Originally created 06/11/04

Armstrong getting ready to defend Tour de France title

SAINT-PAUL-TROIS-CHATEAUX, France -- Lance Armstrong knows he's not riding the way he needs to win a sixth straight Tour de France. Still, there's three weeks before cycling's premier race and Armstrong is confident he'll be ready.

"I'm not pulling the fire alarm just yet," he said.

Armstrong finished an unimpressive fifth Thursday in a time trial in the Dauphine Libere race - a key mountain test before the Tour de France.

Testing a new, super-light bike, Armstrong crossed the line almost two minutes after Spain's Iban Mayo in the 13.4 mile time trial - and acknowledged he's not 100 percent just yet.

"I probably expected to go a little faster," Armstrong said. "I knew Mayo would be tough. Clearly he is riding super."

But Armstrong insisted there's still a "long time" before the Tour begins July 3, and said he's not more worried about cycling's premier race any more this year than in the past.

"The defending champion who comes back without any fear is the one who loses," Armstrong said.

Thursday's ride took racers from Bedoin to Mont Ventoux, a staggering 6,263-foot peak, which has long been a challenge for Armstrong. He's referred to it as "the hardest climb in France."

Mayo won the stage in 55 minutes, 51 seconds; American Tyler Hamilton was 35 seconds behind in second. Spain's Oscar Sevilla was third; Juan Miguel Mercado of Spain finished fourth; and Armstrong was fifth - 1:57 behind Mayo.

Mayo leads Hamilton by 36 seconds for the overall lead. Armstrong is in fourth, two minutes off the lead.

The Dauphine Libere, which Armstrong won each of the last two years, offers a good chance for riders to test out their health and mental toughness before the Tour.

Johan Bruyneel, sporting director for Armstrong's US Postal Service team, said his star rider may need to lose some weight before the Tour.

The 32-year-old Texan agreed he's still got work to do.

"For me, it's always a constant struggle to try and find the best condition," Armstrong said. "Many times you learn a lot more about poor performances, or disappointing performances, than you do about successful or surprising ones."

US Postal spokesman Jogi Muller said Armstrong was riding on a new, lighter bike, but refused to give details - a common tactic in the hush-hush world of cycling strategy.

But Armstrong is not as determined to win the Dauphine this year, focusing instead on getting in the best shape possible for the Tour, Muller said.

"If victory falls into place, then sure," Muller told The Associated Press by telephone. "He's just not going to kill himself in order to win."

Friday's fifth stage of the Dauphine Libere offered riders yet another climb, along a 93-mile trek from Bollene to Sisteron.


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