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Strong enough

American Lance Armstrong wins Tour de France

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Posted: Monday July 26, 1999 11:16 AM

  Lance Armstrong Lance Armstrong: "I never expected to be here. Even in my first career, I never had plans for this." Tom Able-Green/Allsport

PARIS (CNN/SI) -- If anyone has a reason to be smiling, Lance Armstrong does.

The 1999 Tour de France winner and cancer survivor's smile was as wide as the Champs-Elysees Sunday.

For three weeks, the Texan's face had been lined with determination. Now, he was grinning giddily, draped in an American flag, savoring his victory lap along the majestic avenue where he'd just completed the most improbable of feats.

It wasn't just that he'd won the Tour de France, cycling's showcase race and one of the most grueling tests in sports.

It was that he'd done it less than three years after doctors gave him only 50-50 odds of living. In late 1996 he'd contracted an aggressive testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain, requiring surgery and four rounds of chemotherapy.

"This is an awesome day," he said Sunday, and for once, the overused word seemed apt. "This is beyond belief."

Armstrong dedicated his victory to other cancer survivors, who, he hoped, would be inspired by his success.

"I hope it sends out a fantastic message to all survivors around the world," he said. "We can return to what we were before -- and even better."

Many watching him Sunday said that's just the message they got.

"He definitely embodies the American spirit," said Rebecca Robertso of Aracda, Calif., watching the riders whiz by in their flourescent gear on Sunday. "I mean, he's overcome cancer and he's fought his way back to be a champion. And that is definitely what America is all about."

The 20th and final stage was won by Australia's Robbie McEwen. He barely edged out Germany's Erik Zabel in a final and furious sprint. Silvio Martinelli of Italy was third.

Armstrong finished 86th -- in the 86th Tour de France.

Zulle finished second in the overall standings, and Spain's Fernando Escartin came in third to secure the last podium place.

Before his illness, Armstrong was known as an effective one-day performer. But he struggled in the longer tests, especially the tough mountain climbs of the Tour.

But this year, he staked his claim on victory by winning the prologue time trial. Then he bolstered it with a stunning time-trial victory a week later.

He became a prohibitive favorite when he powered past all his rivals to claim the first stage in the Alps, beating the great climbers at their own game.

Still, he said he'd never imagined this moment, even before he got sick.

"I never expected to be here," he said, after the Star-Spangled Banner had echoed across the Champs-Elysees, and Texas Gov. George Bush had called on the cell phone.

"Even in my first career, I never had plans for this."

But by Sunday, only a disastrous fall could have thwarted victory. Armstrong had amassed a commanding seven-minute, 37-second lead over his top rival, Alex Zulle of Switzerland.

The morning began with a laugh. On the riders' high-speed train up to Arpajon, the starting point, the yellow-jersey holder was given a few moments at the controls.

"Hello peleton [pack]," he called out. "I'm here driving. I'm a bit hung over from a couple of beers last night, but everything is fine. I'll get us there as fast as possible."

The train arrived early.

The stage was a fairly easy 143.5-kilometer (90-mile) ride from Arpajon up to Paris, and then past many of the city's grandest sights: the Louvre, the Tuileries Gardens with their giant summer ferris wheel, the arcaded Rue de Rivoli, the Place de la Concorde with its Egyptian obelisk, and then up the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe for a loop that was repeated 10 times.

The last stage was a time for humor and camaraderie. French national champion Francois Simon had dyed his hair the red-white-and-blue of his jersey. And not only was Armstrong clad in yellow: his wheel was, too, spokes and all.

Later, Armstrong was to lose that newly decorated wheel to a puncture, but his loyal teammates on the U.S. Postal Service team helped him back to the pack.

Sunday's finish under brilliant skies couldn't have seemed more different from last year. The 1998 race ended under drizzling rain after a disastrous drug scandal nearly scuttled the whole vent.

This year, Armstrong was subjected to innuendo, particularly in the French media, implying he couldn't have accomplished his feat without the help of drugs.

Some noticed the sniping headlines came as France was being shut out of stage wins for the first time since 1926. In any case, the International Cycling Union finally announced that Armstrong had used a cream for saddle sores that contained a banned drug, but that he had a proper prescription.

In the end, Armstrong's results said it all: an example of sheer will and supreme effort. He'd visited and tested nearly every stage, months earlier.

His victory could be a big boost for American cycling, much as the success of the U.S. women's soccer team has inspired many in the United States. Greg LeMond won the race three times, but not with an American team.

The 4-year-old U.S. Postal Service team has been euphoric throughout the race. Early on, team managing director Mark Gorski likened an ultimate victory to a French team winning the Super Bowl.

Armstrong's mother, Linda, shaking with emotion, was waving a small U.S. flag as she watched her son wave from the podium.

She called his cancer a "minor setback," and said "it was never in our minds" that he wouldn't recover.

Armstrong then went into the audience to hug and kiss his wife, Kristin.

"He worked so hard to get this," said his wife. "He deserves it, every last bit."

 
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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