Lance the legend
Armstrong claims record-tying fifth Tour de France winPosted: Sunday July 27, 2003 8:44 AM
Updated: Sunday July 27, 2003 12:55 PM
PARIS (AP) -- Sipping champagne to celebrate his victory, Lance Armstrong won his hardest but sweetest Tour de France title Sunday -- a record-tying fifth straight that ranks him alongside the greatest cyclists ever.
The 31-year-old cancer survivor and Spaniard Miguel Indurain are now the only riders to win the sport's most grueling and prestigious race five times consecutively -- a record Armstrong plans to break next year.
"It's a dream, really a dream. It's hard to think right now, it was the most difficult of the five. I'm very tired," the Texan said in French after mounting the podium while the Star Spangled Banner rang over the Champs-Elysees. (Lance Armstrong Factbox)
"I love cycling, I love my job and I will be back for a sixth," he said.
Savoring his feat on a largely processional 20th and final stage past distinguished Paris landmarks, Armstrong sipped from a flute of champagne and toasted his achievement with a "cheers!" as he rode, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey he so ardently coveted.
"It's incredible to win again," he said.
The indefatigable Armstrong overcame illness, crashes, dehydration, team and equipment problems and uncharacteristic bad days during the 23-day, 3,427.5-kilometer (2,125-mile) clockwise slog around France to win by his smallest-ever margin -- just 61 seconds over five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany.
Armstrong grasped Ullrich's and third-placed Alexandre Vinokourov's hands on the podium and raised them above his head -- fitting tribute to the battle they waged against him. (Stage 20 Results | Overall Standings)
Armstrong, who had never before won by less than six minutes, said his fifth title was "definitely the hardest" but "feels better" than the previous four, when he demoralized rivals by dominating in lung-burning mountain ascents and super-speedy time trials.
A perfectionist, Armstrong said the closeness of the victory is motivating him to come roaring back in 2004.
"The other years I won by six, seven minutes. I think it makes it more exciting and sets up an attempt for number six," he said. "Before the Tour started I was very confident about winning. But before next year's Tour, I won't be so confident." (Armstrong eyes unprecedented sixth win)
The intense rivalry between Armstrong and Ullrich, the 1997 winner, turned 'Le Tour' into a gripping festival of cycling after four years when Armstrong was so strong that he all but assured his victories days before the finish.
But this year, the Texan only sewed up the Tour in a rain-soaked time trial Saturday, the penultimate day, when he managed to stay upright on the slippery road while Ullrich skidded and crashed, ending his battle to erase Armstrong's slim lead.
So action-packed was this Tour that Armstrong was prepared even Sunday for the unexpected.
"If a plane landed in the race I wouldn't be surprised," he said before setting off from the Paris suburb of Ville d'Avray on the 152-kilometer (92.4 mile) ride through streets packed with cheering spectators, many waving American flags.
France's Jean-Patrick Nazon wept after winning the prestigious stage in a fierce final sprint on the Champs-Elysees' cobblestones. Australian Baden Cooke was second, earning enough points to win the green jersey as the Tour's best overall sprinter. Richard Virenque of France took the spotted jersey as the Tour's best mountain rider -- for a record-tying sixth time.
Armstrong, who underwent surgery and stomach-wrenching chemotherapy to cure him of testicular cancer diagnosed in 1996 that that had spread to his lungs and brain, said his hard Tour humbled him. (Armstrong equals Tour record in unique fashion)
"It makes me appreciate this victory and the other victories more because you realize the best form and the best conditioning are not a given," said Armstrong, who favors the Tour above all other races and prepares meticulously for it.
There was one negative note on the last day of the race. One racer among the pack tested positive for the banned endurance drug EPO, said deputy Tour director Daniel Baal. The racer's identity was being withheld pending a second follow-up test, but the rider is not a race leader. (Tour rider tests positive for EPO)
Aside from Armstrong and Indurain, just three other riders have won the Tour five times, but not consecutively, since the race was inaugurated in 1903. They are Belgium's Eddy Merckx, and Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault. If Armstrong does not win a record sixth title, the question of who is the best will long be debated. (Previous five-time winners)
"Armstrong's courageous, a fighter. Somebody who perseveres until the end," said Hinault, whose wins came in 1978-1979, 1981-1982 and 1985.
"You have to do like him to beat him. He's certainly a star, but I don't know if he's a superstar. It's a new generation of riders. They have radios, they work more closely in teams. It's a different era," he said.
Indurain said he still views Merckx as the greatest.
"He competed in virtually every cycling competition, whereas Armstrong really only focuses on the Tour," he told the AP.
The Spaniard, who held the Tour in an iron grip from 1991-1995, said Armstrong would be hard-pressed to win six.
"Of course it's possible. But every year it gets more difficult, and he'll face some tough rivals," he said.
Ullrich, returning from two knee operations and a ban for taking amphetamines in a disco, came into the Tour saying he did not expect to win. But as it became evident that Armstrong was not at his best, the German and other key rivals pressured the Texan as never before, attacking him relentlessly on grueling mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrenees.
Ullrich was most devastating in a time trial July 18, when he sliced a whopping 96 seconds off Armstrong, who had never before been beaten by the German in the race against clock at the Tour before this year.
Armstrong wilted in scorching heat that day in the sun-roasted south of France, hanging grimly onto second place but losing about 5 kilograms (11 pounds) in weight through dehydration. It was a crucial mistake that prompted speculation that at 31, he was too old to win again.
But Armstrong stormed back three days later on a mist-shrouded 13.4-kilometer (8.3-mile) ascent to the Pyrenean ski station of Luz-Ardiden, one of the Tour's hardest climbs. Armstrong recovered from a fall, caused by a spectator's outstretched bag that caught his handlebars, to roar past Ullrich, who in a gesture of sportsmanship waited for him to get back on his bike.
Other than a victory in the team time trial with his U.S. Postal Service squad, it was Armstrong's only stage win of this Tour and marked a turning point. From then on, Ullrich was chasing Armstrong's lead.
"At the start of the climb, I knew that that was where I needed to win the Tour," Armstrong said. "At the finish I was confident that that was enough."
Armstrong said that in previous years, his preparations for the following Tour began almost straight after his victory celebrations. Not this year.
"This Tour took a lot out of me," he said. "I need to step back from cycling and from the races and relax a little bit and focus on 2004 in due time."