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By Neal Rogers
Seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong arrived at the Tour de France Sunday to motivate Discovery Channel riders Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer in what, to date, were the most important time trial efforts of their respective careers.
As was often the case during his racing career, the Texan became a French good-luck charm. Armstrong sat in the Contador follow vehicle next to team director Johan Bruyneel, while sport director Dirk Demol followed Leipheimer just six minutes up the road.
Following the stage the Discovery team was mobbed on three fronts, as Leipheimer was swarmed for winning the stage, Contador was surrounded for preserving his race lead and Armstrong was mobbed for, well, being Armstrong.
Armstrong was quickly escorted into the Discovery team camper for a few moments before he stepped out to speak to many of the same journalists who covered his seven Tour exploits. As was expected, Armstrong was more eager to speak of his team’s impressive Tour than of the plague of doping scandals that rocked this year’s Tour.
“I’m here as a fan of the team, a supporter of the team and a supporter of Johan,” Armstrong said when asked about controversial former race leader Michael Rasmussen. “I’m not here to talk about that.”
The former Discovery leader did have high praise for Contador, who is poised to become the second Discovery rider in three years to win the Tour.
“He’s a great talent, a great rider,” Armstrong said. “He’s an explosive climber, able to make a difference quickly on the steep parts. The message you get from Johan is that he’s also very poised, very mature for a 24 year old. If everything goes well tomorrow and he wins to become one of the youngest winners ever, it’s a statement.”
Asked if he was more nervous riding in the team car with so much on the line versus racing the time trial during his years at the Tour, Armstrong said, “It was more nerve-wracking than I expected. I’ve been in the car a couple of times with Johan this year. It made me nervous.”
Discovery’s Tour stats — the yellow jersey, the best young rider’s jersey, the team classification, two stage wins and two riders on the podium — can only help the team’s search for a new title sponsor, but Armstrong was asked how active he has been in the team’s search.
“We’re definitely looking,” he said. “The nature of sports sponsors is that they come and go. Discovery Channel has been a great sponsor. We think winning the Tour, and the performance that we’ve had and also with the track record of the team, you can’t argue with Johan’s record, on many levels, a sporting level or many other levels compared to other guys. I think we have the best program in the world and I’m confident we’ll find somebody. But I’m not involved daily.”