ADELAIDE, January 26 – As Lance Armstrong flew out of Australia on a private jet, the big question was left hanging in the Adelaide air: can he really win the Tour de France again?The Texan, 38, was in better shape than in last year’s Tour Down Under, when he returned after three-and-a-half years in retirement.
He is apparently happy with new team RadioShack and his 25th-place finish this year is four places better than in 2009.
Armstrong’s form will not trouble his great rival, Tour de France champion and early favourite Alberto Contador, but the American believes the dream of an eighth Tour de France is alive.
"It’s something I think would be possible," Armstrong said. "It’s going to be the hardest one to win. The competition is better than it ever has been before.
"I think I can win the Tour again. I might be a fool to think that but I’m going to go down my foolish way and find out."
Armstrong only made two notable breaks in Australia, one during a 50-kilometre (31-mile) warm-up and a doomed foray in the latter part of stage four. His best finish was 30th on day three.
He stresses that it is far too early to make predictions for July, when the three-week Tour de France, a race he won a record seven times, rolls into action.
"Not much can be taken from here in terms of what happens in the summer, in fact nothing," he said.
Armstrong, who finished third in last year’s Tour de France, will compete against riders a decade his junior — Contador is 27 — as he bids to break Belgian Firmin Lambot’s 88-year-old record in winning the Tour aged 36 in 1922.
However, he has made a habit of silencing doubters after surviving testicular cancer to win one of sport’s most gruelling events, not just once but seven times, and in consecutive years.
RadioShack team boss Johan Bruyneel, who masterminded each of those victories, sees positive signs in a man he knows so well that he sometimes finishes his sentences.
"Lance is good. He’s a lot different than last year. Physically his form is a lot better, he feels good in the bunch and he feels good in the team so that’s three things that are better than last year," Bruyneel said.
He added that Armstrong is carrying less unnecessary muscle than last year and is more comfortable on the bike after adjusting his riding position.
Dave Brailsford, principal of Britain’s Team Sky, describes Armstrong as the "benchmark" and warns it would be a mistake to write off his chances.
"He’s definitely got it in him for another Tour de France and being right up there, there’s no doubt about it," Brailsford told AFP.
"Whether he can win it or not, time will tell. You can’t say that he will but you certainly can’t say that he can’t. As long as you say that Lance Armstrong can’t, then he’s in with a chance."
Armstrong, a popular figure in Adelaide, has given himself only another two seasons to pull off one of the great sporting comebacks.
"I don’t want to say I’m going to win an eighth Tour, but I will tell you that I expect to be better than 2009," he said.
"I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could do it."