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Vindication

Armstrong proves greatness with second Tour win

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  Lance Armstrong Lance Armstrong grasps a glass of champagne after the Tour de France's final stage. AP

PARIS (CNNSI.com) -- Lance Armstrong, glass of champagne in hand, celebrated a Tour de France repeat win that was even sweeter the second time around.

Tears welled in Armstrong's eyes as he hoisted his infant son skyward on the victory podium. Just three years ago, the 28-year-old Texan was fighting for his life against cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain.

"It was a hard Tour de France and, like last year, I'm glad it's finished and I can see more of these guys," Armstrong said on July 23 as he stood with his wife Kristin and 9-month-old son Luke, who was dressed in yellow -- just like his dad.

Because Armstrong entered the day with an insurmountable lead, Stage 21 was part-race and part-celebration. Riders joked and clowned with Armstrong as they rolled past the famous landmarks of Paris and throngs of spectators.

Shortly after the final stage began at the Eiffel Tower, Armstrong donned a long-haired wig. As he passed the Louvre Museum, he grabbed a pocket camera and took snapshots of the flag-waving Americans shooting pictures of him.

He even was passed a glass of champagne and made a toast as he pedaled, even though he'd earlier said he wasn't "a champagne kind of guy."

"This one's even more special than last year, partly because of this little guy," Armstrong said afterward, cradling the son who was born three months after his first Tour victory in 1999.

Top Tour riders praised Armstrong after the race, vindication that his prior success wasn't a fluke. Second-placed Jan Ullrich of Germany had questioned whether Armstrong really was the best rider in 1999, when Ullrich didn't compete.

"Armstrong is a worthy champion. He was the strongest man, and he met our every attack. He earned his victory," said Ullrich, who won the Tour in 1997 but has finished second every year since.

Thousands of Americans lined the Champs-Elysees where the 2,250-mile race concluded with a dozen sharp-turned circuits in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Champs-Elysees The pack rides up the Champs-Elysees during the 21st and final stage of the Tour de France. AP  

The U.S. contingent was easy to spot: Many wore U.S. flags like capes, beach towels or bandanas, and others had Armstrong's name painted up and down their arms. Even some non-Americans quietly cheered on Armstrong along with their own countrymen.

Meanwhile, Stefano Zanini of Italy won the final stage in a mad sprint finish, and declared, "I'm too happy."

Before Stage 21 began in Paris, Armstrong was already looking ahead to September's Olympics in Sydney, and speculating openly about his prospects of clinching a first gold medal in the time trial competition. He won all three time trials in last year's Tour as well as a time trial Friday, his first stage victory in this year's Tour.

"It's special to ride for your country," he said July 23 during a morning train ride into Paris.

"Winning gold is a big objective," he said, noting that unlike last year, he was coming away from the Tour in strong mental shape. "I had no motivation to ride again that year, but today I feel like I'm ready to go for it."

Fittingly, Armstrong's only scheduled appearance after the Tour's conclusion was to attend a benefit for cancer research, a cause he's championed since being diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer in 1996. After given less than a 40 percent chance of survival, he underwent brain surgery and chemotherapy and had a testicle removed.

Although he returned to competition in 1998, Armstrong skipped that year's Tour, which nearly fell apart over revelations that many top cyclists were using banned performance-enhancing drugs.

Armstrong himself was accused of using illegal drugs in 1999, an allegation traced to his use of a steroid-based skin cream for saddle sores. No such allegations surfaced this year, a factor Armstrong credited with making the competition less stressful even though it was physically more demanding, with four grueling stages through the Alps and Pyrenees.

As 2000 winner, Armstrong takes away $315,000, plus $7,200 for his stage win, and a range of bonuses for racking up points in other aspects of the Tour.

Americans cheering on Armstrong from the sidelines admired his incredible comeback.

"He's a serious guy who knows he's been given another chance in life," said Bob Henderson, a fan from Palo Alto, Calif., where he's done fund-raising for Armstrong's cancer foundation.


 
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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