Tour ready for start with Armstrong back

MONACO (AP) — The Tour de France is ready for another edition with Lance Armstrong, and Saturday’s opening stage may show whether he’s ready to challenge for another title.
Armstrong’s 37-year-old legs will be tested immediately when the three-week race begins with a 9.6-mile time trial. The stage will be run along the hilly streets and hairpin turns of Monaco, a Mediterranean principality better known for Formula One than for huffing two-wheelers.
The ride will likely offer an early shakeout of potential contenders who want to at least hold their own in the race against the clock.
Specialists in the discipline include Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, who won gold in the time trial at the Beijing Olympics, and Bradley Wiggins of Britain.
They could capture the leader’s yellow jersey, though they aren’t expected to fare as well when the race reaches the Pyrenees in Stage 7. Title contenders to watch Saturday include Cadel Evans of Australia, Denis Menchov of Russia and 2007 champion Alberto Contador of Spain, for whom the course is almost tailor-made because of its hills.
The main race favorites – except Armstrong and American teammate Levi Leipheimer – will start last as the 180 riders set off one by one.
Defending champion Carlos Sastre of Spain, wearing the yellow jersey and No. 1 bib, will go last. Armstrong asked to be the first Astana rider to go. He’ll ride 18th, nearly three hours before Sastre – time enough for weather conditions to change.
Armstrong used to be an expert time trialer, and part of the suspense will be seeing whether he’s slowed with the years.
Tour organizers were forced to tinker with the full rider list until the last day Friday after French sports authorities ordered them to let Belgian sprint star Tom Boonen compete.
Before a French Olympics committee panel, the Quick Step speedster won his appeal of a ban handed down by Tour organizers after he tested positive for cocaine for the second time in a year.
The Tour has been bruised by three straight years of doping scandals: After the 2006 race, Floyd Landis was stripped of his title for testing positive for testosterone. The next year, leader Michael Rasmussen was sent home for lying about his whereabouts in pre-race anti-doping checks. Last year, six riders were caught doping, including Bernhard Kohl, the third-place finisher and King of the Mountains winner.

Doping scandals hit Astana especially hard. In 2006, the team was prevented from riding because of a scandal on the eve of the race. The next year, it was thrown out in mid-race for another, prompting Tour organizers not to invite it at all in 2008.
Armstrong has repeatedly said he never used banned substances during his seven straight titles from 1999 to 2005, years after a dramatic comeback from his fight against testicular cancer.
Armstrong has been reunited with Johan Bruyneel, who was also his team manager during his Tour victories. Bruyneel says Contador is the man to beat, and has anointed the 26-year-old Spaniard as leader of the Astana squad.
Contador finished 31st in his first Tour in 2005, which was Armstrong’s last. Contador has since won all three tours of France, Italy and Spain, one of only five riders to do so. This year, he’s won two races, four stages and the Spanish time-trial championship.
Since Armstrong returned to competition this year, they have ridden together only once in a race – the Vuelta of Castilla and Leon in March – but Armstrong crashed out of it with a broken collarbone.
“Everybody has been waiting for the Tour to see this meeting of Lance and me, and it gives me added motivation – and pressure, too,” Contador said.
Armstrong, once known as “Le Boss” of the Tour, can’t be ruled out for victory. But his training regimen has been unorthodox in part because of his family duties, glitzy personal life and charitable work in the battle against cancer.
“What do I expect from him? Really, I don’t know,” Bruyneel said. “We are a bit lost. … Alberto knows he’s ready. Armstrong, we don’t know.”
As if cramming for a final exam, Armstrong spent Friday previewing the course but found time to keep in touch with his million-plus followers on Twitter.

“This place is going to be electric tomorrow,” he tweeted.

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