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Armstrong, Contador highlight drama at 96th Tour de France

Two weeks before the start of the 96th Tour de France, 1,870 days after his last pro victory, Lance Armstrong soloed to first place in the Nevada City (Cal.) Classic, a brief but brutal 40-lap circuit in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Asked afterward about the upcoming Tour, which starts Saturday in Monaco, the Texan poor-mouthed his own chances, pointing to Astana teammates Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer as clear favorites. After those two, he went on, "they got an old man like me to come around and pick up the pieces."

Yep, that will be old man Armstrong asking for Metamucil in his water bottles, happy to collect the scraps left by the young guns. That's right, the old geezer in the Astana kit will be lucky to make the time cut every day.

Who knew Armstrong could sandbag as well as he gets up a mountain? The truth, of course, is he started looking like the Lance of old about halfway through May's three-week Giro d'Italia. With Leipheimer fading, Armstrong started turning back the clock, fighting his way into more and more of the elite selections in the high mountains. As was his custom during his seven-year reign over cycling, he used June to hone his form to a razor's edge. He is now lean as a wraith -- reportedly two kilos (4 ½ pounds) under the weight at which he won those seven Tours. It is the opinion of Italian rider Ivan Basso that the self-described "old man" will roll down the ramp in Monaco like "a rampaging beast."

Le Tour will captivate for reasons other than the return of said beast, whose chances of winning number eight will be diminished by the fact that, after nearly four years out of the sport and two months shy of his 38th birthday, he may be no more than the third-strongest rider on the troubled Astana team. Powerful on paper, this squad could end up divided into more factions than a junior-high election. We'll preview that soap opera below. First, a look at ...

The most atypical Tour in years kicks off with that 15-kilometer prologue in Monaco, where Armstrong will hobnob with his old chum, Prince Albert II, and riders will speed over a section of the city's famed Formula 1 course. Also unusual: this year's parcours stays out of the country's northern and western regions, doing away (in theory) with the windswept, foul-weather stages that normally mark the Tour's first week. Other distinctive flourishes to this Grand Boucle:

• The return, after a three-year absence, of the team time trial July 10 -- good news for the argyle-rocking riders of American-based Garmin-Slipstream, whose best shot at a stage win will come on this day. Fair warning to teams who struggle in this discipline: unlike past TTTs, there will be no limits to how much time a squad can lose.

• The ITT Devalued. Of this Tour's 3,500 kilometers, a mere 55 are devoted to individual time trials -- the fewest since 1967. That makes life harder for GC (general classification) contenders like Armstrong and Cadel Evans -- guys who hold their own in the mountains, then try to gain time in the so-called Race of Truth. • The delightful (if slightly sadistic) decision to send the peloton up Mont Ventoux, a beast of a climb that could dramatically reshuffle the standings, on the penultimate day of the race. Neither Pyrenee nor Alp, the Ventoux is an ominous, anomalous hump of rock rising 6,000 feet above Provence. After baking on its lower slopes -- Leipheimer has likened that section to a convection oven -- riders rise above the tree line to a desolate lunar landscape which magnifies their misery.

Contador, Astana: This proud young Spaniard has already won all three of cycling's grand tours. A sensational climber whose time-trialing has improved dramatically in recent years, the 26-year-old last raced in the recent Dauphine-Libere, where he appeared to be holding back, unwilling to tap his deepest reserves for a tune-up race. Fitness won't be a problem for Alberto in France. The divided loyalties of his teammates may be. Denis Menchov, Rabobank: Third in last year's Tour, the gifted Russian is coming off a victory in May's Giro d'Italia. Seizing the lead in a brutally long time trial, he spent the rest of the race marking the repeated, vicious accelerations of Danilo "The Killer" DiLuca, who never could escape, and settled for second. If his legs aren't still deep-fried from those efforts, Menchov could take his first Tour.

Cadel Evans, Silence-Lotto: Multi-talented and star-crossed, this enigmatic Aussie has been the Tour's runner-up each of the last two years. Perceived as a prickly, me-first rider (thus his sarcastic nickname, "Cuddles"), the ex-mountain biker has been unable to find enough allies in the peloton to make up for the lack of support he gets from his own, mediocre team. That team, and Evans's chances, took a hit on the eve of the Tour, as strongman Thomas Dekker was bounced from the race after a two-year-old drug test came up positive for a modernized version of EPO. Criticized in the past for his passive riding -- for "following wheels," rather than attacking -- Evans was uncharacteristically aggressive in the Dauphine, launching repeated attacks in vain hope of cracking eventual winner Alejandro Valverde.

Frank and Andy Schleck, Saxo Bank: The brothers from Luxembourg placed sixth and 12th, respectively, in last year's Tour. Frank, 29, wore the yellow jersey for two stages in last year's Tour before sacrificing himself for teammate and eventual victor Carlos Sastre. Andy, 24, won the white jersey awarded the Tour's "best young rider," and has only improved, winning the one-day classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege last spring. One of them will win this race someday.

Carlos Sastre, Cervelo Test Team: The winner of last year's Tour bailed on his old team in the off-season. At 34, Sastre is getting a bit long in the tooth, and had faced the possibility of riding in support of one or both Schlecks. On his new team, the jockey-sized Spaniard will be the undisputed leader. Sastre looked strong winning two mountain stages of the Giro, and will bear watching in France.

Mark Cavendish, Columbia-Highroad: Not a GC threat -- he doesn't race the mountains so much as he survives them -- this wunderkind sprinter from the Isle of Man rates a mention here for winning an ungodly four stages at last year's Tour. So powerful and well-oiled is the team around him -- Bob Stapleton's crew snatched seven stage wins in the recent nine-stage Tour of Switzerland -- that the 24-year-old might make it five or six victories in 2009.

Armstrong, Astana: The longer the Giro went on, the stronger he looked. Lighter than ever, he comes into this race as an intriguing X-factor. He could graciously sublimate his own ambitions to ride in the service of Contador, who, let's face it, has looked much stronger this season. Or, if he believes he has the better chance, Armstrong could ride for himself, dividing his team, and reprising the ugly, intra-squad feud between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond in 1986. Which brings us to ...

Astana GM Johan Bruyneel has long given assurances that such internecine rivalries sort themselves out on the road. But a series of events in the run-up to the Tour have increased the possibility that this one will not. According to the highly respected Boulder Report, only an 11th-hour bailout from Astana's fiscally troubled Kazakh sponsors prevented the team from dissolving at the end of June. Contador and two of his trusted domestiques were headed for Garmin-Slipstream -- which would have been a delicious coup for team director Jonathan Vaughters, whose relations with Armstrong have long been strained.

But the Kazakhs came up with $6 million, and with the crisis averted, Team Borat survived to ride another day. Armstrong, meanwhile, has said all the right things about Contador, repeatedly saluting him as the best stage racer in the world. But the Spaniard's insouciance has rankled his elder, who would relish the opportunity to take him down a peg.

Contador will ride away from Armstrong -- and maybe everyone else -- in the mountains. There was a time when the Texan could have marked those attacks, or pulled back the lost seconds in the Race of Truth. That time, I suspect, has passed.

I hope I'm wrong, if for no other reason to see how the French react to their bete noire winning his eighth Tour. Following the prologue, the peloton will wend its way west along the Mediterranean, "accompanied by evocations of Van Gogh and Dali," effused race director Christian Prudhomme. Should Armstrong take the lead into Paris on July 26, Prudhomme's face may evoke the work of a different artist. Are you familiar with The Scream, by Edvard Munch?

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