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Posted: Thursday July 2, 2009 1:04PM; Updated: Friday July 3, 2009 2:01PM
Austin Murphy Austin Murphy >
INSIDE THE TOUR DE FRANCE

Armstrong, Contador highlight drama at 96th Tour de France

Story Highlights

The Tour de France begins Saturday and could quickly devolve into a soap opera

Despite saying all the right things, look for drama between Astana members

Race change, like the reinstitution of team time trials, could rock standings

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Lance Armstrong (right) vows he will support teammate Alberto Contador in the Tour de France.
Getty Images

Two weeks before the start of the 96th Tour de France, 1,870 days after his last pro victory, Lance Armstrong soloed to first place in the Nevada City (Cal.) Classic, a brief but brutal 40-lap circuit in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Asked afterward about the upcoming Tour, which starts Saturday in Monaco, the Texan poor-mouthed his own chances, pointing to Astana teammates Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer as clear favorites. After those two, he went on, "they got an old man like me to come around and pick up the pieces."

Yep, that will be old man Armstrong asking for Metamucil in his water bottles, happy to collect the scraps left by the young guns. That's right, the old geezer in the Astana kit will be lucky to make the time cut every day.

Who knew Armstrong could sandbag as well as he gets up a mountain? The truth, of course, is he started looking like the Lance of old about halfway through May's three-week Giro d'Italia. With Leipheimer fading, Armstrong started turning back the clock, fighting his way into more and more of the elite selections in the high mountains. As was his custom during his seven-year reign over cycling, he used June to hone his form to a razor's edge. He is now lean as a wraith -- reportedly two kilos (4 pounds) under the weight at which he won those seven Tours. It is the opinion of Italian rider Ivan Basso that the self-described "old man" will roll down the ramp in Monaco like "a rampaging beast."

Le Tour will captivate for reasons other than the return of said beast, whose chances of winning number eight will be diminished by the fact that, after nearly four years out of the sport and two months shy of his 38th birthday, he may be no more than the third-strongest rider on the troubled Astana team. Powerful on paper, this squad could end up divided into more factions than a junior-high election. We'll preview that soap opera below. First, a look at ...

The Course

The most atypical Tour in years kicks off with that 15-kilometer prologue in Monaco, where Armstrong will hobnob with his old chum, Prince Albert II, and riders will speed over a section of the city's famed Formula 1 course. Also unusual: this year's parcours stays out of the country's northern and western regions, doing away (in theory) with the windswept, foul-weather stages that normally mark the Tour's first week. Other distinctive flourishes to this Grand Boucle:

• The return, after a three-year absence, of the team time trial July 10 -- good news for the argyle-rocking riders of American-based Garmin-Slipstream, whose best shot at a stage win will come on this day. Fair warning to teams who struggle in this discipline: unlike past TTTs, there will be no limits to how much time a squad can lose.

• The ITT Devalued. Of this Tour's 3,500 kilometers, a mere 55 are devoted to individual time trials -- the fewest since 1967. That makes life harder for GC (general classification) contenders like Armstrong and Cadel Evans -- guys who hold their own in the mountains, then try to gain time in the so-called Race of Truth.

• The delightful (if slightly sadistic) decision to send the peloton up Mont Ventoux, a beast of a climb that could dramatically reshuffle the standings, on the penultimate day of the race. Neither Pyrenee nor Alp, the Ventoux is an ominous, anomalous hump of rock rising 6,000 feet above Provence. After baking on its lower slopes -- Leipheimer has likened that section to a convection oven -- riders rise above the tree line to a desolate lunar landscape which magnifies their misery.

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