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CYCLING Armstrong will try for 7th Tour crown

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Lance Armstrong says he's not in shape but he'll defend his title.
PARIS (AP) -- Still hungry to race but wary he is not in the best shape, Lance Armstrong wants to take his Tour de France record to even mightier heights: He will try for a seventh straight title this summer.
Armstrong had left open the possibility he wouldn't compete this year in cycling's showcase event to pursue other races. But in an announcement Wednesday on the Web site of his Discovery Channel team the Tour's only six-time winner said he will again commit himself to the race to which he's dedicated his cycling life.
"I am grateful for the opportunity that Discovery Communications has given the team and look forward to achieving my goal of a seventh Tour de France," Armstrong said.
Armstrong has overcome testicular cancer to become one of the most inspirational stories in all sports, and his sixth Tour crown last year sent him past four five-time champions: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.
Armstrong will start his 2005 season with the Paris-Nice stage race in March, according to the team Web site. He will then compete in the Tour of Flanders on April 3 before returning to the United States to defend his title at the Tour de Georgia that month.
Conditioning a question
Armstrong said that he and Johan Bruyneel, his friend and team manager, "will evaluate my fitness later this spring and possibly add some races to the calendar."
"I am excited to get back on the bike and start racing," Armstrong said, "although my condition is far from perfect."
Other racers probably won't attach much importance to that last assessment, and British bookmaker William Hill immediately installed Armstrong the 4-7 favorite. Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion and five-time runner-up, was at 7-2.
"It's good that he is there," Ullrich said. "The best should be at the Tour."
Andreas Kloden, last year's runner-up, added: "I always said he would ride. I am glad he's there."
Too old to win?
Armstrong will be nearly 34 when the Tour begins July 2 -- too old, some might think, to win the three-week cycling marathon yet again. There were plenty of doubters last year, too. Yet the Texan managed to defeat younger competitors with a dominant performance.
Armstrong showed last year that once he's on his bike he can shut out all manner of distractions -- from a court battle over a book that implied he used drugs to the attention focused on his girlfriend and singer, Sheryl Crow.
Armstrong has said he wants to win other big races, but the demands of the Tour have left little room for such Classic races as the Spanish Vuelta, the Paris-Roubaix or Fleche Wallone, which he won in 1996 shortly before being diagnosed with cancer.
This year's Tour de France route passes through Germany and features 21 stages over 2,222 miles from July 2-24. The mountaintop finishes are less intense and the time trials shorter this year. Both are disciplines where Armstrong excels, so the changes may mean he will have fewer opportunities to take huge chunks of time off his rivals.
But some initially thought the 2004 route also might trip up the champion. Instead, it proved just to his liking. Armstrong's winning margin over Kloden -- 6 minutes, 19 seconds -- was not his biggest. But his five solo stage wins and a team time trial victory made it perhaps Armstrong's best Tour.