STRASBOURG, France — Could an American succeed Lance Armstrong as Tour de France champion?
The top two front-runners are European — 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich of Germany and Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso — but one of the best fields of U.S. riders yet will provide plenty of competition for the podium.
Montana native Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis and longtime Armstrong teammate George Hincapie all placed in the top 15 at last year's Tour, and all three are potential contenders this year.
"It's a good crop of American riders right now — as strong or stronger than ever," Hincapie, the only rider to race with Armstrong on his seven Tour wins, said Thursday.
Armstrong's record run of seven straight Tour titles after recovering from cancer has raised the stature of the event in the minds of U.S. sports fans.
"It's definitely motivating," said Hincapie, who has emerged as a leader of Armstrong's former Discovery Channel team. "We want to get the sport as big as possible back in the U.S."
The latest edition of Velo, a monthly French cycling magazine, cited Landis and Hincapie as riders who could take home the overall leader's yellow jersey when the Tour ends in Paris on July 23. Leipheimer, a Butte native, is seen as a podium contender.
The 32-year-old Leipheimer, who rides for Gerolsteiner, won the Dauphine Libere last month — a traditional Tour warmup that Armstrong won twice. He was sixth in the Tour last year, and won the Tour of Germany last year.
The bigger threat may be from Landis, a gangly and feisty Pennsylvanian whose relationship with Armstrong on the course has been rocky over the years. Landis was ninth in last year's Tour de France.
The 30-year-old has already had an impressive year, coming into his own as leader of the Phonak squad and collecting wins at the Tour of Georgia, the Tour of California and the Paris-Nice.
Hincapie has bounced back after breaking his collarbone in a crash in the Paris-Roubaix in April.
Now, Hincapie, who placed 14th in the Tour last year, says he is close to his best shape he's ever been in. But taking the role as a team leader offers new challenges.
"I've never been in this situation, so I don't know how I will respond when I'm racing up these big mountains," the 33-year-old said. "But I'm hoping for the best, and I'm working as hard as I can."
Hincapie won one of the toughest mountain stages in last year's Tour — his first stage victory in the event. He said he has been focusing on improving in time trials and climbing this year.
Americans could shine in other ways, too. Team CSC's David Zabriskie won the Tour prologue last year — two seconds in front of Armstrong — and is seen as a threat to win it again on Saturday.
Armstrong still looms large in the minds of riders, but many are eager to move on. Discovery Channel officials say they're not sure if the seven-time champion will show up along the route this year.
"I can't say that I spend a whole lot of time thinking whether he's here or not," Landis said, when asked about what was long "The Lance Show" in France.
"It would be nice to have a new 'show' — I can't give it a title yet," he said with a grin.