Put that bike lock away; Armstrong hasn't packed away yellow jersey yet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SILVER SPRING - His dominance drained most of the competitive suspense from last year's Tour de France. Now, Lance Armstrong, ever in search of new tactics, is creating drama in perhaps the only way left to him.

Armstrong is holding in abeyance his decision on whether to seek a seventh Tour de France title, thus holding much of the cycling world hostage until this spring.

His team's new title sponsor, Discovery Communications, requires him to do just one Tour in the next two years, and much of the smart money says Armstrong will sit this one out.

Having pulverized the field last year, he's plumb out of motivation, the thinking goes. He's attacking different goals, like the world hour record and the European one-day classic races. He has more off-bike commitments than ever and a complicated personal life as a divorced father of three young children. Why not take a break and return next year for a 2,000-mile victory lap? You read it here first: Don't be so sure.

Yesterday morning, down the street from Discovery's corporate headquarters in a cavernous movie theater that featured his name on the marquee, cycling's leading man reflected on what it would be like to watch someone else sail up the Champs-Elysees on July 24, sipping champagne and wearing the yellow jersey he has owned since 1999.

"I don't know if it would hurt," he said. "It might make me a little hungry."

Has Armstrong lost his appetite? Perhaps, but that doesn't mean he might not regain it over the next few months, especially if the spring menu doesn't live up to his expectations.

Armstrong plans to race all four times in April, in the Tour of Flanders (Belgium), the Amstel Gold (Netherlands), Fleche-Wallonne (Belgium) and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (Belgium).

He probably won't be the team leader in all of those races. Armstrong has raced classics sparingly or as warm-ups the past several years. As a consequence, he isn't the best or most experienced classics rider on his own team.

If there's one Armstrong wants to put away, it's the Amstel Gold, where he has twice finished second. But as he points out: "There's nothing that says I'm going to be in great condition in the classics. I think it's a romantic idea, but nothing says I'm going to be in the front or be a contender."

His other target, the world hour record, is a mind- and body-numbing exercise raced alone, on a track. (The record is judged by distance covered; Great Britain's Chris Boardman holds the record of 30.723 miles, set at the 2000 world championships.) Five-time Tour champions Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain pursued and possessed the record for a time. It is a prestigious, if not crowd-pleasing, accomplishment.

Armstrong is well aware of the meticulous preparation the event requires, and you can be sure he's already calculating split times. When and where he will try it is uncertain. He's talking about building a temporary roof for a velodrome at speed-friendly altitude in Colorado Springs or Salt Lake City.

Though there's a legitimate argument to be made that Armstrong is his own best competition, can he truly be sated by a 2005 season that includes no staredowns with rivals on Europe's most daunting mountain roads? Can he really quit - or pause - while he's ahead?

The structure is in place for Armstrong to turn on a dime like a Texas quarter horse if he's so inclined. Discovery has enlisted an army of riders - 28 from 15 countries - to make the world's deepest, strongest cycling team even more formidable. The technology, the resources and his synergistic rapport with team director Johan Bruyneel are intact.

Armstrong's hallmark as a champion has been a near-obsessive attention to detail and knowing what is around every bend. Altering that pattern is a departure for him, but his biography shows he is exceptionally adaptable.

"The good news is, if you train for the classics and try to ride the classics at the front, you will have advanced your form far enough that at least you're not trying to play catch-up [in late spring]," Armstrong said.

"I plan on having a good training camp and getting into the season and evaluating things in late April after the classics. I think that's a fine time to adjust your form if you need to slow things down or speed things up."

Would it be weird for Armstrong to watch the Tour as a spectator for the first time since he was a recovering cancer patient with a cloudy future? More bizarre for him than for us, I think. That's why I take him at his word when he says the door is propped open.

Bonnie DeSimone, who covered the Tour de France five times for the Chicago Tribune, is a freelance sportswriter in Philadelphia.

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