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Sun and clouds greet Lance's return

MONTPELLIER, France – It is the iconic Tour de France photo opportunity, the victor sipping champagne as he cruises toward the finish of one of sport's toughest challenges.

With every passing day the chances increase that it will be Lance Armstrong who will once again be savoring the bubbly and posing for the cameras on July 26, as what some suspected would be little more than a publicity stunt turns into a dedicated challenge for his eighth Tour title.

In past years Armstrong's raising of the champagne flute has been appropriate. In many of his seven victories it was all too easy, if a couple of thousand miles on a bike can ever be easy, and the result was often assured by the midway point of the race.

Armstrong feels he can win this Tour, knows that within his aging body there is the strength to carry him over the line and within his mind the fortitude to withstand the accompanying agonies.

Yet there are other items on his to-do list this year. One of the most significant tasks he has set for himself is to attempt to repair cycling's tarnished image and get the sport back in the news for the right reasons after years of being engulfed in the tentacles of doping.

Armstrong is a man who doesn't understand the meaning of the word impossible, but that goal may be far more difficult than winning the Tour itself.

Tuesday's team time trial was another showcase of the character that has made the 37-year-old a modern-day icon, and took him to within a single tick of the clock from the leader's yellow jersey.

As Tours de France go, it doesn't get much more dramatic than the way the Texan came within the turn of a wheel of overhauling the time needed to strip yellow away from race leader Fabian Cancellara. But even at the conclusion of such a highly amped day there was again the cloud of cycling's curse.

Thankfully, there have been no positive tests as yet in this year's Tour, a welcome respite from the 2008 event which saw five stage victories annulled by drug testers. Armstrong wants to shift the focus away from doping, but the topic will not go away.

Just minutes after crossing the finish line he was confronted by the reported comments of Patrice Clerc, the former boss of Tour organizers ASO, claiming that the return of Armstrong was "the return of doubt."

Armstrong reacted angrily when told of Clerc's claims, and reiterated his assertion that the race itself, and not chemistry, needs to be the focal point of the sport.

"I do think it is important that we don't forget to talk about the race," Armstrong said. "I get the impression that many journalists just come to write the dope story.

"That is fine but you have to look at the great stuff as well, all the things that make up the dynamics and the beauty of cycling and this race."

Armstrong believes cycling has spent too long being ripped apart by the emphasis on drugs and had hoped his return could alleviate some of that negativity. Furthermore, he is keen to preserve the future of cycling, both for the sake of the sport itself and so that his legacy as its greatest champion is protected.

Just where that future lies remained unclear at the end of a day in which the 20 Tour teams headed separately around the streets and back roads of Montpellier.

Forty seconds behind Cancellara heading into the stage, Armstrong worked feverishly with his colleagues, including Tour favorite – for now – Alberto Contador, to cut down the gap.

At the midway point it looked as if they would pick up enough time on Cancellera's Saxo Bank team to see Armstrong heading south on Wednesday clad in his favorite color. But even though they fell short, the prided jersey may not be far away.

As he sat just down the road from where French seer Nostradamus scrawled his predictions in the 16th century, Armstrong was in the mood for prophecy himself.

"The team was perfect," he said. "Technically speaking we were as sound as we could be, so I am not disappointed I didn't get the jersey.

"This is a long race, maybe there is one [a yellow jersey] in my future."