Survivor conquers Tour de France

Armstrong wins event less than three years after bout with cancer

July 26, 1999|By PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

PARIS -- The image on the big screen near the finish line could have been from any one of a dozen stages of this year's Tour de France: the multi-hued peloton being led by a single file of blue-uniformed riders towing a colleague in yellow.

This time, however, it was Paris, and the avenue ahead was the Champs-Elysees.

Yesterday, under an azure sky and before an appreciative crowd of thousands, Lance Armstrong won the fastest Tour de France ever.

In doing so, he became the first American to win the world's most important bicycle race since Greg LeMond completed the last of his three victories in 1990.

More important to the 27-year-old cyclist from Austin, Texas, he is the only cyclist from any nation to have beaten cancer and then conquered the three-week, almost 2,300-mile test of endurance that is the Tour de France.

"Fifty percent of this is for the cancer community -- the doctors, the nurses, patients, their families, the survivors and those unfortunate ones who haven't made it," said Armstrong, who had been given 50-50 odds of surviving testicular cancer a little less than three years ago. "Twenty-five percent was for myself, my team and my family. And the other 25 percent was for all the people who did not believe in me."

For nonbelievers, the U.S. Postal Service rider put on quite a show, winning the prologue, two time trials and a mountain stage. His overall pace was 40.276 kilometers per hour or just a hair less than 25 miles an hour. The previous fastest Tour was last year's race at 39.932 kph, a shade slower than Armstrong's pace.

It was as strong a performance as has been seen in the Tour in more than a decade.

Too strong for some. Elements of the French news media turned on Armstrong in mid-race, not too subtly suggesting that only performance-enhancing drugs could explain the American's success.

The attacks frustrated and embittered the young rider for a time.

"They say stress can cause cancer," he said at one point when asked what message he might have for people following his saga. "I would tell people not to come to the Tour de France and win the yellow jersey. It is just too stressful."

By Saturday, however, the race won and the storm past, Armstrong had a more sanguine view.

"I'm finishing a happy man because all of the innuendo and speculation that went on is minor compared to what this means for tens of millions of people," said Armstrong, who earned about $350,000 for the victory, which he will share with his teammates, plus $1 million worth of performance bonuses provided by his various sponsors.

"This is going to give hope and inspiration to people [in the cancer community] who haven't had hope before."

Armstrong's Tour ended just before 5: 30 p.m. in Paris, after the peloton completed a relatively leisurely ride from Arpajon to this French capital followed by about 40 miles of furious racing over 10 laps of the Champs-Elysees.

U.S. Postal Service riders, with Armstrong in tow, were permitted to lead the 141-rider-strong field on to the avenue for the first lap. After that, the lust for individual glory took over, the pace picked up, and Armstrong and the Postal Service riders turned the field over to the others.

The stage came down to a field sprint and was captured by Australian Robbie McEwen.

It was wonderful for the fans from Down Under, but it meant that France was shut out of a stage win for the first time since 1926.

Armstrong finished 86th for the day but in the main pack, meaning he received the same time as the winner.

Overall, he finished 7 minutes, 37 seconds ahead of second-place Alex Zulle of Switzerland. Spaniard Fernando Escartin finished third, 10: 26 back.

"This is an awesome day," the 27-year-old Texan said. "This is beyond belief."

(Results, final standings, 9D)

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