GIVEN LANCE ARMSTRONG'S penchant for psyching out the competition, his poker-faced refusal to commit to this year's Tour de France may simply be another brilliant head fake. But should he actually skip his signature event, the year's most exciting action could come with his return to the spring classicsthe muddy, daylong clashes that open each pro season. Often contested in brutal weather and over crash-inducing cobblestones, these races leave the winners looking nearly as miserable as the losers. They are also among the sport's most time-honored events. "I have always had a dream of winning one," says Armstrong, who specialized in one-day races early in his career. "The drama is as big as a mountain stage in the Tour."
Tour de France 2004
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This year, it could be even bigger. While cycling observers are nearly unanimous in calling Armstrong the greatest Tour rider ever, they are reluctant to declare him the sport's greatest, pointing to a lack of other major wins on his résumé. But that may change. The first races he committed to for the coming season are classics, among them LiègeBastogneLiège and the Tour of Flanderstwo 160-mile Belgian slogs that perfectly suit his climbing skills. He's also hinted that he'll line up for others, leading to heightened interest in the U.S.the Outdoor Life Network will offer same-day coverage throughout the springand shudders of fear in the peloton.
For the lowdown on the most prestigious spring classics, we turned to George Hincapie, America's premier one-day specialist and Lance Armstrong's teammate of nine years. They'll be riding together again this season on the newly christened Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team.
Italy March 19 186 miles
"This is one of the prettiest, because it follows this incredible coastline. It's not hard until the final 25 miles, where there are a couple of climbs. They wouldn't be tough on their own, but after 160 miles, anything hurts."
Tour of Flanders
Belgium April 3 160 miles
"One of theif not thehardest. It's got 15 climbs, cobblestones, wind. There are constant battles for position in these rough conditions. It's a lot of stress."
France April 10 162 miles
"Like running a marathon. Your body just gets punished. It takes a week to recover. It doesn't have climbs like Flanders, but the roads are much narrower. And the cobbles are like boulders."
Belgium April 24 162 miles
"This is the best classic for climbers. It doesn't have a lot of climbs, but the ones it has are longer and steeper. You can count on it being cold, too. I mean, it's Belgium."