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Everyone chasing after Armstrong

Jerome Pugmire Associated Press

PARIS – Lance Armstrong’s team director said only three riders could threaten the Texan’s bid for a seventh straight Tour de France title when cycling’s showcase race begins Saturday.

Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong’s tactical adviser in each of his six Tour wins, picked 1997 winner Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov and Ivan Basso as the main competition.

“I think those three are the real challengers,” Bruyneel said this week in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Vinokourov is not as quick as his T-Mobile teammate Ullrich on time trials, but he’s better in the mountains. At the Dauphine Libere tuneup earlier this month, Vinokourov won the climb up Mont Ventoux – beating a tired-looking Armstrong by 37 seconds.

Although Team CSC rider Basso lacks speed, he is a tenacious climber – as he showed on last year’s Tour.

“He was the only one to stay with Lance in the mountains,” Bruyneel said. “Will he be able to maintain his condition for three weeks on the Tour? That’s the question mark. But it’s possible.”

Vinokourov’s attacking style caused Armstrong problems in the mountains in 2003, when the Texan beat Ullrich by just more than a minute – his smallest overall margin of victory.

Bruyneel admires Kazakhstan rider Vinokourov but believes his attacking range will be less this year.

“He takes advantage of every opportunity. I think he’s become more resistant over the years, and stronger in the mountains,” Bruyneel said. “In 2003, he wasn’t one of the favorites, so he got some freedom to attack. I don’t think it will be the case this time.”

Ullrich, a five-time Tour runner-up, has long been considered Armstrong’s main rival. But a poor showing last year – 8 minutes, 50 seconds behind Armstrong in fourth spot – has raised doubts about his commitment and ability to handle pressure.

However, Bruyneel does not rule him out.

“He is one of the best time trialists and always gets better in the second half of the Tour,” Bruyneel said. “He is definitely weaker in the mountains. But he is a tough guy who never cracks.”

Bruyneel also mentioned Spain’s Joseba Beloki – runner-up in 2002 – and former Armstrong teammate Roberto Heras as possible threats.

Beloki, though, wasn’t upbeat about his chances.

“To have any possibilities of winning against Armstrong, Armstrong himself has to have a bad day,” Beloki said. “If Armstrong weakens one day with a minimal loss of time, I don’t think it’ll be enough. Armstrong would have to have real difficulties and have to lose lots of time.”

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