Armstrong rolls into racing history

Texas cyclist pedals off a record by winning for sixth straight time

Tour De France

July 26, 2004|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PARIS - The cobblestone-paved Avenue des Champs Elysees became a yellow brick road yesterday, awash in the color of Lance Armstrong's astonishing accomplishment.

Eight years ago this fall, the brash, stubborn Texan was battling for his life, undergoing surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer that had invaded other parts of his body like a hostile army.

As he celebrated his record-setting sixth Tour de France victory on the famous street where real armies once fought a literal war, Armstrong looked secure and relaxed, the new gold standard in his sport.

Yesterday's primary color was reflected everywhere - in the sunshine that bathed the enormous crowds packed behind the course barriers, in the bouquet of roses held by Armstrong's mother, Linda, after the podium ceremonies, in the helmet Armstrong wore during Stage 20 and the baseball cap he donned afterward.

The cap said LiveSTRONG, a slogan created by his cancer foundation that plays off Armstrong's name and is emblematic of the way he has ruled the roads of France over more than 12,000 miles in the last half-dozen years.

"I wouldn't be so bold as to say I dominated," Armstrong said modestly of this year's race. He was restrained in yesterday's formal ceremonies, doffing his cap to the masses and staying in steely control as "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played in his honor to respectful silence.

Later, Armstrong grinned as his U.S. Postal Service team did a slow-motion lap of the Champs Elysees. Their soundtrack for the parade was a hit song by Armstrong's companion, rocker Sheryl Crow, who looked slightly abashed when her "All I Wanna Do" began blaring from the speakers along the course.

"He inspires me," Crow said. "It's easy to be there for him."

Armstrong now has left the company of quintuple Tour winners that includes the late French rider Jacques Anquetil; the Belgian Eddy Merckx; Bernard Hinault, the last French champion; and Spaniard Miguel Indurain.

`Very, very special'

"Winning in '99 was a complete shock and surprise for me," he said. "Not that I've gotten used to winning the Tour de France, but I do know what it means.

"This one is very, very special. ... I never thought I would win a second one or a third one. I'm humbled by the event. It's always a challenge, it's always different. A lot of people just one month ago thought it wouldn't be possible for me to do it."

The Armstrong posse that exulted from the VIP stands on the finish line felt differently. The group included his old friend John "College" Korioth, longtime personal coach Chris Carmichael and oncologist Craig Nichols, who presided over Armstrong's treatment.

Also in attendance was Jeff Garvey, the Austin venture capitalist who formerly ran Armstrong's foundation. Garvey said when he met a recovering Armstrong in 1997, "I wouldn't have predicted he would ever compete in a professional bicycle race."

"He definitely has fulfilled the obligation of the cured," Garvey said, referring to the survivor's mantra Armstrong adopted.

There were doubts that Armstrong could prevail this year. At 32, he was at an age when many riders begin to slip, and his rivals in this edition of the race seemed more numerous and better prepared.

In Armstrong's final pre-Tour tuneup race, Spain's Iban Mayo obliterated the field in a time trial up Mount Ventoux, beating Armstrong by two minutes. Armstrong's ex-teammate Tyler Hamilton outclimbed him, too. Five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany appeared fit, as did ex-Postal rider Roberto Heras.

But they all faded away, yielding to new riders who don't yet have the moxie or legs to challenge Armstrong.

Hamilton injured his back in a mass pileup at the sprint finish of Stage 6 and was forced to withdraw a week later. Mayo abandoned after an early, inopportune crash and a miserable performance in front of his Pyrenees partisans. A demoralized Heras left the race quietly in the Alps.

Ullrich blew up on the first major climb and never recovered, finishing 8 minutes, 50 seconds behind Armstrong and off the Tour podium for the first time in his career.

The German's T-Mobile team did have something to cheer about yesterday. Andreas Kloden finished second, 6:19 shy of Armstrong, and gave the champion a sweeping, hats-off bow on the podium. T-Mobile also won the team classification.

"I thought time was more on Ullrich's side than Armstrong's," said Jacques Augendre, who has chronicled 53 Tours as a journalist and historian. "But Ullrich struck me this year as weaker than last year. He had the air of a resigned rider."

The Tour opened with Armstrong defending himself against doping allegations in a book released last month in France.

Bizarre turn

Proceedings turned bizarre Friday when, with the race decided, Armstrong took it upon himself to chase down a breakaway by Filippo Simeoni. The race ended with Armstrong chiding fans who booed him and cheered Richard Virenque, the seven-time King of the Mountains and key figure in the 1998 Festina doping scandal.

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