Not only will Lance Armstrong face strong competition from around the world in his quest for a seventh Tour de France, he also will have American rivals nipping at his heels.
Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer, two former teammates on the U.S. Postal Service team, line up as legitimate threats to end Armstrong's hegemony.
"I'd like to think I belong among the favorites, but it honestly won't take long to figure out," said Landis.
"I honestly don't know because I have never raced for myself there," said Landis, 29, who will be one of the leaders of the Phonak team. "I won't make any predictions. Obviously, I hope for the best, but it's just one day at a time. That's all you can do at the tour."
Leipheimer has stepped up nicely after finishing twice in the top 10 in three starts (an early crash foiled his chances in 2003) with the Dutch Rabobank team. An off-season switch to the German Gerolsteiner team has revived the former downhill ski racer from Montana.
"Now I have all the confidence and another mentality about the tour," said Leipheimer, 31, who trained with Armstrong in the Canary Islands this spring. "I want to be in the top five and, with a little bit of luck, I can be on the podium on the Champs Elysées. I don't want to finish eighth or ninth again. If I find myself in that position, maybe I will risk it a little more and go for a stage win."
In all, there are eight Americans lining up in this year's Tour de France. Along with Armstrong, Leipheimer and Landis, the others are:
Bobby Julich (CSC), third overall in 1998, is back at his best after winning Paris-Nice and Criterium International this spring; Dave Zabriskie (CSC), making his debut after winning a time trial stage at the Giro d'Italia in May; Chris Horner (Saunier Duval), fresh off winning a stage at the Tour de Suisse for a triumphant return to Europe for America's most winning pro on the domestic circuit; George Hincapie (Discovery Channel), Armstrong's faithful lieutenant and the only rider to be part of Armstrong's six winning teams; Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon-Lotto), a top sprinter who won a stage in last year's Giro.
"Blue train" stronger than ever
Integral to Armstrong's dominance is his domineering Discovery Channel team (formerly sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service during 1996-2004).
Nicknamed the "blue train," Armstrong's eight bodyguards protect his flank from crashes, chase down dangerous breakaways, block the wind, fetch water bottles and otherwise smother the competition such that no one dares attack Armstrong from afar.
"He and his team are so strong, they control the race completely. If you can stay on the wheel of Armstrong, then you're doing OK," Leipheimer said. "It's only in the last four or five kilometers is when you can think about attacking, and by then Lance is too strong to get away from. His team is so strong that he always has two or three guys left to help him in the strongest stages."
Armstrong called this year's nine-man team "the strongest ever," giving him an added boost of confidence and tranquility as he lines up this weekend along France's wind-swept Atlantic Coast.
Of the eight, six are back from last year's winning team Hincapie, Spanish three amigos Jose Luis Rubiera, Benjamin Noval and Manuel Beltran, Portuguese ace Jose Azevedo and tough-man Pavel Padrnos of the Czech Republic. Additions include two-time Giro champ Paolo Savoldelli and Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych, a young rider the team expects to groom as Armstrong's successor.
"I wanted an experienced team for Lance's last tour and that was the determining factor," said team manager Johan Bruyneel. "I want him to be surrounded by guys who have always been around him. It's a team with just two new riders, with the rest returning from last year."
Missing is veteran Viatcheslav Ekimov, a legendary, gritty Russian who trains nearly 40,000 kilometers a year on his bike. Ekimov crashed on a training ride with Armstrong this spring, injuring his neck.
Andrew Hood is a freelance writer living in Spain. He is the author of "Armstrong Rewrites History: The 2004 Tour de France" for VeloPress, and this is his 10th Tour de France.