Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Armstrong among greatest

TOUR DE FRANCE Belgian rider Tom Boonen won Sunday's prestigious final sprint on the Champs-Elysees, with Armstrong safely behind in the pack

AP , PARIS

Lance Armstrong of Austin, Texas, celebrates his sixth straight Tour de France c victory on the podium, set on the Champs Elysees avenue, after the final stage between Montereau and Paris Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Rediscovering the joy of cycling was as important to Lance Armstrong as winning the Tour de France for an unprecedented sixth time and seizing a place in sporting history.

Pumping his fists and chasing stage wins with the enthusiasm of a first-year rider, Armstrong was buoyant, exuberant and daring throughout the grueling three-week race.

"This year, I had the motivation of a rookie," Armstrong said Sunday after his historic win.

While Armstrong was clearly delighted by eclipsing five-time champions Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain and Bernard Hinault, he expressed a greater thrill in renewing his passion for cycling.

"It's as if I was with my five friends and we were 13 years old and we all had new bikes and we said: `OK, we're going to race from here to there,'" he said. "And you want to beat your friends more than anything. You're sprinting and you're attacking. It was like that for me."

Following a comeback from testicular cancer so severe -- it spread to his lungs and brain -- that doctors gave him less than a 50 percent chance of survival, Armstrong astonished everyone by winning his first Tour in 1999.

He called it "a complete shock and surprise," adding that he never thought he'd win "a second one or a third one or however many."

But his burning desire to keep winning proved unquenchable.

The Texan clinched five stages this year -- his best tally -- and dominated to such an extent in the Pyrenees and Alps that only one rider, Italian Ivan Basso, could keep up with him.

"I was surprised that some of the rivals were not better," Armstrong said. "Some of them just completely disappeared."

Basso was dropped for good in Wednesday's nerve-jangling time trial up L'Alpe d'Huez.

Armstrong also settled a score, convincingly beating archrival Jan Ullrich in both time trials -- a crucial psychological lift for Armstrong after Ullrich destroyed him by more than 90 seconds in the first clock race of 2003.

Ullrich, although improving in the latter part of the Tour, could not keep up.

The German, a winner in 1997 and five times a runner-up -- three times to Armstrong in 2003, 2001, 2000 -- did not even make the podium. Finishing a distant fourth, he was 8 minutes, 50 seconds behind his nemesis.

Andreas Kloden, Ullrich's T-Mobile teammate, took second overall, 6:19 back, while Basso came third, 6:40 adrift. Other rivals, his former US Postal Service teammates Tyler Hamilton and Roberto Heras, both pulled out, as did Spaniard Iban Mayo. Early crashes hindered Mayo's and Hamilton's bids to topple the Texan.

Armstrong left nothing to chance this year -- and spared no sympathy or offered "gifts" to his challengers.

"I've never been paid back for a gift in the Tour de France. Never," Armstrong said prior to Sunday's final stage from Montereau to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. "In the past I would have given away the stages, not worried about the time bonuses."

Armstrong is tough, brittle and sometimes stubborn -- he also has a long memory.

In 2000, when Ullrich and Italian Marco Pantani publicly said they would beat him, he dominated them. But as a show of sportsmanship in a mountain stage up Mont Ventoux, he eased up close to the line, handing Pantani the win on a plate.

He says Pantani never thanked him.

"Pantani ends up not only not being thankful, but attacking me in the press, on the bike," Armstrong said. "You learn a lesson. Don't do it again. I'll never do it again."

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