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Armstrong proves he is simply the best

Posted: Sunday July 25, 2004 4:10PM; Updated: Sunday July 25, 2004 10:41PM
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PARIS (Reuters) -- Lance Armstrong proved conclusively he is the best Tour de France rider ever after the American won the world's biggest cycling race for a record sixth time on Sunday.

On the Champs Elysees, the Texan eclipsed the biggest names in the history of the sport, Belgian Eddy Merckx, Spaniard Miguel Indurain and Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, who had all stumbled at the sixth hurdle.

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Armstrong completed cycling's most impossible mission with such serenity, authority and brilliance that there seems no reason why he should not go on to make it seven next year if he chooses.

While his fifth successive victory in 2003, punctuated by sickness, doubts and crashes, had been the hardest, this triumph -- on paper the most difficult to achieve -- proved arguably the easiest.

Whereas he had in the past been challenged, or at least taunted, by Marco Pantani in 2000 or Jan Ullrich last year, Armstrong's domination was hardly contested during a rainy July on Belgian and French roads.

In the first week, he had already dismissed half of his self-proclaimed rivals. Eight days of cold, cobbles and fast sprints in the North had been too much for Spaniards Iban Mayo and Roberto Heras and Italy's Gilberto Simoni.

The Pyrenees saw off Ullrich and American Tyler Hamilton then the Alps shattered Ivan Basso's hopes.

LIKELY SUCCESSOR

The young Italian had to be content with winning the first high mountain stage in the Pyrenees and being mentioned by Armstrong as his likely successor on the Tour podium.

Basso, 26, finished third overall, edged out from second place on Saturday by Germany's Andreas Kloeden in the last time trial, but both men's markers are well and truly down.

The most serious threat to Armstrong had been expected to come from Ullrich, the 1997 champion and five times Tour runner-up, but two bad days in the Pyrenees ruined his ambitions.

The German Olympic champion was outshone by team mate Kloeden, long considered one of cycling's most gifted riders but a man who has had to wait to be 29 to finish on the Tour podium.

Ullrich was fourth, missing medal places for the first time in seven Tours.

The opposition turned out to be possibly weaker than in previous years but Armstrong captured his sixth crown in style.

Apart from the stage won by Basso at La Mongie, in which he finished second, the American took all the stages that mattered.

His U.S. Postal team won the team time trial, which was the turning point of the first week. He then won four of the five mountain stages, including all three stages in the Alps.

He also dominated the two major individual time trials, at l'Alpe d'Huez and in Besancon on the penultimate day.

Armstrong has always rejected comparisons with champions of the past but still he emulated all the other all-time greats.

RUTHLESS APPETITE

His ruthless appetite for stage victories this year -- five individual wins plus the team-time trial -- led the Tour caravan to dub him "the new cannibal," a reference to Merckx's nickname.

His domination in time trials was reminiscent of Anquetil's, who built most of his five victories in the 60s in timed efforts.

His strategy in the mountains, using his team's "blue train" to drop all his rivals one by one before attacking was inspired from Indurain with his Banesto team in the 90s.

The debate about whether Armstrong is cycling's greatest ever figure could go on endlessly and is probably pointless.

But the famed cancer survivor certainly built on the lessons taught by the four previous five times winners to become the perfect Tour de France rider.

Now the American, whose team has found a new sponsor for the next three seasons, Discovery Channel TV, has new challenges ahead of him.

Before retiring, he admitted he would like to go for the other big cycling events his predecessors have won.

Top targets beckoning include the Giro d'Italia, the Vuelta, one-day classics like the Paris-Roubaix or the one-hour world record.

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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