PARIS, July 6, 2009 -- The 96th Tour de France is now underway and this year's main attraction is the return on the "Grande Boucle" of U.S. cycling legend and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
The Tour de France is a gruelling three-week cycling race around France. The race is divided into 21 stages and covers close to 2,200 miles. Among the 21 stages, there are seven mountain stages, some of them ridiculously difficult, which make the legend of the Tour.
Many consider the Tour de France the most difficult race in the world, all sports taken into account. And making it to the finish line in Paris, even in last position, represents a real achievement for many professional cyclists.
This year, 180 cyclists started the race in Monaco. To everyone's surprise, Armstrong announced at the beginning of the year his return to competition and, thus, to the Tour, primarily to promote his foundation against cancer, Livestrong. And maybe more.
But can Armstrong win this race for the eighth time, after four years away from professional cycling and at the age of 37?
No cyclist has ever won the Tour at his age: The oldest winner was Firmin Lambot of Belgium, at 36 years and four months, in 1922. But Armstrong, who'll be 38 in two about months, is not your typical cyclist. And no one can remain indifferent to him, some competitors say.
"It [an Armstrong victory] looks difficult to me, but it is not out of question," five-time Tour de France winner Eddie Merckx of Belgium told France 2 TV Sunday.
Raymond Poulidor of France, a three-time, second-place finisher, said, "You know, Armstrong is not made like the others. He is an unusual man. And, with an unusual man, we don't know."
Recently retired French cyclist Laurent Jalabert said, "I don't believe he can [win the Tour again]. But I know he is a man who controls well tactics, the race and who's got nothing to lose and who can be dangerous at any time."
Pressure-Free Ride For Armstrong?
"Armstrong is enjoying himself on the bike this time," Phil Liggett, a sports journalist and commentator on the Versus TV channel, which broadcasts this year's Tour in the United States, told ABCNews.com.
"The pressure is off him and I think he can come very, very close to winning the race. I think the biggest problem is the logistics within the [Astana] team. How is Armstrong going to be coping with all the other strong riders on the team such as [Levi] Leipheimer and, mostly, [Alberto] Contador?"
Contador, the 2007 Tour de France winner, has been designated as leader of the team for this year's Tour, relegating Armstrong to the unfamiliar role of a support rider.
Support riders can have roles such as shielding the team leader from the winds in the flats, escorting the leader up mountain climbs, or even fetching water bottles from team cars trailing the racers. So all efforts must be made by everyone on the team, including Armstrong, to help Contador win the race.
But will this situation hold until the end of the race in three weeks on the Champs-Elysees in Paris? That's unclear, and Tour and Armstrong fans know (and hope) that anything could happen during the race.
And, soon enough, there may be some frictions between Contador and Armstrong on the Astana team. "I've never subscribed to the theory that there is only one leader on this team," Armstrong told France 2 TV after today's stage, which saw the U.S. cyclist pass Contador in the overall standings. "If I won the Tour de France seven times, I deserve some respect. For now, I would not count me out."
Since his return to the Tour, Lance Armstrong has launched a charm offensive, captivating the attention of the media and the fans. The contrast is striking with the Lance Armstrong of previous Tours.
After years of difficult relations with much of the French public, mainly because Armstrong was seen as arrogant, it seems that he is little by little winning the hearts of the public, even receiving the biggest ovation at Thursday's team presentation in Monaco.
Before the start of the time trial in Monaco Saturday, Armstrong looked relaxed and waved at the crowd, something he did not do in previous years. After the race, he even took the time to answer questions from pressing journalists and went on signing autographs.
"People were superb [on the side of the road]," Armstrong said after the trial. "It was like a home race. It was nice."
Meet the New Lance Armstrong
Others have noticed the difference. "Armstrong is much more accessible," commentator Liggett said. "He is very conscious of the fact he wants to raise awareness for cancer and to raise big money for cancer and the only way to do that is to make himself much more accessible."
The love-hate relationship between Armstrong and the French may be explained by the doping allegations that have surfaced on many occasions in the French media over the years. But Armstrong was never caught cheating, despite the continuous suspicion. And he, along with his fellow professional cyclists, is perhaps the most controlled athlete in the world.
"Surprise anti-doping control," Armstrong wrote on Twitter in mid-June while in the United States. "Think it's the 31st time [since his return] but not sure any more. Part of the job."
No matter how well Armstrong does in this year's Tour, there is no doubt that his return will have created a certain excitement among Tour de France lovers on both sides of the Atlantic. An excitement that has not been seen since Armstrong left the Tour de France four years ago.
Lance Armstrong is currently in third position overall, 40 seconds behind the leader of the race, Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland. The Tour ends in Paris on July 26th.