PARIS (AP) - Could personal problems, low morale or excessive weight spoil Lance Armstrong's chances of winning the Tour de France for a record sixth
time? An uncommonly poor performance by Armstrong in a warmup event in France last week has newspapers here speculating whether cycling's titan will
be in shape for the sport's showcase event next month.
The Texan rider has often seemed to win at will in Tour's time trials and mountain stages. But in Thursday's Dauphine Libere stage, which featured
both, he finished nearly 2 minutes after Spain's Iban Mayo.
"Did he give it all he's got?" wondered a headline in sports daily L'Equipe. Armstrong, 32, won the Dauphine in each of the last two years. French
daily Le Figaro resorted to reading Armstrong's body language, saying he looked out of sorts and has never seemed more nervous or stiff at a news
conference after the race.
"Something isn't right," its article said.
Seasoned Armstrong watchers are familiar with the buzz about whether he will be fit for the Tour and he often feeds it. He said he feels "fear" every
year before the start of the race. Still, the reigning champ says he's taking the naysayers in his stride and will be ready for the Tour's July 3
"It's a long time until the Tour,"
In the meantime, he's working through issues that have nothing to do with the race itself. Professionally, the team's US Postal Service sponsor said
it will end its endorsement this year, what Armstrong called a "stress point" for him.
Armstrong, who recently split from his wife, also acknowledged that his personal life has been "difficult." He has been through hardship in the past,
such as overcoming a life-threatening bout with testicular cancer. Armstrong said he opted to forgo racing in Europe this spring so he could remain in
the United States, near his three children. He won the Tour de Georgia in April.
"For me, it was a very simple choice to make - I needed to be with my children,"
he said. "As I said, when I created the calendar, 'if
that's the reason that I lose the Tour de France, so be it'."
Armstrong may also need to slim down. US Postal's sporting director, Johan Bruyneel, said his star rider "maybe needs to lose a little weight"
to reach top potential for the Tour. Then there are the potential Tour threats by rivals such as fellow American Tyler Hamilton, Spaniard Mayo,
Italian Ivan Basso of CSC and - most of all - archrival Jan Ullrich of Germany.
"I think Jan is on a different level."
Armstrong said. "He can limit his damage in the climbs, he can really time-trial well and he has a
The T-Mobile rider won the Tour in 1997.
The 3,429 kilometer (2,125 mile) course for the three-week Tour won't be a cakewalk either. The last week "is like a hell week, featuring a long
individual time trial and some grueling mountain climbs"
, Armstrong said.
In the Dauphine, Armstrong is playing it safe to avoid problems that could mar his performance in the Tour: "You don't want to start with a stomach
bug or a small cold or a little injury,"
Armstrong says his strategy is to gradually hit peak form in time for the Tour's punishing mountain stages.
"I don't think I'm 100 percent, but I wouldn't want to be at this moment,"
Armstrong said. "I have to limit distractions and I have to
continue to focus."