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Shorter time trials, toned-down climbs

PARIS -- The 2005 Tour de France may give other riders a
chance to test Lance Armstrong -- if he goes for a seventh straight
title.

The mountaintop finishes are less intense and the time trials
shorter, possibly cutting into Armstrong's strengths.

On Thursday, organizers unveiled the route for the 2005 Tour, which runs July 2-24, passes through Germany and features 21 stages over 2,222 miles.

Replacing the customary opening day prologue is an 11.8-mile
time trial from Fromentiere to Noirmoutier-en-L'Ile. Armstrong
usually dominates clock races, and the short distance of the
opening stage seems designed to minimize the gaps the Texan can
open.

It also means he'll have to be in top form right away. This
year's race, with a mountain time trial and three intense uphill
sprints, played into the Texan's hands.

Armstrong has yet to fully commit to the 2005 Tour but said in July that the lure of the world's biggest cycling race is tough to resist.

He captured a record sixth straight title this year with an overall
winning margin of 6 minutes, 19 seconds over Germany's Andreas
Kloden. Italy's Ivan Basso was 6:40 back in third, followed by
Germany's Jan Ullrich, 8:50 back.

"Lance remains favorite and will be stronger next year," Basso
said.

Armstrong has changed his sponsor from U.S. Postal Service to Discovery Channel, and his new backers may insist he go for Tour win
No. 7. However, the team's sporting director, Johan Bruyneel, sounded less than certain.

"He will decide in February or March," Bruyneel told reporters.

Armstrong, who is in Texas dealing with family matters, did
not attend the Tour presentation but was briefed by organizers
on the phone earlier this week, sources close to the Tour said.

"There's still a 50-50 possibility Lance will ride the Tour,
added Bruyneel, who described the itinerary as "a good course".

"There has been a lot of pressure around Lance in the last
six years. It's a matter of how motivated he is."

Armstrong was listed as the even-money favorite to win again by
the British bookmaker William Hill. Ullrich, the 1997 winner, was
at 3-1 and Basso at 9-1.

Beginning in the coastal Atlantic Vendee region, the 2005 route
snakes diagonally upward through the Loire Valley, where the team
time trial takes place in Tours on July 4. It then heads into
Champagne country before reaching the German border city of
Karlsruhe on July 8. Riders leave Germany the following day from
Pforzheim, and the route travels clockwise.

"We decided it was Germany's turn," Tour race director
Jean-Marie Leblanc said. "We know how much the Germans love
cycling."

After the Pyrenees, several flat stages favor sprinters
before the 34.1-mile time trial in Saint-Etienne on July 23. If
Armstrong has not opened a significant gap by then, it will be his
last chance to do so.

"We will have a very technical, difficult time trial," Leblanc
said.

The 2005 race features nine climbing stages -- three of them
moderate -- beginning July 10 in the Alps and concluding July 19 in
the Pyrenees. The six tough climbs are split between the Alps and
the Pyrenees and place a huge burden on Armstrong's teammates, who
will get little rest.

"As for the course, it is tough physically, and that is
something to keep in mind," Bruyneel said. "The whole last week
will be very tough."

Of the Pyrenees climbs, the 127-mile leg on July 17 is sure to
be poignant for Armstrong. It features the Col du Portet d'Aspet,
where Armstrong's teammate, Fabio Casartelli, died in 1995 after
crashing on a descent.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.