Overall leader and five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, reacts as he crosses the finish line to win the 17th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Bourd-d'Oisans and Le Grand Bornand, French Alps, in this July 22, 2004 photo. All eyes will be on the 33-year-old Texan for his final lap around France that ends an illustrious _ some would say miraculous _ career in a sport that will bear his mark for years to come. Will he go out on a high note, or will rivals long eager to dethrone him have the last word?
AP Photo/Laurent Rebours
PARIS Lance Armstrong is ready to make a prediction for the last race of his career.
''This year, the Tour will be won in the mountains,'' he said.
Armstrong is aiming for his seventh straight Tour de France crown, and he has scouted all the crucial climbs that await in the grueling, three-week trek.
In previous years, Armstrong left his rivals behind in the mountains. This time, with retirement beckoning, he is looking toward victory in the Alps, which this year come in the second week, and in the Pyrenees a few days later.
The 33-year-old Texan spoke to The Associated Press by telephone Monday night after what he called the last long training ride of his career six hours on roads around Nice in the south of France. He was joined by Axel Merckx, the son of Belgian cycling great Eddy Merckx.
The elder Merckx and three other riders won five Tours a record Armstrong matched in 2003 and then surpassed with his sixth victory last year.
''I feel strong on the bike,'' said Armstrong, adding that he has lost more than 3 pounds since he placed fourth in the Dauphine Libere race in France two weeks ago.
''I feel a lot better than I did in the Dauphine,'' he said. ''I'm recovering well.''
Armstrong said he traveled to the Alps after the Dauphine to ride the climbs there and found them ''much harder than I expected'' as difficult as the Pyrenean stages that will follow.
The last of the three Alpine stages, from Briancon to Digne-les-Bains, could be particularly tricky, he said.
''There are no big climbs but it's going to be a hard day. There will be some surprises for a lot of people, especially if it is very hot,'' he said.
A heat wave has baked France in recent days. Armstrong said he is already taking precautions.
''You've got to think about one word: water, water, water,'' he said.
He also played down his slight injuries from his low-speed crash during training last week. He expects his black eye will have faded before his pre-Tour news conference Thursday.
''Everything is OK,'' he said.
The race starts Saturday, with a time trial in the west of France where riders go out individually against the clock for 11.8 miles. There is a second individual time trial, 34.5 miles, the day before the Tour finishes on July 24 with a traditional ride into Paris.
Armstrong, a time-trial expert, was checking out the longer course, in Saint-Etienne in central France, on Tuesday.
He called it ''very tough and technical'' but doesn't expect the final time trial to determine the outcome because the eventual winner should by then have left rivals trailing in the mountains.
Spanish rider Joseba Beloki, making his Tour comeback after a horrifying crash in the 2003 race, says only if Armstrong shows uncharacteristic weakness will his rivals stand a chance.
''To have any possibility of winning against Armstrong, Armstrong himself has to have a bad day,'' he told the AP by phone from Spain.
''If Armstrong weakens one day with a minimal loss of time, I don't think it'll be enough,'' added Beloki, who was second in 2002 and third in 2000 and 2001. ''Armstrong would have to have real difficulties on at least one day, and would have to lose lots of time.''
Associated Press writer Jenny Barchfield contributed to this report.
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