Armstrong to face strong challenge in 2004Posted: Monday July 28, 2003 8:09 AM
PARIS (Reuters) -- If you found the 2003 Tour de France exciting, wait for the next one.
The first edition of a second century of the world's most prestigious cycling race will provide Lance Armstrong with a chance of an unprecedented sixth victory.
The 31-year-old American joined the sport's most select club with his fifth win on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday, joining Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only men to have achieved the feat.
The "big four," as they are dubbed in cycling circles, have all failed in their quest for a sixth success, mostly because they were beaten by an up and coming young rider.
Indurain lost to Dane Bjarne Riis in 1996, but the star of the Tour that year was young German Jan Ullrich.
Hinault was beaten in 1986 by young American Greg LeMond, while Merckx discovered his limits against Frenchman Bernard Thevenet.
Armstrong has pledged he will be better prepared next year than he was in this Tour, calling his condition "unacceptable."
"I'll return next year and not to finish second," he warned.
But it is still not clear whether the Texan struggled more than ever before over the past three weeks because of his poor form or because his rivals were stronger.
At 32, Armstrong will reach an age at which all the previous Tour superstars have started to falter. He is also bound to face even tougher opposition than he did in the 3,426 kms of the 2003 Tour in a race which will start from Belgium and probably go to Brittany and Barcelona before returning to Paris.
If the Texan was not at his very best, Ullrich, who finished second for the fifth time after winning in 1997, was not either.
The German had just been through a terrible year marred by a knee operation and a doping ban, and he only entered the Tour this year to prepare for the next.
"Challenging Lance was not in my plans," he said.
"I came to the Tour to win a stage and get ready for next year."
His impressive time trial victory in Cap Decouverte confirmed the road Olympic champion still has enough left in the tank to win the Tour again.
Spaniard Joseba Beloki, third in 2000 and 2001 and runner-up last year, was more aggressive than ever in the past before crashing out of the Tour in dramatic fashion in Gap.
He will return next year, his motivation boosted by the accident.
American Tyler Hamilton finished fourth overall, a superb effort after he sustained a broken collarbone after a crash on the first stage. There is no knowing what he might have achieved had he been fully fit for the whole three weeks.
With Spaniard Iban Mayo always a threat in the mountains and Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov reaching new heights by finishing third, Armstrong could be attacked on all fronts next year.
If the sixth win jinx should strike once more, Briton David Millar looks the best choice for the role of the young rider out to spoil the old gun's show.
His sensational victory in the last time trial on Saturday confirmed his incredible potential.
But constant problems with his Cofidis team have wasted precious time and what Millar now needs is to find the team director who, like Johan Bruyneel did with Armstrong, will turn him into a Tour champion.
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