Texan rides tall in saddle yet again

Armstrong captures grueling Tour de France for the 4th straight year

Win is by 7 minutes, 17 seconds

1st American with 4 titles hopes legacy is as survivor of cancer who triumphed

Tour De France

July 29, 2002|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARIS - Lance Armstrong has the tan lines of someone who works long, hard hours outdoors, a farmer's tan.

He has returned to this city four times now to reap what he has sown, and each year he leaves with his arms more laden: with titles, with children, with athletic glory.

Armstrong, a 30-year-old father of three, collected his fourth Tour de France championship yesterday, a mere six years after he received a diagnosis of late-stage testicular cancer.

As he cycled in the main pack in the 20th and final stage, he held a glass of champagne - enjoying a little sip early on - and he took a congratulatory call from President Bush after the victory ceremony.

"I'm really happy to finish," Armstrong said. "It's a difficult race, three weeks. It's difficult mentally."

His margin of 7 minutes, 17 seconds over Joseba Beloki of Spain is the second largest of his quartet of wins. (He beat Alex Zuelle by 7:37 in 1999 for his first Tour de France championship). The Texan all but clinched the result with back-to-back mountain-stage wins in the middle of the three-week endurance test that lasted 2,032 miles.

In the same way that a bumper crop can make up for a string of fallow seasons, he has been the beneficiary of tremendous effort and equally tremendous luck, as if to balance out the savagely bad fortune front-loaded onto his mid-20s.

Armstrong's victories have been remarkably free of the glitches that can knock a leader off his bike. His teammates have been solid to superlative, his equipment reliable.

Nothing has really failed him except his generation of riders. The ultra-competitive Armstrong has tried his best to poke, prod and pump up potential sparring partners. One year it was the flamboyant Italian Marco Pantani, another the stolid German grinder Jan Ullrich.

With both of those former Tour winners sidelined this year, Armstrong put on the gloves and feinted at two Spanish teams, ONCE and Kelme-Costa Blanca, and their versatile leaders. They didn't duck, but they didn't return many punches either. Fittingly, Armstrong's worst day of the 2002 Tour was a second-place finish in the first individual time trial, when he was racing himself.

"He's obliged to invent adversaries," said Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc. "I'm sure he would prefer, because he's a warrior, a guy with panache, to have a great rival who was almost at his level."

Five-time winner Miguel Indurain of Spain was similarly alone at the top until he was dethroned in 1996, said Frankie Andreu, the former U.S. Postal Service rider who is the team's U.S. race director.

"It wasn't even that Indurain was pushed; he just cracked," Andreu said. "He was done. But Lance ... he's pretty much untouchable right now."

Thousands watched yesterday, many waving the U.S. flag, as Armstrong became the first American to win four Tours. Greg LeMond, the only other U.S. champion of cycling's most prestigious event, won three.

On the possibility of becoming the only six-time winner of the Tour de France, Armstrong said his U.S. Postal Service team is "one of the strongest in the history of cycling. I hope to ride with them for two more years."

Robbie McEwen of Australia - well back in the overall standings - won yesterday's 89.3-mile stage and took the green jersey as the Tour's best sprinter. Laurent Jalabert of France won the red polka-dot jersey (best climber) and Ivan Basso of Italy won the white jersey (best young rider).

Armstrong, meanwhile, was simply the best.

He seized the lead in the first mountain leg at La Mongie in the Pyrenees, and nearly doubled it by sprinting up a tough climb to the Plateau de Beille in the next day's 12th stage.

On the formidable Mont Ventoux in the southern Provence region, Armstrong finished third but still took a comfortable lead of 4:21 by finishing nearly two minutes in front of his nearest pursuer, Beloki.

"Regardless of one victory, two victories, four victories, there's never been a victory by a cancer survivor," he said.

"That's a fact that hopefully I'll be remembered for."

Bonnie DeSimone is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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