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Tour de Lance goes for 3rd straight title

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PARIS — Two years ago, Lance Armstrong breathed new life into the drug-stained Tour de France, inspiring millions with a victory that marked his triumph over cancer.

A second consecutive victory in the grueling cycling race last summer silenced doubters and transformed an event that had become synonymous with doping into the "Tour de Lance" — a story of hope against the odds.

Now, Armstrong is trying to become only the second American (after Greg LeMond) to win the Tour three times, and the first to do it three years in a row.

"Mentally, I'm as motivated as I've ever been," the 29-year-old Texan said. "Physically, I think I'm as good or better than I've ever been."

If proof were needed, Armstrong provided it with his win in the Tour de Suisse on Thursday, which put him at No. 1 in the world rankings for the first time.

But there's a dark cloud on the horizon. A seven-month French investigation into the possibility that Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team may have used banned substances in 2000 — which hasn't led to any legal action against the squad — is expected to end only after this year's race. The team has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Armstrong begins the Tour on July 7 with few serious challengers in sight.

His victory in the Tour de Suisse was just another stage in his preparation for cycling's crown jewel and Armstrong's only real target of the year.

"The Tour de France is special because it's the biggest bike race in the world, and it's even the biggest in America," Armstrong told a group of reporters at the Tour de Suisse. "The only bike race the people on the streets of New York City, of Minnesota or Los Angeles know is the Tour de France, so it's natural and normal that would be our focus.

"We've been lucky enough to win two times and had a taste of that. It keeps us coming back."

This year's race, which ends July 29 on the Champs-Elysees, is the third-shortest Tour ever, covering more than 2,100 miles in 20 stages. But it still promises to be grueling, with five mountain stages, including one uphill individual time trial.

"I learned a lot about the uphill time trial (in the Tour de Suisse)," Armstrong said. "I think it will be one of the most critical stages of the Tour."

Armstrong's biggest threat is likely to be Jan Ullrich, who won in 1997 and came in second in 1998 and 2000. The German took gold in the road race at the Sydney Olympics but placed only 52nd in the Giro d'Italia in June.

"With (Ullrich), you can never be sure," Armstrong said. "I analyzed what he did at the Giro but there are still a lot of questions where he is concerned. One thing is certain — he is always dangerous. You mustn't underestimate his mental strength."