Lance Armstrong will be chasing a record-equalling fifth Tour de France victory when cycling's most gruelling race begins its centenary edition in Paris on Saturday.
TOUR DE LANCE
Armstrong's win margins:2002:
The American, who recovered from cancer in 1999, would join Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only racers to have won the Tour five times.
And the US Postal team leader would emulate Spanish great Indurain in winning the sport's greatest prize five years in a row.
More than 190 riders from 22 teams passed pre-race medicals and will begin the the 20-stage, 3,247km race with the 6.5km prologue - a short individual time trial - around the streets of Paris.
"This is the pinnacle of our sport and the hardest moments we ever experience," said Armstrong.
But the 31-year-old conceded that victory this time could prove a more difficult proposition than in years gone by.
"I'm not getting any younger, and therefore not getting any stronger, and some guys are reaching the pinnacle of their careers," he said.
"There's a few wildcards out there that can change the face of the race."
Despite the hot-favourite tag, Armstrong insisted he would be taking nothing for granted.
"I wish I could come into the race with everyone saying 'he can't win'. That tends to work better," he said.
"But I have to stay realistic and understand that nothing is given in this sport and anybody can win. Well, not anybody, but a lot of guys."
Armstrong's main rival could be German Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner and four times
Ullrich has put two turbulent years behind him after a knee injury, a suspension for recreational drug use and team problems kept him out of competition for more than 14 months.
Spaniard Joseba Beloki, who was second last year and has two third places to his name, should also push Armstrong.
Another rider with the ability to threaten is Colombian Santiago Botero, who has left the Spanish team Kelme for
strong German outfit Telekom.
Botero, fourth last year, is a strong climber and was the first rider to beat the Armstrong in a long time trial on the Tour since the American returned from illness.
Vuelta champion Aitor Gonzalez of Spain, Italian Giro d'Italia
winner Gilberto Simoni and Armstrong's former team-mate Tyler Hamilton also have strong claims on a top 10 finish.
British hope David Millar exploded onto the scene with victory in the 2000 prologue ahead of his first Tour but the Cofidis rider has failed to buid on the 62nd place he achieved the same year.
But a third in this year's Dauphine Libere race behind Armstrong and runner-up Iban Mayo will have boosted Millar's confidence after he suffered serious injuries in an early-season collision with a motorbike.
The race takes a clockwise route around France, taking in six major mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrenees, including such famous ascents as the 2,645m Col du Galibier, the 2,360 Col d'Izoard and the 2,114m Col du Tourmalet.
The Tour ends on the Champs Elysees in Paris on 27 July.