”