Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France will begin in Rotterdam tomorrow – and the favourite for the race is taking the seven-time champion’s bid for an eighth title seriously.
Armstrong, who will be 39 in September, announced via social networking website Twitter earlier this week that the 97th Tour de France will be his last.
The favourite for the race the American dominated from 1999 to 2005 and returned to in 2009 is Spain’s Alberto Contador.
Contador believes Armstrong is capable of winning an eighth Tour and derailing his own bid for a third yellow jersey in four years.
Asked whether Armstrong can win, Contador told Press Association Sport: “Absolutely and on his own merit.
“Last year he got third place and this year he is riding at a very good level before the Tour. He will be fighting for victory.”
Contador and Armstrong were team-mates 12 months ago.
They endured a fractious relationship and the Texan took the majority of the Spaniard’s Astana colleagues with him when he established Team RadioShack, who, like BMC Racing and British squad Team Sky, will be making their Tour debut this month.
Asked the extent of his relationship with Armstrong, Contador added: “The truth is that we have no relationship at all, but I respect him as a great rider and champion.”
As they now ride for different teams, the Armstrong-Contador relationship will likely be explored less over the 3,642 kilometres of riding through Holland, Belgium and France, although their rivalry for the title could be just as compelling.
Being favourite does not sit comfortably with Contador.
The 27-year-old, who is fuelled by British nutrition company Science in Sport, added: “Victory is the aim for which I’m training.
“I know that is very difficult, because everyone is waiting to see if you fail and they will look to exploit any sign of weakness, but to me victory is a great goal and a challenge.
“It is a year in which everyone appoints you as the clear favourite and this is a handicap.
“The surprise factor is minimal and any time you fail, people will be there to exploit it.”
Contador will be expected to perform well in tomorrow’s 8.9km prologue in Rotterdam, but he could endure a trying time from Sunday’s first road stage until the race hits the mountains.
It is likely Contador’s rivals – including Armstrong, world road race champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team), 2009 runner-up Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) – will attempt to unsettle the Spaniard in the early stages, where cross winds and cobbled sections could have a significant impact.
“I’m ready for a tough week,” added Contador.
“I know they will be difficult stages, we will have to be very focused at all times because the differences may be greater than in the mountains.”
The relative weakness of his Astana team – particularly in comparison to Armstrong’s Team RadioShack, who have three former Tour podium finishers in their ranks – must also be a concern to Contador.
However, Contador is confident of his form, even though he withdrew from the defence of his Spanish time-trial title last week with flu.
He said: “I’ve been training from the beginning of the year thinking about the Tour.
“I hope you can see in the Tour that we have succeeded.”
His reconnaissance trips to the Alps and Pyrenees have been a success and he knows where the Tour will be decided.
He said: “It will be all of the Pyrenees, because they are four very demanding days.
“The Tourmalet is the last chance, the last opportunity for the climbers to attempt to create or cut differences.”
Schleck caused Contador the most concern in 2009 and will be one to watch once again.
“If I think about 2009 it is true that it was Andy Schleck who put me most in trouble,” said Contador.
The Spaniard, who has also won the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, also thinks Wiggins is capable of improving on his surprise fourth-placed position from 12 months ago and become the first Briton on the Tour podium.
“He focuses the whole year thinking about the Tour,” said Contador.
“With the performance he had last year I think he is a contender for victory.”
While Armstrong stands alone with the record number of Tour victories, Contador insists eight Tour titles is not one of his targets.
“I don’t think in figures at all,” he said. “I limit myself to go season by season.
“Now my motivation is the Tour, but within a few years it could be the Giro and then the Vuelta.”