Austin honors Armstrong with celebration
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Texans welcomed home three-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong on Saturday with music and tributes in a celebration dubbed 'Vive Lance! Austin's Hometown Hero.'
During the tour, Armstrong mania hit the state's capital city. 'Go Lance' signs hung in windows and on buildings and cyclists wore yellow jerseys, like the Tour de France leader.
Six days after Armstrong won the tour, the city remained in a festive mood as thousands of yellow-clad Armstrong fans gathered along a stretch of the city's Town Lake that was converted into a concert venue. Many rode their bicycles to the party.
"We're truly touched by your sincerity and your following. It touches our soul that people are here and they care about us," Armstrong, flanked by wife Kristin, said after being introduced with video highlights of his victory and a fireworks show.
He drew laughter when he joked that he worried no one would show up. While away from Austin, Armstrong said, he missed the people -- and the chips and salsa.
"It's nice to be back in America, and it's nice to be back in Texas," he said, "but damn it's nice to be back in Austin."
Gov. Rick Perry declared Saturday Lance Armstrong Day in Texas.
"Let's get him ready to win number four and number five, and then number six," Perry told the cheering crowd.
The governor also delivered a message from his mother, who has suffered from colon cancer. Armstrong's battle to overcome cancer is well known.
"Tell that boy, 'Well done,'" Perry quoted her as saying. "He gave me hope."
"If you want to look at a role model, he is it," said Doug Devaney, who sat on a blanket with his wife near an outdoor stage decorated with signs proclaiming 'Congratulations' and 'Welcome Home Lance.'
Earlier, Kevin Healy of Boston rummaged through clothing racks at a bicycle shop to pick up two U.S. Postal Service jerseys and a yellow Armstrong T-shirt.
"My goal is to get close enough to him to get a couple of jerseys signed," said Healy, a cyclist who said he was lucky to be in Austin on business the same weekend that Armstrong was returning home.
"It's a great story. He overcame cancer, he's a monster on the bike. He's very professional. He's good for the sport."
Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, but came back to win the first of three consecutive tour titles in 1999. He has used his celebrity to help raise money for cancer research and survivors.
Armstrong and his family flew into Texas aboard Air Force One with President Bush Saturday afternoon after a visit to the White House on Friday.
Armstrong said it was difficult to talk with Bush during the flight because the cyclist's son Luke took a liking to the president.
"He's beaning him with the ball, bouncing the toys," Armstrong said. "We're trying to have a little conversation, and here comes Luke messing everything up."
Armstrong's original plans did not involve visiting Austin for several more weeks, but he changed them this week, giving the city little time to put the celebration together.
Normally, organizing an event expected to draw as many as 25,000 people to downtown Austin would take four to six weeks, but planners were able to pull it off, finding vendors, bands and dignitaries to attend, in a few days.
"I think every vendor and every person I called, I told them the situation and I told them the time factor and nobody flinched," production manager Shay Jones said.
Austin hosted a parade when Armstrong won in 1999, but last year Armstrong did not make it back to Texas for a celebration because of his Olympic training schedule.
Armstrong fans in Austin believe that this year's celebration won't be the last.
"He definitely is going to be strong next year, if he chooses to be," said cyclist Monte Becker of Austin, sitting on his bike at a bicycle shop.