Seven-time champ in prerace spotlight

PARIS -- The Tour de France hasn't even started and Lance Armstrong was squarely in the headlines Friday.

First, France's sports minister says Armstrong will be "particularly monitored" in anti-doping checks at the Tour de France this year.

Then, speaking in Monaco, where the Tour starts Saturday, defending champion Carlos Sastre said Armstrong could use a lesson in respect after the Texan reportedly called the race last year "a bit of a joke" in a book.

Sastre, a 34-year-old Spanish veteran, says seven-time Tour champion Armstrong is entitled to his opinion -- but insists it's the wrong one.

"It his point of view, it's his words -- his life," Sastre said at a news conference Friday. "He is a great champion, he won seven Tours de France, a world championship, he's a great rider."

"But behind every rider must be a person, and on that point, maybe he needs to learn something more," he said, adding: "There is something wrong with him about respect."

Earlier, French sports minister Roselyne Bachelot, speaking in an interview on French cable TV on Friday, said Armstrong is in the doping crosshairs.

"The [doping] controls will be multiplied, and I tell Lance Armstrong that he will be particularly, particularly, particularly monitored," Bachelot told i-Tele.

Armstrong, who has denied ever having taken banned substances during his cycling career, responded with a post on Twitter: "No worries, it's been this way for 10 years. I have nothing to hide."

The head of France's anti-doping agency, which is working with cycling's governing body UCI on doping checks for the race, has said Armstrong will be treated like any other rider regarding drug testing.

The International Cycling Union, responding to the damage done to the sport by continual drug and cheating scandals, is planning more than 500 doping checks at this year's Tour.

"There needs to be a really very, very active fight against doping," Bachelot said. "The organizers know how much a positive doping test could have harmful effects."

In the new book, "Lance -- The Making of the World's Greatest Champion" by John Wilcockson, Armstrong is said to have recounted his early musings about a possible comeback after the 2008 Tour.

"The Tour was a bit of a joke this year. I've got nothing against Sastre ... or Christian Vande Velde," he was quoted as saying shortly after the race last year. "Christian's a nice guy, but finishing fifth in the Tour de France? Come on!"

Vande Velde, of the Garmin-Slipstream team; Sastre, of Cervelo; Armstrong; and 2007 Tour winner and pre-race favorite Alberto Contador of Astana will square off among the 180 riders set to start the race Saturday in Monaco.

Sastre shrugged off all the attention heaped on Armstrong and Contador, saying he prefers to express himself "in the saddle," not in the media spotlight.

But make no mistake -- he will be the only rider wearing jersey No. 1 on Saturday. Quietly, he has demonstrated solid recent form with two mountain-stage wins and a fourth-place finish overall at the Giro d'Italia in May.

The Tour better suits Sastre this year than most as the 96th edition favors climbers. Time trials -- which are not his strength -- have been given relatively less importance than the mountain stages, where he excels.

Sastre is not the only rider overshadowed by the suspected Contador-Armstrong rivalry.

Russia's Denis Menchov, who won the Giro d'Italia in May; Australia's Cadel Evans, runner-up at the Tour for the past two years; and the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, are not to be ruled out in the title quest that ends July 26 on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

On Friday, an unofficial poll of 30 riders, race veterans and team sports directors in the French sports daily L'Equipe showed that most don't expect Sastre to make the podium this year. They picked Contador first, Evans second, and Menchov third. Armstrong and Sastre were tied for fifth.

But Sastre believes otherwise.

"I think that I am ready for this race," he said. "Winning the Tour de France last year has changed a lot of things, but myself: I'm the same person."

But can he win again?

"Yes, why not?" he said with a grin.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report