Tour De France Readies for Post-Armstrong Era

Here's a statistic to strike fear in the heart of the French. Ten of the last 20 Tour de France races have been won by Americans. This year's race begins Saturday without Lance Armstrong, responsible for many of those American victories. Susan Stamberg talks to cycling journalist James Raia for a look at the competition in the post-Armstrong era.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

The Tour de France begins on Saturday, but the race is being overshadowed by a man who will not be competing. Seven-time winner Lance Armstrong retired from cycling last year, but he is still denying claims that he used performance- enhancing drugs.

The latest accusations come from the wife of a former Armstrong teammate. She alleges that nearly 10 years ago, Armstrong told his doctor he had used banned substances. Armstrong was being treated for cancer at the time.

As he defends himself against these newest charges, the Tour de France prepares to go on without Lance Armstrong. To talk about the competition in this post- Armstrong era, we're joined by cycling journalist James Raia. Morning to you.

Mr. JAMES RAIA (Cycling Journalist): Good morning, Susan.

STAMBERG: Is there an American cyclist who's able now to win the Tour de France this year?

Mr. RAIA: Actually, there are two who have a good chance to win. There is Floyd Landis, who lives in San Diego, and there is Levi Leipheimer, who lives in Santa Rosa. Both California riders.

STAMBERG: What can you tell us about these two Americans?

Mr. RAIA: Floyd Landis - last year he finished ninth in the race and this year he has won three - what is known in cycling as stage races. Also we have Levi Leipheimer, who finished sixth last year. He's had three top ten finishes in the Tour de France, and he's also had a very strong season. He won a race in Europe a few weeks back called la Dauphine Libere, and it also included some very severe climbs, so he is in very good shape.

So we have those two riders, and, in all, we have, this year, eight Americans in the Tour de France. So it's the same number of Americans who have competed in previous years, just not that guy that some people might know as Lance Armstrong.

STAMBERG: Yeah, but what about some of these perennial European competitors? Some of them are great. Is this their moment now?

Mr. RAIA: Absolutely. There is one rider who - only one rider in the field - who has won the race before, and that's Jan Ullrich, the great German rider. He won the race in 1997, and he's finished second five times and third two times, so he is the overwhelming favorite along with Ivan Basso, an Italian rider who finished second to Lance Armstrong last year. And so those are the two big favorites in the race this year.

STAMBERG: Yeah, this tour now covers 21 days - oh, it's exhausting even to think about it - 2,000-plus miles of racing. How tough is the course this year?

Mr. RAIA: Well, the course goes in a counter-clockwise direction, and the difference this year, as opposed to previous years, is that there are two individual time trials and a prologue time trial that begins the race. And the individual time trials are races in which riders ride individually against the clock. And this year, the total distance of those rides is more than 100 kilometers, and I think it'll be very interesting to see how the riders compete, in this case, against themselves, as opposed to the normal racing, which is a team ride.

So, this year, I think what you'll see is a very, very interesting ride in how the riders pace themselves through the Pyrenees and the Alps, knowing that on the second to last day of the race is a very long time trial.

STAMBERG: Well, I know that you're going to be leaving for France pretty soon. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us and bon voyage to you.

Mr. RAIA: Thank you.

STAMBERG: James Raia is publisher of the Tour de Sport. The Tour de France begins on Saturday.

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