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Lance ready for tricky Milan-San Remo

Lance Armstrong has made a career -- actually two or three different careers -- out of beating the odds. But there's a good reason bookmakers have listed him as a 100-to-1 shot in Saturday's Milan-San Remo race, the 185-mile-long, century-old classic considered by many top riders to be the most stressful of the year.

The event favors brawny, experienced sprinters and the occasional breakaway artist capable of a final, explosive effort after surviving the distance, the not-inconsiderable hills, the high speeds in the flats and the rabid fans who frequently encroach on the course. It was tailor-made for the versatile quintuple Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx of Belgium, who won it seven times.

But Armstrong, who last competed in the race in 2002, knows exactly where he stacks up against favorites who include Italy's Daniele Bennati, Filippo Pozzato (who won in 2006) and Alessandro Petacchi (the 2005 winner), along with Belgium's Tom Boonen and Norway's Thor Hushovd.

"I'm not lying awake at night dreaming about winning," Armstrong told ESPN.com by phone from southern France, where he has been training for the past couple of weeks. "I've never been a threat or a factor in the race, which probably goes into the odds-making. But it's a cool race, albeit dangerous. A lot of history, a lot of prestige."

Armstrong, whose best finish in the race was 11th in a bunch sprint finish in 1996, said he hopes to be in the mix on the final short, but potentially race-breaking, climbs known by their lyrical names of the Cipressa and the Poggio. In recent editions of Milan San-Remo, 60 to 70 riders have come in within a minute of each other. "My testing here in Nice would indicate I have the form to do that," he said.

The landscape of Milan-San Remo, first run in 1907 and now in its 100th edition, has changed somewhat in recent years. Decades ago, there was a winning template that was predictable, if not always easy to execute. Merckx used to follow it to perfection with an annual attack on the Poggio that comes just a few miles from the finish, and maintain his lead on the treacherous, twisting descent into San Remo.

Now, "It's turning out to be a race of 300 kilometers that comes down to the last 300 meters," said Bobby Julich, the veteran American rider who retired after last season. "I'd be surprised if Milan-San Remo was ever won solo again."

Julich, now an assistant director for the Saxo Bank team, said many riders are in much better shape in mid-March than they used to be because of early-season stage races in Australia, Qatar and California. "It's a total lottery now," he added. "It's all about who has the legs to sprint after six and a half or seven hours in the saddle."

The peloton bursts out of the gate in the northern Italian fashion capital of Milan and hustles south on largely flat roads for the first half of the race. There is only one climb of substance before riders hit the coast just west of Genoa. As they hug the Mediterranean body of water known as the Ligurian Sea, tailwind and nervous jockeying for position among teams combine to produce high speeds for extended periods.

Race organizers have tinkered with the course occasionally over the years to try to make mass sprint finishes less inevitable. Last year, a landslide forced a re-routing of the race up a narrow five-kilometer climb called Le Manie, interrupting the coastal flats, and organizers decided to leave it in.

Le Manie, which comes with nearly 60 miles left to race, isn't necessarily a difference-maker in and of itself. But it does represent one more obstacle to take the starch out of the sprinters, and one more place their teams have to expend energy to usher them through.

"The steepest part of the climb is definitely the first couple of K, and you might burn one or two more guys," said Garmin-Slipstream's Will Frischkorn, who distinguished himself by staying away in a four-man breakaway for most of last year's race.

Last year, Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara -- a prototypically broad-shouldered Milan-San Remo winner who would capture the Olympic time-trial gold medal that summer -- accelerated out of the 12-man group left after the Poggio descent, and finished four seconds ahead of six chasers. He won't defend his title due to a shoulder injury; other key absences include Italian world road champion Alessandro Ballan and two-time Milan-San Remo winner Oscar Freire of Spain, who's still nursing broken ribs from a crash in last month's Tour of California.

Experience and composure are big factors in the race, which is why two talented younger sprinters on U.S.-based teams -- Mark Cavendish of Team Columbia and Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Slipstream -- are considered dark horses, although both have had strong seasons. The incandescent Cavendish has won at least one sprint stage in every race he's contested, while Farrar earned the biggest victory of his career by outgunning Cavendish to the line in the Tirreno-Adriatico event last week.

Garmin assistant director Matt White, who raced Milan-San Remo a whopping 10 times, said his team plans to ride in support of sturdy Julian Dean of New Zealand.

"No one is fresh at the end of 300 K, but [Le Manie] is going to put a big ding into Tyler's legs, and a lot of others as well," White said. "Julian sprints the same way after 300 K as he does after an hour-long criterium. He's a strong sprinter, not a rapid one."

Milan-San Remo is often marred by crashes and unruly spectators. "It takes nerves of steel, which I didn't have," Julich said. "I remember afterwards not being able to turn my head from side to side because I had been clenching my shoulders and arms so much."

Columbia's Michael Barry of Canada, who along with U.S. stalwart George Hincapie will be charged with protecting Cavendish, likened the race to being in a real-life video game with unexpected shrapnel flying at riders from all directions.

Barry also said the race can be an unusually emotional one, with its iconic list of winners from Italian hero Fausto Coppi to British star Tom Simpson, whose use of amphetamines would later contribute to his death on the climb of Mont Ventoux, to perennial Tour de France runner-up Raymond Poulidor.

"There's so much history," Barry said. "You feel it at the start line."

Armstrong termed it "one of the fastest and most dangerous races we do all year long -- for hours and hours, you have to constantly have to pay attention and avoid problems. Knock on wood, that race has ended people's careers. You have to hope like hell you don't get in any mix-ups."

Milan-San Remo is the only one-day race currently on Armstrong's calendar, and it may seem like an aberration in his preparation for the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. But no matter where he finishes, the event's synapse-sharpening whetstone could help address what his longtime team director Johan Bruyneel referred to as being "checked out mentally" during his retirement.

It takes psychological and physical form to get to where Armstrong wants to be this spring.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.