- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

PARIS — Never did his reign look so uncertain. Never did he savor a victory quite like this one.

Only with his Tour de France title finally assured during the last leg on the cobblestoned Champs-Elysees, did Lance Armstrong celebrate by lifting a flute of champagne to a resounding “cheers.”

Overcoming crashes, illness, hard-charging rivals and plain old bad luck, the Texan won his hardest but sweetest Tour yesterday — a record-tying fifth straight that places him among the greatest cyclists ever.

Unlike in previous years, when he won by comfortable margins, the grueling 23-day, 2,125-mile clockwise trek around France pushed Armstrong to the limit.

“Before the Tour started, I was very confident about winning. But before next year’s Tour, I won’t be so confident,” he said.

Armstrong joined Spaniard Miguel Indurain as the only riders to win cycling’s most brutal and prestigious race five times consecutively, a record Armstrong plans to break in 2004.

“It’s a dream, really a dream,” Armstrong said in French after climbing the podium while “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang out.

“I love cycling. I love my job, and I will be back for a sixth. It’s incredible to win again.”

So action-packed was this Tour that Armstrong was prepared for the unexpected — even yesterday, on the largely processional final stage.

“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 92.4-mile ride through streets packed with cheering spectators, many waving American flags.

Armstrong shared the podium with five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich and third-place finisher Alexandre Vinokourov, holding their hands above his head in a fitting tribute to the two men who battled him to the end.

Armstrong’s fierce duel with Ullrich made this centennial Tour the most gripping in years, drawing millions of fans who thronged winding mountain climbs and adorned villages along the route with banners for the riders. “Lance is God,” said one sign in the Pyrenees.

Armstrong’s 61-second victory hardly resembled the previous four Tours, when he demoralized rivals by dominating in lung-burning mountain ascents and super-speedy time trials.

He had never before won by less than 6 minutes — even in 1999, three years after surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain. Still, his average speed over three weeks (25.38 mph) broke his own record as the fastest in Tour history.

Once given a 50 percent chance of surviving cancer, Armstrong’s triumphs with the U.S. Postal Service team have proved an inspiration, drawing new fans to cycling.

“I saw his face. He’ll go for a sixth, and he’ll get it,” said Jared Gordon of Bangor, Maine, on the crowd-packed Champs-Elysees to see Armstrong win.

President Bush called Armstrong to congratulate him shortly after his victory, as did Postmaster General John E. Potter.

Armstrong’s family jubilantly greeted him at the finish: wife Kristin; his 3-year-old son, Luke; and twin girls, Isabelle and Grace, who will be 2 in November.

Ullrich, coming back from two knee operations and a ban for using recreational drugs, didn’t think he would contend this year.

“I delivered one of my best races ever. This time I was very close to Armstrong,” the German said. “The next time … I will be even better prepared.”

A perfectionist who focuses on the Tour more than all other races, Armstrong also will be motivated to win in 2004.

“The other years I won by 6, 7 minutes. I think it makes it more exciting and sets up an attempt for number six,” he said.

The outcome of the race wasn’t decided until the rain-soaked time trial Saturday, when Armstrong managed to stay upright on a slippery road while Ullrich skidded.

It seemed an appropriate way to determine the winner of a race marked by crashes and other mishaps. On one day, Armstrong and other leaders were temporarily blocked by protesters; on another he had to veer through a field to avoid a fallen rider.

Armstrong fought through stomach flu before the start July 5 and was bruised in an enormous pileup on the second day.

Besides Armstrong and Indurain, three other riders have won the Tour five times but not consecutively. They are Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, and Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault. If Armstrong doesn’t win a sixth title, the question of who is the best will long be debated.

“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 said.

The Spaniard, who won the Tour from 1991 to 1995, said Armstrong would be hard-pressed to capture title No. 6.

“Of course, it’s possible. But every year it gets more difficult, and he’ll face some tough rivals,” he said.

In the final stage, France’s Jean-Patrick Nazon wept after winning in a fierce sprint. Australian Baden Cooke was second, earning enough points to take the green jersey as the Tour’s best overall sprinter. For a record-tying sixth time, Richard Virenque of France won the pink polka-dot jersey as the Tour’s best mountain rider.

But it is the yellow jersey that counts the most, and Armstrong proudly wore it every day since July 13, a week into the race.


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