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Legend tag for Lance?

Posted: Friday, July 02, 2004

Lance Armstrong knows every bump in the road, every twist and turn, every pothole. He knows only too well the fate of every great rider who tried to go where he is headed.

''There's many, many things that could happen,'' Armstrong said Thursday, less than 48 hours before launching his bid for a record sixth Tour de France title.

Armstrong had a front-row seat eight years ago when a freak snowstorm in the Alps undid Miguel Indurain and ended the Spaniard's run at five straight wins. He knows how Eddie Merckx ran out of gas, how too much high living took its toll on Jacques Anquetil, how a double-cross that backfired doomed Bernard Hinault.

Not one of those lessons was wasted on the tenacious Texan. Armstrong turned 32 last September, and although racers have won the Tour at that age and beyond, all of the other five-time champions logged their final victory before that birthday. More than any other, it's that bit of history that makes him squirm with every mention of the word ''legend.''

''That's a big, big word,'' he said, ''and I'm not sure that I'm ready to talk about that right now.''

Last year, Armstrong rolled onto the wide boulevard of the Champs-Elysees on the final Sunday battered and bruised and looking more vulnerable than ever before. The only visible mark that remained after two crashes, bouts with stomach flu and dehydration, a handful of mishaps and a crisis of self-confidence was a scab just below his left elbow. Less clear was the toll this narrowest of wins had taken on Armstrong's psyche.

On the run-in to Paris, riding comfortably inside the protective cocoon of the U.S. Postal Service team, he lifted a flute of champagne offered from his team car, took a sip and then clinked the glass against the lens of a TV camera that had pulled up alongside.

But earlier that morning, on the train ride from Nantes to Ville d'Avray, the western Paris suburb where the final stage began, Armstrong conceded he felt more like toast than toasting himself.

''This Tour took a lot out of me,'' he said. ''I need to step back from cycling and from the races and relax a little bit and focus on 2004 in due time.''

That time is now, and outwardly, at least, Armstrong looks fit and focused. The stomach-churning flu he caught from his kids, along with the heartache he carried to the start line last year following his separation and eventual divorce from wife Kristin, are things of the past.

The whispers of doping that plagued him early in his career reached a crescendo with the publication of a book, ''L.A. Confidential, The Secrets of Lance Armstrong.'' But the distractions of fighting back only appear to have energized him. Close friends say they've never seen Armstrong happier or more secure, a sentiment he backed up with some straight talk.

''I feel strong. I feel healthy,'' he said. ''I would even say that I feel stronger and healthier than last year.''

And yet, at each critical juncture of the three-week, 2,000-mile trek, it won't be Armstrong's fitness that will be tested so much as his will. Mindful of that, he took time off from his maniacal training regimen in Europe recently and dropped in on Merckx, the Belgian whom many still consider to be the world's greatest cyclist. He devoured the competition with such ferocity that he was nicknamed ''The Cannibal.''

Armstrong was not quite 3 at the time of the 1975 Tour when Merckx made his memorable last try at a sixth win. Leading the race, he was punched in the abdomen by an enraged French spectator yet managed to complete the stage. But two days later, on the final climb up the Alps to Pra-Loup, Frenchman Bernard Thevenet went past Merckx and this time, when ''The Cannibal'' reached down into his gut for more, there was too little left.

''I tried everything and it didn't work,'' Merckx said that day. ''Miracles don't exist in sports. It's always the strongest who wins.''

We don't know whether he and Armstrong discussed that race, but the lesson is one that Armstrong will hardly need to be reminded about. If Armstrong still looks like the strongest, it's because up to now, he's been the hungriest.

The closing stretch of every great athlete's career is not only the most dramatic, it's often the most revealing. At the start of his run, Armstrong was driven by the desire to outrace a deadly form of testicular cancer. In the middle, he was driven to master the mind-numbing work necessary for a prodigy to become a cold-blooded professional. As he nears the end, Armstrong will have to pedal through doubt, past complacency, beyond precedent and into the slipstream of history, where no rider has ever gone before.

If you bet against him doing just that, do so at your own risk.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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