PARIS When Lance Armstrong climbs onto a bicycle next weekend in a French coastal village for the start of the Tour de France, it will be the beginning of the end of an era.
All eyes will be on the 33-year-old Texan for his final lap around France, which ends an illustrious some would say miraculous career in a sport that will bear his mark for years to come.
But will he go out with another victory, or will rivals long eager to dethrone him have the last word?
Armstrong, whose return from a bout with cancer is the stuff of legend, already has rewritten cycling's record book with six straight Tour wins. A seventh would cement his iconic status in the cycling world.
Even though last year's victory elevated him above four other five-time champions, Armstrong says he still wants to finish in style.
''This year my main motivation is that I want to end on a high note. In that way it could be more motivating than a big bonus or making history,'' Armstrong said during the Dauphine Libere tuneup race earlier this month in which he finished fourth.
The three-week, 21-stage Tour begins with a July 2 time-trial prologue along the Atlantic coast. The race then heads eastward and dips into Germany, enters the Alps, moves to the Pyrenees, briefly crosses into Spain and then into the Massif Central mountain range before heading to Paris for the July 24 finish.
Then, Armstrong hangs it up for good. He'll have time to focus on raising his children, hanging out with girlfriend Sheryl Crow and, he says, drinking some beer.
In the Armstrong era, fans have wondered each year what horrendous mountain climbs, time trials or other surprises Tour organizers would plot to challenge him. Organizers reply that the course is never designed around one rider.
''If it's the Armstrong we knew in 2004 and there is as much difference between him and his rivals, it won't matter what course it is,'' assistant Tour director Christian Prudhomme said Tuesday. ''I hope Armstrong will have the rivalry he deserves and come up against people who take risks.''
Though the 2,236-mile course is less physically challenging than in recent years, expect a shakeout in stage 11, featuring a one-two punch of the Col de la Madeleine and the Col du Galibier two climbs so punishing they are beyond categorization.
Three straight days of punishment await riders in the Pyrenees, with a roller coaster profile of six mountain climbs in stage 15 that finishes with a grueling ascent into the Pla d'Adet ski station.
One curveball from race planners this year is that the two individual time trials nearly bookend the Tour the prologue and the penultimate stage.
Armstrong has ridden little this year, but is confident he can peak in time. But there are questions about his fitness.
Armstrong didn't win the time trial in the Dauphine Libere, as he had hoped, and started training late because he only committed to the Tour in February, said John Wilcockson, co-author of a book on Armstrong's victory last year, ''23 Days in July.''
''He hasn't won a single race this year, which is something that's never happened going into one of his Tour victories,'' said Wilcockson. ''Psychologically, that is something which could affect his performance at the Tour.''
Armstrong will be backed on the Discovery Channel team by longtime comrade George Hincapie, plus rising Ukrainian star Yaroslav Popovych and Giro d'Italia winner Paolo Savoldelli. But one traditional Armstrong workhorse Russian veteran Vyacheslav Ekimov is out with an injury.
If past strategy is any guide, expect Armstrong to try to ride cautiously and avoid dangerous sprints the first week of the Tour as the race cuts through the flatlands of central France. Then, as usual, he'll try to take control in the mountains.
Germany's Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner and three-time runner-up to Armstrong, got a morale boost by winning the Tour de Suisse time trial on June 12, and doesn't have the weight or illness problems that have dogged him in previous years.
Ullrich has one last chance to beat the Texan, and his strong T-Mobile team includes Andreas Kloden, runner-up last year, and Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov third in the 2003 Tour.
''The goal of the end of my career is, of course, to win the Tour one more time but especially by beating Lance,'' Ullrich was quoted as saying in the June edition of France's Velo magazine. ''He will be there to win a seventh Tour, and it's up to us to stop him.''
Italy's Ivan Basso, leader of the CSC team who was third last year, is a strong climber who has been improving on time trials and will join Ullrich as the most likely threat to Armstrong.
Another potential contender, Damiano Cunego of Italy, the International Cycling Union's top-ranked rider last year, will skip the Tour because of mononucleosis.
Outsiders include former Armstrong teammates Roberto Heras, a Spaniard with the Liberty Seguros team, and fellow Spaniards Iban Mayo and Jose Gomez Marchante.
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