RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Will there be a lucky number seven? That's the question at the outset of this year's Tour de France, which begins tomorrow. Lance Armstrong will ride for what he hopes will be a record seventh consecutive win at the premier venue in cycling. For a preview of the race, we called up cycling journalist James Raia in Sacramento before he left for France.
Mr. JAMES RAIA (Cycling Journalist): Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So what--you know, question of the hour. What are Lance Armstrong's chances for a seventh Tour win?
Mr. RAIA: I think Lance is the prohibitive favorite. You know, he's got the experience, he's got a great team, he's well-trained. The only unknown, of course, is catastrophe, that can happen at any second in the Tour de France.
MONTAGNE: There have been some changes on Lance Armstrong's Discovery team. Talk to us about that. Is it a better team?
Mr. RAIA: I think it is the better team, on some levels, but they've also lost some of the experience. Most notably, they've lost the great rider Vjatceslav Ekimov, great name, from Russia, who had ridden in the Tour de France 14 times. He knew how to help Lance, but they were on a training ride together and Ekimov crashed and that put him out of the race. But with him gone, he's got two new riders who are very strong, but there are many other teams, including Jan Ullrich, who rides for the T-Mobile Squad, who won the race in 1997. He also has a very strong team.
MONTAGNE: Now the route of the Tour de France changes every year. What does it look like this year?
Mr. RAIA: Well, this year--they usually change the course. They usually say it's the counterclockwise or clockwise direction. This year it's the clockwise direction and it begins on the Atlantic seaboard in a small town called Fromentine. The race progresses north for a few days and then actually goes into Germany for a day, comes back into France, finds its way into the Pyrenees and the Alps and then finds its way back up through central France and the final day on July 24th. About 2,227 miles this year.
MONTAGNE: And the key make or break points for the riders?
Mr. RAIA: Well, interestingly enough, 100 years ago, in 1905, they added the first mountain to the Tour de France. The event is going to go back to that first mountain stage that was ever in the Tour de France called the Ballon d'Alsace, and I, you know, mispronounce and mangle my French, but I think that'll be the first key stage for the next week or so. They're going to face some of those very, very key infamous and famous mountains--Col de Madeleine, the Galibier. And these are the stages that the fans go out to see the riders suffer and then conquer. This is where they're going to make their moves, when they go up into the thin air in the Alps and the Pyrenees.
MONTAGNE: Whoever wins this year's race, Lance Armstrong has said he'll retire from the competition. Looking ahead, how does the sport of cycling appear without this superstar, I mean, this real superstar of the past several years?
Mr. RAIA: Yes. In Europe, of course, the sport is a national sport and very popular, and it will remain popular whether Lance Armstrong is there or not. I think where it'll change is primarily in the United States because Lance Armstrong's career and his--what he's done and overcome has brought cycling to the US population, almost transcending sport. I think when he retires, the sport will suffer in the United States and the American public will have to find some sort of a new champion.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.
Mr. RAIA: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: James Raia is the publisher of the Tour de France Times. This year's race begins tomorrow.
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