Defending Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong will attempt a record sixth win when the world's greatest cycling event starts on Saturday. Can German star Jan Ullrich or another contender end his reign?
Can Lance hold off Jan?
US Postal team leader Armstrong remains the favourite to win the Tour when he saddles up for this Saturday's prologue, but the 32-year-old said there were plenty of other cyclists who could dethrone him this year.
"It's going to be the hardest Tour yet," the five-time champion from Texas said, naming Ullrich as his greatest rival. "Jan is better prepared than we expected him, better prepared than other years."
After wining the Tour de France himself in 1997, the German has been runner-up a whopping five times. Three of those second places came behind a victory by Armstrong, who beat him in 2003 by just 61 seconds.
"Being runner-up last year was a good result, I could have won but I made mistakes," said Ullrich. "But I'm not riding the Tour to be second again, it's to be first."
Along with the Armstrong and Ullrich, American Tyler Hamilton, Spaniard Iban Mayo and Italian Ivan Basso are the other main contenders for the yellow jersey. Many of Armstrong's contemporaries have taken heart after seeing the usually dominant Texan struggle to win last year.
"Last year's race made all of the overall contenders a little more confident and lots of people are licking their lips and ready to attack," Hamilton said according to the Reuters news agency.
Going for legend
No rider has every managed to win the Tour de France six times. If Armstrong manages it this time, he would move ahead of other legendary five-time winners like Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain.
The three-week-long contest will start in the Belgian city of Liege and will wind 3,390 kilometers (2,100 miles) throughout France, ending in Paris on July 25. With challenging time trials and gruelling days in the Alps ahead of him, Armstrong said he was taking nothing for granted.
Armstrong in Paris just before winning the 2003 Tour de France
"It's not a one-day race," he said. "It's very difficult to win. There're many, many things that could happen. I could just flat-out lose the race to a better rider. So I prefer to face it one day at a time."
Armstrong said he would not be distracted by the controversy surrounding a new book by David Walsh and Pierre Ballester that alleges he has doped in the past. "LA Confidential, The Secrets of Lance Armstrong" does not present proof of the charges, but it has statements from Armstrong's masseuse Emma O'Reilly. "Extraordinary accusations must be followed with extraordinary proof and Mr Walsh and Mr Ballester have worked four or five years and they have not come up with extraordinary proof," Amstrong told The Associated Press.