Thursday, July 13
Armstrong extremely confident he can defend Tour title
 Associated Press

PARIS -- Lance Armstrong goes into the Tour de France armed with one priceless weapon -- the enormous self-confidence he acquired last year in winning the world's most prestigious cycle race.

  Armstrong is not lacking confidence going into this year's race.

"When you've won the Tour once you cannot come back and say honestly that you hope to finish in the top five," he said.

"I'm going back on the Tour to win it and if I don't it will be a big disappointment."

The American's faith in himself is all the more impressive as the race starting on Saturday appears likely to be more closely fought this year with the return of past winners Jan Ullrich of Germany and Italian Marco Pantani.

Armstrong's confidence is backed up by his performance in the Dauphine Libere race in early June in which he led U.S. Postal colleague Tyler Hamilton to victory.

He has not competed in another race since then, preferring to stay fresh for the Tour.

"I learnt last year that the body cannot give 100 percent all the time. To handle the Tour sufferings you need to take it easy," he said.

Tougher opposition
"Last year I was exhausted after the time trial in Metz and after the Sestriere stage but I felt fine afterwards. It means I had the right preparation."

Armstrong won all of the key stages last year, the prologue, the first individual time trial in Metz and the decisive mountain stage in Sestriere, but he faces tougher opposition this year.

Ullrich is regarded as a superior time trial specialist while Pantani, at his best, is unstoppable in the mountains. Their presence will be a real test of Armstrong's standing in cycling's top echelon.

The U.S. Postal team leader became a celebrity in his country more because of his fight against cancer than because of his sporting success.

"I feel more like a spokesman for these people, those who have fought cancer and won. I'm not a standard bearer for cycling," said Armstrong who quit riding for more than a year because of testicular cancer.

As in 1999, Armstrong and his team mates, under the guidance of former Tour rider Johan Bruyneel, have closely studied this year's stages and trained on most of the itinerary.

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