The Amgen Tour of California is just over a day away, and a few million fans will be lining the roads of the course to catch a glimpse of their hero Lance Armstrong, perhaps hoping he'll be wearing the iconic yellow jersey of race leader. Yet if you listen to the man himself, Armstrong would be the first to say that he is in California to work to deliver his Radioshack teammate Levi Leipheimer to his fourth win in his home race.
At the pre-race press conference in Sacramento, Armstrong was uncharacteristically gloomy about the state of his form and honest about his self-doubts, but said he is still hopeful he can score his eighth Tour de France title come July.
"No doubt, I still believe I can win the Tour. Everybody might think that's crazy, but I will do everything I can to get to the start line in the best shape, race heads up in the first week and then see how it goes in the mountains," Armstrong said.
While he could be excused for a slow start to the season last year when he came back from his three-and-a-half-year hiatus, his performances prior to the Tour de France were somewhat promising: attacks in the Tour Down Under tested his legs, solid performances in the Tour of California in February last year showed he was on track. Even a broken collarbone did not prevent him from returning Stateside and winning his first race since 2005.
This year he hasn't had the collarbone surgery to interrupt his training, but indicated he'd had "health or physical problems" which have cropped up periodically and pushed him off track. He hasn't been bad, but has not had the kind of confidence-building showings that help bouy a rider through the intense training prior to a Grand Tour. Armstrong said he hopes the Amgen Tour will turn this around.
"We've had some glimpses and maybe some false starts, but it has not been as easy or smooth - not that last year was easy or smooth - but this year has been fairly tough. I don't think we're pulling the fire alarm, but now is the time that the signs need to start pointing up," Armstrong said.
It's been a year of oscillating motivation for the 38-year-old champion. "If you asked me this after the Tour of Flanders where I thought I did pretty good for an old man, [the drive] was high. If you asked me in New Mexico when I was suffering like the proverbial dog, it was low. It's now coming up, I've had a good week of training and I feel healthier than I did then," he said.
The clock is ticking down toward the Tour de France, as Armstrong pointed out there are only 50 days remaining before the start in Rotterdam which ushers in a first week riddled with dangerous traffic islands, cobblestone roads and steep, short 'bergs' which will test not only a rider's readiness, but luck as well.
"The Tour is an interesting one in that it's not one you can come into late. It's going to be a stressful, critical first week and where everybody has to be fit and everybody has to be ready. At the same time some would say the race is weighted toward the end, with the only TT, the only long TT and the big days in the Pyreness.
"I'm hopeful that [the form] gets better, but I am a rider who hasn't had a lot of doubts. Sometimes there are days where I've had doubts. Nonetheless, I keep plugging away, I keep training hard," he said.
A hectic schedule of training, obligations for his eponymous cancer foundation and his newly growing family have all put more stress than most riders have to deal with. Armstrong said he's tried to simplify his life for the next two months in order to push for a good Tour performance.
"I tried to cut back as much as I can and know that we have 50 dyas 'til the start of the Tour and everything needs to be put on hold for 50 days and then we'll race it and then get back and do it."